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Onchan Harbour And The Happy Valley Arena


Over the years, Onchan Harbour has also been known as Onchan Bay, Onchan Creek, Port Conchan, Port Bankes, and from the early years of this century, as Happy Valley. The word "Port" or "Harbour" so often found in Manx place names, such as Port Jack, Port Skillion, Port Grenaugh and so on, does not necessarily indicate a man-made structure such as a sea-wall or jetty, but often just a creek or a cove where a small boat could be launched and recovered over a sand or shingle beach in fair weather. In the case of Onchan Harbour, which has a rocky seabed beyond the shingle beach, it had been necessary to create a channel which may be seen immediately below, and sheltered by, the western headland of this little bay.

It is probable that the creek would have been used by Norse seafarers. Groudle creek was known as Escadala Vik in Norse and Garwick derives from the Norse Gjarvik, or cave creek. To the South is the cove of Port Soderick and again the name has a Norse origin in Solvik, or sunny creek. There is thus ample evidence of the use by the Vikings, whose very name contains their word for a creek, of the various small creeks along the coast hereabouts and it is unlikely that Onchan Harbour would be an exception.

Onchan Harbour was an important link in the Watch and Ward system and was a lookout station during the hours of darkness. Watch and Ward was set up during the Scandinavian period and Onchan Harbour was part of the system from at least as early as 1627.

John Feltham in his Tour through the Island of Mann published in 1798 recorded that Douglas was established, by a Commission of 15th September 1776, as a Port. He listed Crowdale (Groudle); Bankes Harbour (Onchan Harbour); Port-Cooyn, (Port Jack), and Port-y-Artay (Port-e-Vada) as "denominated creeks".

Harbour Road, running from the original village of Kiondroghad at The Butt, must also have very ancient origins and provided access to Onchan Harbour. This track, together with its continuation to the beach at Onchan Harbour, was used for carrying the seaweed, or wrack, to the farms in the vicinity where it was in demand as a fertiliser. (Thwaite commented in his Guide of 1863 that "..A great boon to the farmer is the large amount of sea wreck [sic] which is annually cast upon the coast.."). Fishermen from the village also came and went by Harbour Road and nets could be seen hung to dry outside cottages at The Butt until the last century.

The hairpin bend at the foot of the track was well constructed and a buttress of huge boulders protected it from the sea. It has now been badly undermined by storms and the built-up portion of the track which formerly extended along the high water mark for about thirty yards has vanished. A postcard dating from 1911 shows two rowing boats at the water's edge at Onchan Harbour and another postcard, from about 1913, depicts a more substantial vessel, half-decked in the style of a lifeboat which was drawn up above the high water mark. By this period these vessels were probably involved in tourism.

Mining operations, possibly exploratory and in the form of a horizontal adit, were carried out on the slope between the track and the beach of Onchan Harbour. The Ordnance Survey of 1869 marks a disused mine on this site. However, all signs of it have vanished, probably under the spoil tipped over the brows during the construction of the railway.

In about 1894/95 a booklet entitled "Beyond the Silver Stream in Manxland" was published. It consisted largely of anecdotes based on folk-lore type legends of a similar nature to those with which motor coach drivers would regale their passengers in later years. It did, however, contain an interesting description of the flora to be found in and around Onchan Harbour -

"Let us descend by this well-worn winding path. Note the thick tangled brakes of sloe and thorn, and briar and gorse clustered in wild confusion and capped with sweet-smelling honeysuckle, and a profusion of red and white dog-roses. Here too, far up out of reach, will be found in season the samphire, with its fleshy esculent leaves. In this glen, the great flower of the foxglove and pretty Canterbury bells peeping from sheltered seclusions flourish; and pale-blue flowers of the harebell, with tufts of sea campion, and prolific beds of bright blue scabias and red sea pinks. The pretty flower of blue squill is all over the place and the rocks are thickly mantled with the waxen flower of the stonecrop. Here, as everywhere, golden gorse scents the air. This is a choice spot and a sweet retreat on the way".

The samphire was of commercial value on the Island and was collected and exported to England as a vegetable delicacy. It was described in 1584 as "...a wede growing neare the sea side and is very plentiful about the Ile of Man, from whence it is brought to divers parts of England...".

However the days of Onchan Harbour as "a sweet retreat" were numbered and by 1912 the Commissioners rate books were to record the erection of the first buildings there. One was to provide a site for a restaurant and the other was to be well-known for a pierrot show, the title of which, Happy Valley, has survived to this day as the alternative name for Onchan Harbour.

In the quest to open up Howstrake to the holiday-maker, potential could be seen by the early entrepreneurs in locations which today would be considered most unlikely venues for entertainments. Such a spot was Onchan Harbour. In its favour was its Southerly aspect and shelter from the wind. The visitors did like to be beside the seaside and here they were overlooking it. Its drawback was the scarcity of reasonably level ground but, with the characteristic optimism of the period, even Onchan Harbour was pressed into the service of tourism, albeit on a limited scale and for only a few years.

Mr Charles Dare ran the Empire Picture Playhouse, later known as The Empire Theatre, which was opposite to the General Post Office in Regent Street. This was a combination of cinema and palace of variety and was described in 1920 as "Manxland's Parent Cinema", presumably to indicate that it was the first on the Island. From about 1894, Dare had also run a pierrot show at Douglas Head. By the Summer season of 1912 Dare had turned his attention to Onchan Head and to the huge crowds of visitors who were attracted to the existing amusement park there.

Another name in the seasonal entertainment scene in Howstrake was that of William Cottier Cubbin who, in 1908, had acquired a lease from the owners of the Howstrake estate over part of Onchan Head, now the King Edward Bay apartments complex, and there he had set up his amusement park. By early 1913 Cubbin had bought this site and he had also acquired the land on the brows above Onchan Harbour. On 25th May 1912, Dare announced in the Isle of Man Times, as a foot note to the advertisement for his Empire Theatre, under a heading of "DARE'S MINSTRELS - Season 1912", that "..Charles Dare wishes to inform his friends and patrons in Douglas that he has now entered into an arrangement with Mr Cottier Cubbin, and Dare's Minstrels will give their summer performances at "THE HAPPY VALLEY", ONCHAN HEAD, instead of Douglas Head".

The same issue of the Times gave fuller details in an item headed "In The Happy Valley". This read - "Mr Chas. Dare and his merry troupe of minstrels will this year be seen on a new pitch. Douglas Head...has been forsaken by these fun-makers and...they will perform on a new pitch called The Happy Valley at Onchan Harbour, starting on July 8th. Mr Dare has gone to special pains to select a troupe of comedians and singers that will not fail to uphold the reputation he has gained among old visitors to Douglas..". It went on to mention that the troupe would include Mr Dare himself and "..can be depended upon to render all the latest humorous and sentimental songs and to crack all the latest jokes and generally provide, as is their wont, fun without vulgarity..".

The Onchan Village Commissioners' rate book for the year ended on 31st March 1913 shows that Cottier Cubbin owned two properties in Onchan Harbour. One of these is listed as a "Minstrels Stand and land, Happy Valley". The occupiers are shown as the owner, i.e., Cottier Cubbin, and Charles Dare. The close involvement of these two gentlemen in the venture is again demonstrated by their joint application to the Licensing Court, held on 16th July 1912, for a Music and Dancing licence. The Mona's Herald of 24th July reported that Dare had given evidence to the court as follows - "I want a licence for the Happy Valley Arena in Onchan Harbour. It is a pierrot show with black faces. The singing and dancing is by the artistes. The area does not exceed 1,000 square feet. There is no opposition. We close on Sundays. We want to open morning, afternoon, and evening, weather permitting". A licence was granted for "..all hours.." but it would appear that it had not been possible to keep to the projected opening date of 8th July.

Having chosen Onchan Harbour as a new site for his entertainment, Mr Dare erected a high, close-boarded timber fence which ran for around a hundred yards along the track leading down to the beach. At the end of this fence further boarding continued straight down the slope to the shore. The Western part of the slope being thus enclosed, he made use of this natural arena and cut out a series of tiers on which to set up bench seating. A postcard shows that there were about a dozen of these tiers and, allowing perhaps 20 patrons per tier, this open-air auditorium could have seated about 250 people. A roofed structure covered the stage which was set a little further down the slope, but still well above the level of the beach. Access was by a path up from the beach and a concrete pad and a few steps still remain.

The enclosure of part of Onchan Harbour provoked a storm of fury. The matter became public knowledge when The Examiner published a report of a meeting of the Village Commissioners held on 13th May at which Mr Thomason, the Chairman, raised "..the question of the right of encroachment by Mr Cottier Cubbin in the erection of a close wooden screen...along the track down to the beach at Onchan Harbour..". The Commissioners said that they had no authority in this matter, but it was agreed that a public meeting be called at which they would oppose Mr Cubbin's actions, not as a Board, but as individuals.

A letter published in the Daily Times of 26th May and repeated in the Weekly Times of 1st June, and signed by "A Lover of Nature", started the ball rolling. The writer asked "..can nothing be done either by the people of Douglas or Onchan to preserve to the public the rights they have, from time immemorial, enjoyed at Onchan Harbour. This little creek, sheltered as it is from all winds, is or rather up till a few weeks ago was, one of the prettiest spots around Douglas. Unspoiled by the land grabber, or the amusement caterer, it was left to run wild, and formed an ideal place for a quiet ramble, or to laze away an afternoon. Now the place is made hideous with a wooden railing, shutting off a piece of ramblage about half way down the road, and closing up the short cut past the well to the shore. A turnstile has been erected and it is the intention to have minstrel performances on the enclosed space, so that our visitors and residents are not only shut off land which has certainly become vested in the public but the quiet and peace of the creek, which was its chief charm, are to be destroyed..". The writer then alleged that the widow of Samuel Callow, a former owner of the land, had, some thirty years earlier, tried to fence off the same land but the obstruction had been removed.

The Mona's Herald of 15th June wrote that "Unless the Douglas and Onchan public are on their guard, they will be deprived of immemorial rights on that favourite resort, Onchan Harbour. In all the time that the Callow family were the owners of Howstrake, which included Onchan Harbour, there has been unrestricted use of the beach for all purposes - for boat landing, boat storing, bathing, ramblage, etc. But the Howstrake estate, having passed from the Callow family, and portions of it having been sold off for summer season ventures, an attempt is being made to deprive Manx people of their native rights...". The Herald then printed a letter from Mr F.G. Callow, son of the late Samuel Callow, in which he went on to "..repudiate and deny in toto..", (Mr Callow had been in practice as an  advocate), the allegations made against his mother. He recalled that " long as I can remember the whole of the land lying between the road leading to the beach, and the foreshore, was land over which the public had always exercised the privilege and the right of ramblage free and unfettered by any interruption..". He further recalled that "..For many years, some six or eight boats belonging to the villagers were always drawn up on the bank which is now enclosed...and an eyesore and positive disgrace have been created in the neighbourhood and one of our beauty spots is lost, given way to vandalism, to the detriment, the welfare, and prosperity of one of the prettiest rural districts in the Island..". Mr Callow then advised "..the people interested in the matter to bring it before the Village Commissioners..who would approach the Great Enquest, a body who are statutory formed to deal with such cases..".

And that is what did happen. The Commissioners wrote to the foreman of the Great Enquest for Middle sheading. He replied that he could do nothing until a Deemster instructed the Coroner to call the Enquest. The Commissioners replied, demanding rather than requesting that the Enquest be called. The Mona's Herald reported on 5th June, under the headline of "HARBOUR ENCROACHMENT - GREAT ENQUEST SUMMONED", that "..William Knox, foreman of the Great Enquest for Middle Sheading has..summoned his fellow enquest men to enquire as to the alleged encroachment made on Onchan beach, for the purpose of minstrel performances..". The paper commented that "..there are scores of residents who can remember the beach being more extensive than it is today. The old well, which for 40 years or so, was used for watering by fishing and other boats in North Bay, was then approached almost on a flat. In the years that have elapsed quarry rubbish and debris from the time of the construction of the electric tramway were tipped on to the beach; but if this would take away the rights of the public it would be an easy matter to rob..the public..of their rights..". The Herald report, however, had jumped the gun. The Great Enquest had not, in fact, been summoned and Mr Knox steadfastly refused to do so without an order from a Deemster.

On 2nd July the public meeting, proposed back in May, was held at the Village Hall and about 150 people attended. Mr G.A. Thomason, Chairman of the Commissioners, said that "..the Commissioners had no powers to deal with the matter. The Great Enquest had refused to take it up and so it was for the ratepayers of Onchan, who had been agitating this matter, privately to decide what action they should take..". Mr Alex Gill gave an account of the basis of the grievance and spoke of herring boats coming into the creek so as not to have to pay harbour dues, and of luggers regularly calling in to get water from the well. It was also stated that the public rights extended as far back as sixty years and the road had been kept in repair by the Highway Board. A committee was formed with instructions to seek legal advice and a large number of subscriptions were pledged to form a fighting fund. Within a few days of this decision, Cottier and Dare were granted their music licence. The pierrot show had already been announced and The Happy Valley Arena was in being. In the meantime, the show went on.

A petition for the involvement of the Great Enquest in the matter was heard at the High Court on 22nd July. The petitioners, Isaac Moore, William Cain and Edward Quayle, maintained that ".. we are within our rights in applying for an order for the Great Enquest and are entitled to the order now..". The defence stated that "We shall go to common law. We shall not abide by the finding of such a tribunal". The Deemster was disinclined to involve the Enquest and the hearing was held over. On 21st October the case was again adjourned and, finally, at a hearing on 4th November the Deemster ruled that he would make no order for the Great Enquest to sit on the dispute. It appears that no common law action ensued and the pierrot shows continued.

Looked at dispassionately, it is understandable that the village was outraged. But in any dispute that causes the public to think that it is being cheated out of what it considers to be ancient rights, a lot of emotion is bound to be generated and both sides will tend to exaggerate their cases. As regards the track, it was said that the fence encroached on it by four inches. Mr Alex Gill claimed the encroachment to be a foot and that " narrowed the roadway and made it difficult for people to pass..". The defence disparagingly described the ancient well as an old ditch. And so it went on. The defence maintained that there was a cart road to the beach which the owner had improved but the petitioners claimed that the track was repaired by the Highway Board. Whilst there can be little doubt that the track had been used by the public for a great many years, probably for centuries, it was not the rights of access to the beach that were in question. Right of ramblage seldom exists in law and the fact that, over a considerable period, people had gone at will over the brows and had taken short cuts down them to the beach, did not necessarily create any right to do so. A case might have existed as regards the positioning of the fence but it was claimed that the Highway's Surveyor had been consulted before erecting it.

In March 1913 Dare and Cottier applied to the Licensing court for a renewal of their licence at The Happy Valley Arena and this was granted, to operate from 11 AM to 11 PM, Sundays excepted. In the following month, Onchan Village Commissioners became aware of the Local Government Theatre Act 1912. They wrote to Dare concerning toilet facilities at Onchan Harbour and a similar letter went to Cottier Cubbin regarding his amusement park. Dare responded with a letter from his lawyers. At the June Commissioners' meeting it was beginning to seem that, possibly, these regulations were not applicable. The Chairman thought that perhaps "..they were taking a steam hammer to crack a nut..". Cottier Cubbin however, met the Commissioners and in July 1913 "..satisfactory arrangements.." were agreed for the amusement park, where some eighty staff were employed.

A copy of "DARE'S MINSTRELS BOOK OF SONGS. SEASON 1912. PRICE ONE PENNY" is in the possession of Mr Peter Kelly. This stated on the cover that "Dare's Minstrels have performed for Nineteen consecutive Seasons in DOUGLAS and are acknowledged to be the Premier Minstrel Organisation in the Kingdom", and featured a photograph of Dare complete with nautical cap. The "MUSIC and WORDS for any of the songs may be had from the attendants" and this would have proved to be a good earner in the days before recorded music came on the scene. Performances in the "HAPPY VALLEY" were three times daily at 11 AM, 3 and 7.45 PM. The book also included a plea that "..Mr Charles Dare will esteem it a favour if patrons will kindly inform their friends of the fact that DARE'S MINSTRELS now give their performances at "The Happy Valley", ONCHAN HEAD, instead of Douglas Head as hitherto..".

No record appears to exist of an application for a renewal of the licence at Happy Valley in the Spring of 1914 and Dare's name is not listed in the Village rate book covering that year. It would appear that, whilst the name he gave to a part of Onchan Harbour has lasted to this day, his entertainment there survived for just two Summer seasons, those of 1912 and 1913.

The reasons why Dare closed down his pierrot shows are not known. He had operated, presumably profitably, at Douglas Head for some 18 years prior to his move. It may have been that his site at The Happy Valley was completely dwarfed by the success of the nearby amusement park. Following a fire at his Empire Theatre, he lodged plans for its refurbishment. Douglas Corporation disapproved his scheme and court action was started, seeking an order against the Corporation. His New Empire Picture Playhouse eventually opened in late June 1913, and was claimed to be "absolutely fireproof". Possibly, he may have decided that his future lay entirely in his new theatre, or perhaps he was just becoming weary of skirmishes with bureaucracy.

In retrospect, little was to change at Onchan Harbour. The public still enjoyed access to the beach and boats still lay there drawn up above the high water mark. The records of the litagation were to preserve for posterity a picture of Onchan Harbour in the 19th century; its use by fishing vessels to land herring; the old well from which boats took their supplies of water; and the dumping of spoil from the construction of the electric railway. These rather unexpected aspects of Howstrake's past might well have been lost if the dispute over the harbour had not arisen.

An item in The Examiner of 8th May 1920 recorded that Mr Dare, or Charles Albert Ransom to give him his true name, was leaving the Empire Theatre, and was severing his connections with the Island.

The other building listed in April 1912 was described in the rate book as Onchan Harbour Restaurant, owned by W. Cottier Cubbin and occupied by John Hart. During the war years of about 1916 to 1918 there are no entries in the rates books for Onchan Harbour and it would appear that the minstrel stand and the restaurant were dismantled and removed. For the year ended March 1920 the rate book records a stall and land at Onchan Harbour. This was owned by Mr Cottier Cubbin and was occupied by Mr and Mrs Hart. This may have been the predecessor of the premises that were referred to as The Valley Cafe in March 1922 when a Licensing Court granted Harriet Hart a licence to sell sweets there. At this same court, Mrs Hart was given a similar licence for Hart's Refreshment Room at Onchan Head amusement park. A postcard of about 1924 depicts a building located alongside the track to Onchan Harbour, perhaps two-thirds of the way down, and this was probably The Valley Cafe. It was a fair-sized structure with tables and chairs set outside overlooking the beach. The ugly scars left by the tipping of spoil down the headlands in 1893 were still evident on this same post card. In 1924, Mrs Hart erected The Cafe Royal on the King Edward Road, immediately above Onchan Harbour. In 1991, these premises became Churchill's Restaurant.

In November 1927 the Isle of Man Times reported proposals by the Greyhound Racing Association (Isle of Man) Ltd. to provide a race track at Onchan Head and a bathing pool, with changing facilities, at what was described as Onchan Head Bay. These developments were to cost around £60,000. and were to be built before the start of the following tourist season. Whilst the bathing facilities would have been welcomed, there was great opposition to the greyhound racing proposal and the betting involved. A Bill was put before Tynwald to prohibit betting and gaming except on the existing horse racing activities at the Belle Vue course on the site of the present King George V park in Douglas. The bathing pool proposals were, of course, an inducement to obtain consent to the dog racing track and in the event neither scheme went ahead. Lest it be thought that the Manx public might have adopted a strait-laced attitude to the dog racing proposals, it should be noted that, at about this time, there was growing concern in Britain about the social evils of this form of amusement.

On 8th September 1972 The Examiner announced remarkable proposals by Mr Dennis Jeavons to develop Onchan Harbour for housing. Mr Jeavons was at that time involved with plans to construct a holiday village at Groudle. The paper reported that the proposal was " ring the cliffs at the inlet with flats and maisonettes set into the rock face and steeply shelving banks..". An application was considered by the planning authority in January and was rejected on the grounds that the site was inadequate, the development would " detrimental to the amenities of an area of high landscape and coastal value.." and that the land might be unstable. Bearing in mind that parts of it consisted of loose spoil deposited there when the railway was built, the last reason was a distinct possibility.

Perhaps surprisingly, this scheme had the backing of the Village Commissioners and the Clerk said that "..Onchan Harbour has been something of a thorn in their side for a number of years. It is frequently used by people who tip rubbish. This development can do nothing but improve the appearance of the place. It won't encroach on the view, people won't really see anything from King Edward Road or from the sea..". The developments were to consist of eight blocks, each consisting of two split-level, two bed-roomed maisonettes, and four two bed-roomed flats, a total of 48 dwellings in all. The Commissioners' Clerk added that "..Access to the beach won't be interfered with. The existing road will remain in use for the public and a new road will be created for use by the occupiers of the flats..". The developer went to planning review and in April 1973 the previous refusal was reversed and approval in principle, for one year, was granted.

A plan of the development showed that the eight blocks were to be sited above the beach and below the track leading down to it. The blocks were grouped tightly together but left a small area clear at the Eastern end of the creek for turning vehicles. The path to the shore was marked as "Public route to beach". An access road for the residents was to start seaward of the top of the footpath and was ingeniously contrived so as to pass under the rear of the blocks. The scheme was not proceeded with and Onchan Harbour escaped development into a replica of a Spanish costa.

Over the years the brows have reverted to nature and there are no signs of earlier exploitation. The creek is a haven for seabirds and herons and in December 1991, a group of 44 ducks was counted there. Onchan Harbour is again "..a choice spot and a sweet retreat on the way".