The Spanish City funfair has been a major part of Whitley Bay since the early 1900s. The name was originally taken from Charles Elderton’s Toreadors Concert Party Troupe who frequently performed there during the summer months. Elderton soon realised there was a demand for a more permanent arena, and eventually the ‘Spanish City’ was born.
The fairground first opened on 30th May 1908 and proved very popular, with various rides, amusements and entertainments including such thrills as a Figure 8 Railway and a Water Chute.
The dome and buildings which later fronted the Spanish City were designed by Cackett and Burns Dick with construction work by Davidson and Miller on behalf of the Whitley Bay Pleasure Gardens Co. Ltd. They were formally opened on 7th May 1910 by Mr Robert Mason, Chair of the local council and named The Spanish City and Whitley Bay Pleasure Gardens. The new buildings housed the Empress theatre which had an internal seating capacity of 1,400 and a balcony capacity of 400 outside. There was also a roof garden, concert hall, restaurant and tearoom. A ballroom was added in 1920.
In more recent years, the Dome also housed an amusement arcade and later a Laser Quest Tag arena. It was used as a classroom for pupils of Whitley Bay High School during a caretakers’ strike in the 1980s, and later became a live music venue playing host to several bands. The Empress Ballroom was added in 1920, and the Rotunda in 1921. The 180 foot long frontage was in Renaissance style and with its distinctive dome it soon became a landmark for miles around and an iconic image of Whitley Bay seafront.
The dome, which is capped with a copper lantern housing, was constructed in ferro-concrete. When built it was believed to have been the second-largest unsupported concrete dome in the UK. It is now a Grade II listed structure.
The two ornate cupola-topped towers on either side of the entrance each carry a half-life-size female Bacchanalian dancing figure in lead, one holding cymbals, the other a tambourine. The cupolas were removed for safety reasons in the early 1970s, prior to which the first floor pillars and covered balconies had also been removed, probably due to coastal erosion.
By the late 1990s the building had fallen into a state of disrepair and soon closed to the public. By June 2011 a team of architects had been commissioned to regenerate the building with a plan that included proposals for a 50-bedroom hotel, 20 apartments, a 1950s diner and a pleasure garden. The intended completion date was 2014 but work halted due to a lack of funds. However, an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for financial support was successful, and although future use of the building is still uncertain, further restoration work is soon to continue.
Further recommended reading is available in “The Dome of Memories” compiled by Mick Sharp.
by Charlie Steel © 2014
His published books include ‘Monkseaton Village’ Vols 1 & 2, and ‘North Shields Public Houses, Inns & Taverns’ Parts 1 & 2, all of which are available from most local booksellers.