The renown English trader, journalist, and author of Robinson Crusoe amongst the most famous of his prolific works, Daniel Defoe, once referred to the then-bustling early 18th century herring port of Great Yarmouth as “the finest key in England, if not Europe,” greatly admiring the thriving coastal location in his travel journals.
It was also during the same era when the town began to gain popularity as a seaside resort, mainly attracting visitors from the nearby urban centres of Norwich in Norfolk, and Ipswich in Suffolk, who enjoyed bathing in the sea and strolling along the sandy beach.
The 19th-century strategic military importance of Great Yarmouth as an anchorage and supply base no longer exists, even if the grandiose former Royal Naval Hospital still stands as a monument to that period, and the local fishing industry declined greatly towards the end of the 20th century. However, walking along the seafront indicates that tourism still remains a buoyant part of life in Great Yarmouth, with the town boasting not one but two popular piers amongst its attractions.
Like many of the traditional seaside resort towns around Britain, changing times have brought the need to adapt in Great Yarmouth. Although tourism generates £599 million per annum and, according to the local borough council, accounts for around 34% of jobs in the area, it is an industry continually seeking ways to reinvent itself and attract further growth.
Some believe focus should be placed on regenerating key heritage sites, along with incorporating more arts and culture attractions, tidying up the more dilapidated areas of town and particularly its commercial centre, or providing much needed major investment in the transport infrastructure that would improve ease of access to Great Yarmouth.
Not unlike many coastal resort towns around the country, plans have also been considered to incorporate lucrative mega-casino complexes to add to the already popular casino gaming options in Yarmouth, to encourage visitors throughout the year. Even with the rise in popularity of online casinos and gambling, in accordance with gambling.org.uk, “people still enjoy the ambience and the thrills of a land-based casino, ready to forgo the comfort of their home to join in on the fun with friends and acquaintances,” with over 140 such casinos located throughout the UK. Dominating the market, around 75% of those are operated by Grosvenor Casinos.
One step already taken by the borough council in November 2017 was to replace the seafront Marina Centre with a new facility, at a projected cost of around £26 million and targeting a completion date of 2022. This will incorporate impressive new facilities including a 25m pool, health suite and sauna, steam and spa, indoor climbing, sports hall, 100-station health and fitness gum, plus various other amenities.
This is perhaps one indication that the future of tourism remains strong in Great Yarmouth, although it goes without saying, further creative ideas and means of continuing to attract visitors, all year round, remains a key priority for the town and its residents. Of course, operators of the traditional and historic piers will be keen to play a central part in that future.
The provision of a pier in Great Yarmouth had been considered and planned as early as 1843. Completed by 31st October 1853 and designed by P. Ashcroft, the Wellington Pier was officially opened and named in honour of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who had died the previous year. The 700-feet (210-metre) timber structure had cost what was then considered the princely sum of £6,776 to build, but proved to be a popular and profitable addition to the town.
Nevertheless, that profitability was affected by the construction of the nearby Britannia Pier in 1858, which led to an inevitable decline in revenues. In 1899, the Great Yarmouth Corporation was forced to clear Wellington Pier’s debts of £1,250 and embarked upon improvements to the attractions the pier could offer. In 1903, a new Pavilion was opened and at considerable cost, the Winter Gardens were transported from Torquay, with the steel and glass structure rebuilt on the Golden Mile next to the Wellington, housing botanical wonders for visitors to enjoy.
During the 1970s the sea-facing end was completely refurbished and urgent structural repairs undertaken, but the pier continued to run at a loss, amidst a decline in seaside resort tourism throughout the country. By 1986 the town council even considered demolishing the pier, on the grounds that further investment couldn’t be justified. However, Wellington Pier gained a stay of execution when celebrity Jim Davidson took over the lease in 1996, although by 2002, even he was unable to halt its deterioration.
Eventually, current owners Family Amusements Ltd took over and began to breathe new life into the iconic location. Extensive restoration and improvement works commenced in 2004, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, eventually housing the attractions that Wellington Pier boasts in the present day. These include an amusement arcade, casino, bowling alley, plus various eateries and gift stores.
Given the popularity and initial success enjoyed by nearby Wellington Pier, renown engineer A.W. Morant designed the second Britannia Pier, which was completed and first welcomed tourists on 13th July 1858. However, the life of the pier hasn’t been without its share of misfortunes. The original length of the structure was reduced by a ship collision as soon as 1859, then severe storms caused further problems in 1868, leading to the original pier’s eventual demolition in 1899.
However, construction quickly commenced on a replacement designed by Joseph and Arthur Mayoh, featuring an extended 810 feet pier deck which opened in 1901, followed by completion of the Grand First Pavilion in 1902, but was destroyed by fire in 1909. The Second Pavilion designed by architects Douglass and Arnot was built in 1910, but that too was ravaged by flames on 17th April 1914, allegedly by protesting Suffragettes, after they were denied access to hold gatherings there. Just a few months later, a third Pavilion quickly erected.
Fire continued to play an unfortunate part in the history of Britannia Pier, when the Floral Hall Ballroom opened in 1928, it was likewise reduced to ashes in 1932. The subsequent new Grand Ballroom which opened in 1933 did manage to last somewhat longer, although it too was eventually destroyed by a devastating fire on 20th April 1954, which also claimed the Third Pavilion. The present Pavilion structure was opened in 1958, but the Ballroom wasn’t ever replaced and the venue struggled to recapture the magic of its former entertainment heydays.
In the mid-1990s and along with Wellington Pier, a much-dilapidated Britannia Pier was purchased by Family Amusements Ltd, who embarked upon extensive renovations and refits. The current venue hosts live theatre shows featuring famous celebrities and acts, such as veteran comedians Jim Davidson and Jasper Carrott, whilst also boasting various attractions including rides, amusements, bars and eateries, plus a popular nightspot.