A Brief History of Southend - 2

Coming of the Railway and Clifftown

Southend Station c.1870

The first railway line reached Southend in 1855-6. The line was built by the contractors, Brassey, Betts and Peto. Southend Station (now Southend Central Station) was opened for its first travellers in 1856. At first the line went from Fenchurch Street Station in London, via Tilbury, to Southend, hence the name the LTS line.

Following the completion of the line, the developers leased a large area of land to the south of the line, for the building of a new housing estate. This became known as Clifftown. The architects of the estate were the firm of Banks and Barry (who had designed the Houses of Parliament), and the builders were Lucas Brothers.

Nelson St. c. 1870

Clifftown was built in several "classes" of property, depending on the extent of the sea view. The first class houses were those on the cliff top facing the sea – Clifton Terrace and Clifton Parade. The Second Class houses were those at an angle to the sea; those further back were the third class houses, and Cambridge Road, and the northern side of the estate were the fourth class. An elegant garden (Prittlewell Square) was created for the residents, together with an area of market gardens (now the bowling green). The only shops in Clifftown were those in Nelson Street.

Clifftown was completed by about 1870. It immediately attracted interest from businessmen, the better-off retired people and others who could afford the high prices. Businessmen could now live by the sea and travel to London by the new train service to look after their affairs, the first commuters. It is interesting to note that some of the families living in Clifftown employed many of the children of the families from the Lower Town as domestic servants.

The First Local Government

Royal Lobrary, with St. John's Church

In 1842 the parish church of Southend, St. John’s, had been consecrated. Southend was now a parish in its own right. About this time the Government was becoming increasingly concerned about public health, following serious cholera outbreaks in towns. A national Government Board of Health was created, and towns were encouraged to form themselves into local Boards of Health. These would form not only local governing bodies but would also be responsible for maintaining public health by keeping streets clean and enforcing bye-laws relating to public health.

Southend was formed into a local Board of Health in 1866. It took over responsibility for all aspects of local government, including cleaning streets, planning and planning regulations, and health matters. The members of the local board were the some of the principal citizens of the town. 

Among the matters they dealt with were the formation of Southend’s Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1877 and the maintenance of the wooden pier. Very detailed minutes were kept by the Board, and these were bound in large volumes.

In 1873 Southend’s first regular weekly newspaper was published for the first time. This was the Southend Standard. Originally printed in premises in Southchurch Avenue, printing moved to purpose-built premises in Clifftown Road, known as Standard House.

Trippers and Excursionists

In 1870 Sir John Lubbock’s Bank Holidays Act was passed. This created what we know as Bank Holidays; the most important of these, for Southend and other seaside resorts, was the first Monday in August. This allowed, in effect, workers from London (not just bank workers but workers in other trades as well) to spend a long weekend in Southend, which was the nearest seaside resort to London.

Very soon thousands of "trippers" especially from the East End of London, made Southend their second home for those two or three days, and for many other weekends in the summer. For many years the numbers of visitors to Southend far outnumbered the resident population on those weekends.

The Parting of the Ways, 1910

The visitors to the town were grouped into two "classes" by the residents – the short stay "tripper" or excursionist, who usually came down from the East End of London, and the visitor intent on staying for a week or more, and usually from other parts of London or from elsewhere. These were the "better class" of excursionists. The town had to provide for both. For the day or weekend tripper, who was used to the coconut shies and shooting galleries in the parks in the East End of London, similar amusements had to be provided. But more of these later.


In the mid 1880s the Local Board decided that a new Pier had to be built. The wooden one was becoming rather shaky, especially with the horse drawn tram trundling up and down its length. 

William Bradley

The pier was not a particularly safe place either; the pier head man, William Bradley, had been awarded medals from the Royal Humane Society and the RNLI for saving dozens of lives of people who had fallen into the river from the end of the pier. In 1885 a brand new brick toll house had been built, but this could not save the old wooden structure. James Brunlees was appointed the designer of the new iron and steel pier, which was eventually completed in 1889, and fully opened in 1890. The two main features of the new pier were its Pavilion and electric train service.

The First Borough

Thomas Dowsett

The town had grown to such a size, with a population of about 12,000 in 1891, that it was created a Municipal Borough in 1892. A special Charter Day medal was struck and given to schoolchildren, and a ceremonial procession took place on the pier. Southend could now elect its first ever mayor, and Thomas Dowsett was chosen. He was a prominent local businessman, with a shop at the corner of Alexandra Street and High Street, and interests in local housing developments.


One of the first acts of the new Council was to develop and improve the seafront. Marine Parade was widened and the "greens" paved over. The cliffs to the west were brought under local Council control and the Western Esplanade improved, with sea wall and wider carriageway and pavements. This area, to the west of the pier, was to be reserved for the "better class" of excursionists.

The Kursaal

The greens along the seafront, between the road and the beach, had been used for seasonal fairgrounds for many years throughout the second half of the 19th Century. Among these was Pawley’s Green, at the junction of Marine Parade and Eastern Esplanade. Here were steam roundabouts, shooting galleries, coconut shies, etc. The greens were named after their tenants or owners; there was also Fairhead’s green and Darlow’s green and another green opposite the Ship Hotel.

Pier Hill Fairground c.1889

On Pier Hill, on the site where the Palace Hotel was later built, was the Pier Hill Fairground. Here were more roundabouts, swings, scenic railway, Roly Poly ride, fortune tellers, boxing booths and other amusements. In 1893 the local father and son partnership of Alfred and Bernard Wiltshire Tollhurst, solicitors, had decided to buy up land at the east end of the town for the creation of a new park, for both residents and trippers. This was to be the Marine Park and Gardens. A small, four acre, annexe was to reserved for amusements, such as a scenic railway and dancing platform. The Marine Park was opened in August 1894. The amusements soon outgrew their four acre spot, and a number of companies were formed to build a grand entrance to the Marine Park. The last of these companies was called the Margate and Southend Kursaals Company. 

Kursaal c.1901

Their building was completed in 1901, with a great silver dome over the entrance. Although they had also intended to build a "Kursaal" in Margate this was never completed. The word Kursaal is German, meaning a "Cure Hall" or spa, and it seems to have been adapted to mean a place of healthy amusement. A Kursaal was also built at Bexhill-on-Sea, but this did not include amusements. Southend’s Kursaal became the largest fairground in the south of England.

The County Borough

Coat of Arms

Southend was awarded County Borough status in 1914. A coat of arms was created for the new County Borough in which the two main elements central to its history - the church and the sea - were the principal supporters. This was emphasised in the motto "Per Mare Per Ecclesiam" By the Sea and By the Church.

The status of County Borough meant that the town could control aspects of local government that were normally the County’s responsibility, such as the police and education. The County Borough included not only Southend but also Southchurch, Leigh-on-Sea and part of Eastwood. The Borough boundaries were extended in 1933 to include Shoeburyness and North Shoebury, the rest of Eastwood and parts of Great Wakering and Rochford.

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