Thanet Labour councillors are calling for a public meeting to discuss the upcoming closure of Margate’s Winter Gardens.
The venue, which is owned by Thanet council, will shut from August 14 and it is planned to use Margate Town Deal funding of £300,000 to create a fully developed plan for the site.
This would include a detailed project delivery plan with public and private sector engagement. Specialist services would be needed to help test the market and identify the opportunities available. Specialist architects would also be used to scope out the required works and develop a fully costed scheme.
The feasibility study will not get under way until the closure takes effect.
Initially operator Your Leisure was to retain the lease which ran until 2024 but agreement was then made for an early surrender.
Margate Central ward councillors Helen Whitehead and Rob Yates, together with fellow members of Labour’s shadow cabinet at the council, believe widespread concerns about the venue’s future need to be explored in an open discussion with community groups and other interested residents.
Labour’s shadow cabinet member for regeneration, Cllr Ruth Duckworth, said: “The Winter Gardens has been home to The Beatles, Dame Vera Lynne, the Conservative party conference, the Labour party conference, and hundreds of community events.
“The 2,000-capacity venue has created enormous value for the local area, supported hundreds of local jobs and entertained hundreds of thousands over the years.
“Labour has already questioned the decision to divert money that had been earmarked for spending on the building to redundancy costs, which enabled the lease to current operators Your Leisure to be terminated early and we remain unconvinced that this is the right strategy for the venue.
“We have not seen any post-termination strategy documents. As far as we know, the maintenance team at the venue are to be made redundant, leaving the building to waste away, and we have seen no evidence that the council has plans to make use of it while it explores future options.
“We recognise that the venue is not in a good condition and that Your Leisure might not be the best operator in the long term. However, from our research Your Leisure have been covering their costs and it is not being shut due to imminent health and safety concerns.
“A public meeting at the Winter Gardens would allow the Conservative cabinet and senior officers to explain to interested parties why the council is acting as it is and hopefully offer some reassurance. In turn, the public can attend to show their support for the venue, and all parties can potentially benefit from increased confidence that the right decision is being made. If there is a coherent strategy behind the early closure, there’s no reason why the council can’t approach the matter transparently.”
Cllr Yates added: “The Margate Winter Gardens have been serving the Kent community continually for over 110 years, except for a break during World War Two when bomb damage was repaired. It is an essential part of the county’s cultural heritage and residents have a right to know the strategy for its future.”
A decision was made by Thanet council to redistribute the £166.8k to Your Leisure to meet the potential costs associated with early surrender of the lease.
Your Leisure’s annual rolling lease at Theatre Royal also ceased on 28 April. Staff at Margate’s Theatre Royal have formed a community events company in a bid to make sure shows continue and keep the venue open until its planned refurbishment under the £22.2million Town Deal fund.
Phoenix Community Events CIC aims to make sure shows continue to come to Margate and keep the historic theatre open until its refurbishment date – which has not yet been set.
A petition calling for the public meeting can be found at https://www.change.org/p/petition-for-a-public-meeting-on-the-future-of-winter-gardens
Potted history of the Winter Gardens
The Pavilion and Winter Gardens took just nine months to build, costing £26,000, and opened on August 3, 1911.
When completed the Pavilion and Winter Gardens consisted of: a large Concert Hall, four entrance halls, two side wings and an amphitheatre. Originally the stage could be viewed from both the main hall and the amphitheatre with the ability to enclose the stage in bad weather. The accommodation was for about 2,500 persons inside the building and 2,000 in the open air.
The Main Hall had been designed as a concert and dance hall. In the early 1920s, the Margate Municipal Orchestra, consisting of 36 musicians, would perform a variety of classical and operatic works, backed by the leading vocalists of the day. Most of these were performers like Carrie Tubb and Harry Dearth, engaged from the leading London Concerts, notably Covent Garden. Others like Pavlova – one of the world’s leading dancers – and Madame Melba were engaged as part of their world tour.
During the latter half of the 1920s Ivan Kalchinsky’s Blue Slavonic Company arrived and presented a cabaret show for six weeks. The company was to present a summer show right up until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Second World War, unlike the First World War, interrupted the normal life of the Winter Gardens, and within a short time almost ended it for good.
Thanet was made a restricted area, due to invasion fears, and it was prohibited to enter it for leisure or pleasure purposes. The Winter Gardens’ first war-time role was during the evacuation from Dunkirk when it acted as a receiving station for some of the 46,000 troops landed at Margate. It also found other war-time roles such as an air raid precaution and food rationing centre. There were also concerts for the troops on Sundays and Brighten-Up Dances every Thursday and Saturday.
In January 1941 many of the windows were broken when a sea mine exploded nearby, but the main structure was undamaged. Six months later, on July 7, the Winter Gardens received a direct hit causing considerable damage. The main structure of the hall remained intact and the chandeliers survived as they had been removed for storage.
The plans for reconstruction of the Winter Gardens were drawn up in 1943 but due to the war, a start on the work could not be made until February 1946. The work took only six months to complete. The building officially re-opened on 3rd August. Repairs cost £40,000, approaching double the cost of the entire building in 1911.
After the wars stars appearing at the venue included Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Dame Vera Lynne.
In the 1960s the Winter Gardens hosted Helen Shapiro, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and in July 1963 The Beatles performed there.
Stage versions of TV shows were also proving popular with Hughie Green’s ‘Double your Money’ and ‘Opportunity Knocks’. ‘Double you Money’ was the first Summer Season to appear at the Winter Gardens since 1939, it played for ten weeks during the peak of the season in 1962.
In 1974 with the formation of Thanet District Council, the Winter Gardens found itself with a new owner and a new man in charge, Peter Roberts. In 1978, it was completely re-seated, re-furbished and re-carpeted at a cost of £125,000 and a new entrance provided on the seaward side of the Main Hall.
History courtesy Margate Winter Gardens/adapted from ‘A History of Margate’s Winter Gardens’ by John Williams and Andy Savage.