Famous Buildings: the Kursaal in Southend-on-Sea
Everyone who lives in Southend knows the Kursaal, but there’s more to its history than meets the eye…
Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: March 2019
First opened in 1894 as Marine Park and Gardens, the Kursaal was one of the world’s first purpose-built amusement parks. From 1901 attractions included a circus, arcade, ballroom and billiard room. The building and distinctive glass dome were designed by John Clarke and George Campbell Sherrin.
The Kursaal has changed hands and names several times over the years. In 1910 the building and land was bought by Luna Park and Palace of Amusements and renamed Luna Park. New attractions accompanied the new name, including roller coasters, a cinema and a miniature railway. The company claimed that 100,000 visitors went to Luna Park each week, but in 1911 a fire destroyed two attractions, the Joy Wheel and Figure of Eight Railway Coaster. Business suffered and Luna Park was dissolved in 1915.
American businessman Clifton Jay Morehouse bought the park in 1915 and, possibly inspired by New York’s famous Cony Island fairground, he reinstated the name ‘Kursaal’ and converted the circus into a ballroom and ice rink! He also held trade exhibitions and sporting events and added a zoo which housed wolves, bears and tigers. It’s thought that the fairground’s infamous ‘Wall of Death’ silodrome, which opened in 1926, was the first of its kind in Britain. No wonder it was one of the most successful fairgrounds in the country…
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Kursaal was home to a greyhound racing stadium and Southend United FC. It was closed to the public during World War II.
After World War II
After World War II the Kursaal was taken over by C. J. Morehouse II and the ballroom, which had long hosted musical shows, made a name for itself during the 1970s as a rock venue. Queen, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath and more performed there! AC/DC even used a photograph taken at the venue as a cover for their album Let There Be Rock in 1977.
With the rise of cheap international package holidays, the Kursaal’s popularity declined gradually over the 1970s and 1980s. Outdoor amusements were closed in 1973, and the ballroom at the end of 1977. The main building closed in 1986. The outdoor area has since been developed for housing.
The Kursaal in the 21st Century
After a multi-million pound development in the late 1990s, the main Kursaal building reopened in 1998 with a bowling alley and casino. In 2011 the Royal Mail included the Kursaal building on a set of stamps celebrating British landmarks.
Today, the Kursaal is a Grade II listed building and, although its days as a fairground may be over, it is still a Southend landmark.
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