Gallery: Fragments of dreams captured by pictures of the past from Harwich and Dovercourt

Looking back at days gone by - Harwich

Looking back at days gone by - Harwich - Credit: Archant

Michael Rouse is a time-traveller, having created something of a cottage industry remembering the East Anglia of yesteryear via photograph-filled books.

Steven Russell looks at the latest – and discovers where we can find a statue of Queen Victoria. (Looking down Kingsway in Dovercourt).

It’s so easy, in our busy lives, to forget the past. Take the town of Dovercourt (actually older than Harwich, its higher-profile neighbour). Once, a man had such big dreams for the place – and saw much of his vision come to pass (though, sadly, not all).

John Bagshaw was a former East India merchant, Whig politician and mid-19th Century Harwich MP. He took over the shipyard, built himself a mansion – Cliff House – overlooking Dovercourt Bay, and dreamed of creating a trendy seaside resort at Dovercourt.

Bagshaw discovered a spring in the grounds of his mansion that was said to be rich in iron. A spa was built, with pump room, museum, reading room, library and conservatory. A penny would get you in.

There were arched gates to the park, so visitors could be charged for firework displays and concerts. (The spa was knocked down in 1920.)

Meanwhile, an architect called WH Lindsay drew up impressive plans for the new oasis, so the gentry could live in some style. Orwell Terrace, for instance, was finished in the 1850s and was alongside the grounds of Cliff House.

Most Read

Unfortunately, Bagshaw overstretched himself and had gone bust by the time he died in 1861. “As a result, his vision and Lindsay’s grand designs did not go much further in terms of buildings, so this terrace is a reminder of what might have been all along the seafront as far as the Cliff Hotel,” writes Michael Rouse in his new book.

A significant cause of the bankruptcy was the landscaping of the slopes leading from the end of Orwell Terrace. There was a shelter, a path at the top, and a broad path sloping down to a new promenade.

Reminders of this optimistic era are there in Michael’s book – the latest in the Through Time brand that looks at places through photographs old and new. Many of his previous titles have featured our coastline – towns such as Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Clacton-on-Sea and the Southwold and Aldeburgh areas all visited in recent years.

Now he’s turning his eye on Harwich and Dovercourt – two communities shoulder to shoulder.

A confessed fan of the coast, he argues: “The seaside is our greatest National Health Service, and this is a book about holidaying by the sea, where Harwich and Dovercourt, on the Essex coast, are a tonic.”

He quotes, in his introduction, the journalist Daniel Defoe. The author of Robinson Crusoe also toured Britain and wrote about it early in the 18th Century, calling Harwich “a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure; yet the inhabitants seem warm in their nests, and some of them are very wealthy”.

Michael – born in Ely and living there today – describes how the coast used to be a very challenging place: battered by the sea, at risk of attack by unfriendly forces, and peopled by tough seafaring folk such as sailors and fishermen. Much of the land was marshy, damp and unhealthy.

In the 1750s a number of people, such as doctors, advocated seawater as a likely cure for various conditions. This changed opinions, especially after the Prince of Wales (who would become King George IV) took a shine to Brighton.

Harwich benefited from this shift in thinking. “As early as 1753, Mr Hallsted of the Three Cups in Church Street, Harwich, was inviting people to stay at his inn and take the seawater cure at his new baths,” says Michael. “In 1754, the brewer Thomas Cobbold opened a rival set of baths, and by 1760 he was running the only one.”

The town also had a proud naval history, of course. It was one of a limited number of safe havens between the Humber and the Thames, and became an important naval base in the middle of the 17th Century. Major batteries became part of the fabric, such as the Harwich Redoubt, a circular fort.

Michael’s pictorial tour takes in the whole gamut. His informative captions explain, for instance, how the Great Eastern Railway developed Parkeston Quay between 1879 and 1883, upstream of Harwich, to take larger ships because Harwich had reached its capacity. “It became the most important port linking England with Belgium and Holland.”

Another highpoint came in the 1930s, when the Dovercourt Bay Holiday Lido opened. It was a holiday camp made of concrete and steel, sitting in 40 acres of land on the seafront. The 1937 town guide called it “without doubt the best-equipped and most luxurious on the S.E. Coast”. A later photograph shows it as Dovercourt Bay Holiday Camp, under the Warners brand. Captain Harry Warner was one of the industry pioneers, running four camps by the time the Second War World began.

“At the end of the 1938 season, the camp was taken over by the Refugee Children’s Movement,” writes Michael. “Kindertransport children fleeing from persecution in Europe and arriving at Harwich from the Hook of Holland were temporarily housed here until March 1939.

“During the Second World War, it was requisitioned for military use and in 1942 became a prisoner of war camp.”

Forty or so years later – from 1980 to 1987 – Warners Dovercourt was transformed out of season into Maplins Holiday Camp: the fictional setting for the BBC comedy show Hi-de-Hi.

“Sadly, the camp, which could accommodate 1,500 holidaymakers, closed in 1990, losing Dovercourt some 11,000 visitors a year. The buildings were demolished in 1992, and the site is now covered by housing.”

Harwich & Dovercourt Through Time is published by Amberley at £14.99