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Howstrake
White City Amusement Park - 1908

 

Although the large-scale use of Onchan Head as a fair ground had begun in 1908, the site had been used as a place of entertainment in earlier years. In 1907 an open air music hall was in operation and featured the "Toreador Orchestra". Possibly the first such use for entertainment was recorded in the Examiner of 7th July 1906. A report of the Village Commissioners' meeting held in that month mentioned that "..there was also a new building erected for the entertainers on the Howstrake estate..". The Commissioners' Minutes describe the building as "..the amusement platform and hut on Howstrake..". The Onchan rate book gives a more exact location for this undertaking which was, in fact, on Onchan Head. From this insignificant beginning was to develop the Island's principal amusement park.

The area now occupied by the King Edward Bay Apartment complex on Onchan Head was formerly the site of this park. The Howstrake Estate Co. had leased the land in 1908 to William Cottier Cubbin and Harold B Mylchreest, together with an option to purchase, and in 1913 this option was taken up for £11,500. A figure-of-eight type roller coaster was built in 1909. Early attractions included "A Company of well-known Star Artistes" known as "The Famous Onchans" who replaced the "Toreadors".

The Board of Advertising Guide for 1910 stated that "..There are first class Perriot (sic) Troupes at Onchan Head.." and the funfair's advertisement in the Guide for that year read - "ONCHAN HEAD, DOUGLAS, Isle of Man. THE Pleasure Grounds of the Island. Continuous Amusement ALL DAY WET or FINE". The sole proprietor in that year was named as W. Cottier Cubbin. The Guide for the following year, 1911, mentioned the "..first class al fresco entertainments at the Winter Gardens, Onchan Head..".

The music-hall known as the Onchan Head Pavilion had originally been built with a level floor for roller skating. This building together with the figure-of-eight, formed the permanent features of the site and the mechanical contrivances and stalls associated with a funfair sprang up around them.

A further attraction to take place on Onchan Head was recorded in the Isle of Man Times in June 1912 when the first of a series of Sunday afternoon religious services was held. This attracted a congregation of several thousands and the Lord Bishop preached.

On 7th February 1913 the Howstrake Estate Company conveyed the site of the Onchan Head amusement park and the brows above Onchan Harbour to W. Cottier Cubbin. £3,500 of the purchase price was in cash and the balance on a mortgage to the estate company. Mr Cubbin was described in the Deed as an "..Amusement Caterer...of the Winter Gardens, Onchan..".

As well as the land at what was to become the White City at Onchan Head, the conveyance also included the brows overlooking Onchan Harbour. In the early Summer of 1912, Cottier Cubbin and Charles Dare had established a pierrot show known as Dare's Minstrels on these slopes above the beach. They used the name "The Happy Valley" for Onchan Harbour and this has survived to the present day.

The plan attached to the conveyance included an unexpected reference to a pleasure pier. There had previously been two iron piers in Douglas Bay, one at the foot of Broadway, the other at Port-e-Vada, the former creek which now houses the electric railway depot. The pier at Broadway had been dismantled and sold in 1892 and the one at Port-e-Vada had been carried away in a storm in the following year.

The 1913 deed plan showed what was marked as a "SUGGESTED PIER" extending out from the Western end of Sea Cliff Road at Onchan Head. For about 1,000 feet it ran out to sea in an Easterly direction and then formed a slight dog-leg running approximately East North East for a further 300 feet, thus keeping the structure within the five fathom line. The total length was around a quarter of a mile.

The area from which the pier was to commence was situated seaward of the Douglas Bay Hotel and was not a part of the land conveyed to Cottier Cubbin. It would thus appear that the construction of a pier would be on the initiative of the estate company. The proposed pier would have had to cross over the brows which at this point were vested in Douglas Corporation as an area of public recreation. Whether a structure could have been built to withstand a North-Easterly storm on this stretch of coast was another matter.

The Howstrake Estate Company reserved the right "..free of charge to make a tramroad...along the face of the Cliffs or brows...facing Onchan Harbour such tramroad to be on the Landward side of the existing public road to the beach..". The estate company was also empowered to construct a road connecting the proposed pier to the public road, or track, which lead to the beach at Onchan Harbour. Quite why this road should have been considered necessary is not clear as Sea Cliff Road already existed to fulfill this function.

Whilst the suggested pier might have had some commercial potential, the proposed tramway running above Onchan Harbour would appear to have little merit. In the event, neither scheme was carried out.

To protect the estate company's interests at Groudle, Mr Cubbin was not permitted to stage entertainments at Onchan Head, or in the sea off Onchan Harbour, which involved "..the use of sea lions, polar bears, seals, live fish, water birds, or menageries or collections of wild animals of any kind..".

It was also stipulated that the land which was not built upon should be "..laid out and maintained as ornamental grounds during the summer and shall be open to the public during the summer and the charge for admission to the grounds shall not exceed one shilling per head but that such charge need not include admission to indoor theatres, pavilions, seats or to the grounds during fetes or special occasions..". However, this clause was neither honoured nor enforced and was at the root of a legal action in the 1920s.

In 1920 a commentary on the amusement park read - "If you have failed to obtain admittance into Derby Castle, and such things have been known this season, then you might do worse than remember another amusement resort at Onchan Head. Your luck in...getting a seat is also questionable...but in being regaled with a bright and clever little entertainment is beyond doubt..The boards are not occupied by the great stars of the variety firmament, but a combination of talented vocalists and mirth-makers carries out its job competently and with satisfaction....The Pavilion at Onchan Head, which was erected by Mr Cottier Cubbin about twelve years ago, has been enlarged three times, and although it has accommodation for 1,200 people, experience is showing that it could warrant further extension. It is a simple and unadorned structure, but it is comfortable and well-lighted and well-ventilated, furnished with attractive staging and..well adapted to entertainments of an al fresco type, such as are given in the morning, afternoon and evening. It is set amid a perfect town of cheap stalls and noisy amusements, which, if they are not particularly aesthetic, are at all events very popular, and the sight of which gives an impression of the holiday spirit which could not otherwise be obtained..". The holiday spirit was the concern of Onchan Head, and indeed of most of the Island, at this period.

However, the primary concern of the Howstrake Estate Co. was the sale of building land, and the headlines of the Examiner of 16th June 1922,which read - "The Pleasure Ground at Onchan Head - What the Owners Dreamed it Might Be - and What Actually Happened", indicated that the Howstrake company was far from happy in the matter. Prior to 1920 the only buildings on the site were the pavilion, the figure of eight and a few single storey lock-up shops. Additional developments had followed and in May 1920 the company had applied for an injunction to prevent further building works on the site. The case lapsed and was adjourned, but came up again in 1922. It was stated for The Howstrake Estate that both the lease and the deed of sale contained covenants and one of these prohibited buildings within fifteen feet of King Edward Road. The design of any building was, they claimed, subject to the company's approval and was not to be inferior to the two houses, Granville Villa and Northcliffe, opposite the Douglas Bay Hotel. These were stated to have been built before the 1908 lease of the site.

The defence denied contravening the building line or that there was an obligation to obtain approval and said that pleasure devices were not erections within the meaning of the covenants. The pleasure devices included The Aerial Flight, a tower which had boats on revolving arms, The Rapids which had a 120 feet frontage to King Edward Road, The River Caves, The Aerial Slide, and the figure-of-eight. The Howstrake Estate company claimed that the place "...was not let as an amusement resort, but as a Winter Gardens and a place for singing and entertainment. The lease did not say definitely that defendants should not have fish ponds, stalls, automatic machines etc. but such things were not intended...". They agreed however, that "..the real objection was the lines upon which the place had been developed. The company would have disliked the erections wherever they were situate and thought themselves entitled to prevent them from being placed adjoining what the company considered the promenade of their estate..".

Alfred Lusty, a director and the chief shareholder of the Howstrake company, said that the site was let as an amusement resort but the intention was that it should be of a much more ornamental character, in a style similar to the Villa Marina gardens and with one inclusive charge for admission. This dream was a far cry from the reality of the "...simple unadorned structure set amid a perfect town of cheap stalls and noisy amusements.." as described two years earlier, and the situation would certainly detract from the values of adjacent unsold sites owned by the Howstrake company. On the other hand it was said that the price of £11,500. received for the funfair location had been considerably in excess of its value as building land.

The Onchan Head amusement park had also featured in the courts in October 1921. Several of the cases were for non-payment of tradesmen's accounts for the erection of stall holders' buildings, which were often of a temporary or even portable nature. However, the principal case concerned an allegedly defective motor engine supplied to power a machine called The Tumbler. This consisted of a conveyor belt and the game as described by its owner, was "..that you tried to keep standing as the belt was moving and you generally fell..". Mattresses were positioned on either side to avoid injury. The youth employed to operate this contraption stated that "..it was constantly going wrong. We frequently had to take grease stains out of the ladies' clothes with petrol..".

Questions were then put to another witness to prove that the employee in charge of The Tumbler frequently took part in The Derby Race Game and was constantly winning. The object was to suggest that the loss of earnings on The Tumbler was due to dereliction of duty on the part of this employee and not to the alleged defects in the machine. However, this point was cleared up by the evidence that staff of one game would, during quiet spells, mix with the holiday crowd at another game and would take part in that game. The witness was not prepared to swear that boxes of chocolate won as prizes in this staff swapping exercise were not sometimes returned to the management!

The entertainments at Onchan Head were not always the safest form of amusement. Apart from the hazard of degreasing ladies' dresses with petrol, accidents did occur on what the papers called "..mechanical contrivances..". Two patrons, a youth from Ballasalla and a girl from Glasgow, were injured on the same July day in 1920, and in the following month another young lady was hurt on The Rapids and sued Amusement Devices Ltd. for damages.

At about this period, the "Famous Onchans" had been replaced by a concert party known as "Feldman's Onchans" and beauty competitions, judged by the audiences, were a feature of the evening performances with the winners taking part in a Final each Friday for a £5. prize. Feldman's had premises in Strand Street. Douglas and sold sheet music. They also provided concert parties at Douglas Head.

In June 1894 when S.H. Marsden had bought the land on which he built the Douglas Bay Hotel, he had also acquired a plot of land on the seaward side of the King Edward Road, opposite to the hotel. This plot was bounded towards the sea by Sea Cliff Road and was adjacent to Mr Cubbin's fun fair, In 1920 Carlton Hotels (Isle of Man) Ltd. bought the Douglas Bay Hotel from the liquidator of Dumbell's Bank and in so doing became the owners of this 7,200 square yard parcel of land opposite on Sea Cliff Road. Within a few years the change in ownership of this land was to lead to animosity between the hotel company and Mr Cubbin.

A wooden structure, used as a shop, had been erected on the land which Carlton Hotels owned on Sea Cliff Road. In June 1925 Cottier Cubbin applied to the Chancery Court for an injunction imposing restraints on the hotel company, and its tenants, and requiring the removal of the wooden shop, the location of which contravened the building line which was set back at this point about fifty feet from the road. On 24th July the Court ordered that Carlton Hotels were to remove the structure.

There then followed a series of Court actions. In September the defendants petitioned to have the judgement set aside and in January 1926 were given leave to amend their defence. In March of that year the petition was agreed and an appeal allowed. In February 1927 Deemster La Mothe gave leave for the matter to go before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the ultimate appeal court of the British Empire. Finally, on 1st November 1928, at a Court held at Buckingham Palace "..in the presence of the King's Most Excellent Majesty..", the report of the Committee was presented. However, the parties requested leave to withdraw the appeal, as a Deed of Compromise had been entered into, and this was granted.

The costs of the various actions must have been colossal and it might be wondered just why the parties pursued the matter so far. The answer may have come to light in a news item in the Isle of Man Times of 2nd July 1927, from which it could be readily seen how valuable the amusement industry was at Onchan Head. Carlton Hotels, as owners of a part of this golden coastline, wanted a share of this wealth. Cottier Cubbin, who had founded it all, was determined to maintain his monopoly.

Under a headline of "ANOTHER CONCERT PARTY FOR ONCHAN HEAD", it was reported that Bert Feldman, a music publisher of 125, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, had applied to a Special Licensing Court at Douglas for a music, dancing and singing licence for "..a plot of land situate in front of the Bay Hotel, Onchan Head..". So, even before a settlement of the action between Cubbin and Carlton Hotels had been reached, there was to be more friction between the two landowners!

There was, of course, opposition to the application and one of the grounds was that it should have been brought before the General Licensing Court and not at a special session. For Mr Feldman, it was stated that "..it had been impossible to bring the application before the annual...sessions, because there had been no letting agreement in respect of the land, and negotiations had been rushed through in a week. The whole matter had been held up in turn by the Chancery Court, the Staff of Government, and was now before the Privy Council..". There was also opposition by the owners of the small group of private dwelling houses in the immediate vicinity.

For Mr Cubbin it was stated that all the covenants relating to the land were vested in him and he waived none of them. In the event of any breach, it was made clear that Mr Cubbin would take action. Mr Feldman's advocate commented that "..Mr Cubbin's anxiety as to the covenants did not proceed from any regard of public morality or decency; it was the objection of a man who ran an opposition show and was afraid his gate money would be affected..".

The architect, James du Puy Kay, gave evidence that, in his estimation, Onchan Head was visited by around 20,000 holidaymakers daily. Even the statistic that Groudle Glen attracted over 100,000 tourists annually at around the turn of the century seems to be eclipsed by this figure. Onchan Head was undoubtedly a money spinner. The Times went on to record that Mr Kay said that "..there was a great demand for music and singing there. The seating capacity of the existing show [at the White City] was 800 and in the Summer of 1925 he constantly observed people being turned away..".

Mr Kay gave further evidence to counter the objections of three gentlemen who lived in the houses near the Douglas Bay Hotel, and he contended that "..There was no more noisy district in the Isle of Man, and it was given up almost entirely to the catering of visitors by amusement. There were only five residential houses in the district..". It was stated that the proposed concert party would be no nearer to these houses than were Mr Cubbin's amusements. Attention was drawn to the various existing shows, including one known as "The Womp", and "..a place where electric chairs crashed into each other, making a noise with which...no concert party could possibly hope to compete..".

Mr Feldman's manager in the Isle of Man stated that his employer had theatrical interests in London and the provinces, and that he leased Douglas Head from the Corporation and provided the concert party at the Villa Marina. Some years previously Mr Feldman had himself had interests at Onchan Head. That the venture had the support of Carlton Hotels, the owners of the site, became clear when it emerged that "..the artistes would dress at the annexe to the Bay Hotel..". Mr Feldman was granted his licence but the Bench warned that its future continuance would depend on how the site was run. NOTE - CHECK LATER PAPERS IN 1927 TO SEE IF VENTURE EVER STARTED

This plot of land on which Bert Feldman proposed, in 1927, to set up a concert party remained largely undeveloped over the years. The Myers family of the White City had built a bungalow on part of it but this was demolished in 1994 when proposals for the future of the site were announced by its owners, Townson Properties Ltd. These consisted of the consruction of a large bungalow, to be followed by a small block of apartments, all fronting onto Sea Cliff Road. Work began on this development in the Summer of 1994. Its owners commented in The Examiner of 27th September 1994 - "..we feel the time is right to complete the final phase of development of the White City site...We believe this is arguably the finest coastal location in the Isle of Man".

Further proposals for Onchan Head came to light in November 1927 when the Isle of Man Times reported plans by the Greyhound Racing Association (Isle of Man) Ltd. to set up a race track there. The association also proposed building a swimming pool, with changing facilities, at Onchan Harbour, the cost of the two ventures being estimated at about £60,000. The pool would have been welcomed but may have been put forward as an inducement to obtain approval for the race track. As might have been expected, there was considerable opposition on moral and social grounds. A Bill to ban gaming and betting was introduced into Tynwald with an exception for the horse racing at the existing Belle Vue course in Douglas. Lest it be thought that the Manx public held rather strait-laced views on dog racing, it should be noted that opinion in Britain was, at that time, becoming concerned at the social problems involved. In the event Onchan Head was to have neither race track nor pool.

In September 1933 a structure known as the Monte Carlo Cafe was destroyed by fire during the night and the whole Onchan Head complex, which was largely of timber construction, was in danger of being destroyed.

In July 1936 some of the Onchan Head stalls were the subject of a court case which made the front page of The Examiner under a bold headline which proclaimed "CLEAN UP OF ONCHAN HEAD". This involved some of the stall holders at the funfair who were charged with operating what were described as gaming machines. Police Sergeant Kneen, for the prosecution, said that "..Onchan Head had been one large gaming house for 23 years...". The games involved were not roulette, black jack or other sophisticated forms of gambling but amusements with names such as "Over the Top" which involved getting a ball into a funnel, together with "Box Ball", "Notch Ball", "Groove Ball" and "The Bomber". It was said by the Police that no complaints had been received from the public but Manx law required that the games had to be exclusively games of skill, otherwise they were classed as games of chance, which were illegal. In the United Kingdom it was sufficient for a game to require only a degree of skill.

The particular game which formed the basis of the charge was said to have been invented by Mr. Barnett Meyers, who was one of the accused stall holders, and it consisted of a board which sloped away from the player. At the lower end was a series of holes of varying points value and the object was to get a ball to settle in a hole. The defence claimed it was an innocent ball game which gives amusement to thousands and was a game of skill. The balls were, according to the prosecution, allowed to run down the board at random, or according to the defence, were skillfully directed towards the high scoring holes. Prizes were won reasonably often and might vary from a bag of sweets for a low score to perhaps a doll for a high score.

A maximum penalty of £200 could be imposed for this offence but the defendants were fined £5 each on this occasion. However, "The Manx Methodist Church Record" was to "..heartily congratulate the Attorney General and the Police on securing a verdict in condemnation of gambling machines..". And so it seemed that everybody was happy with the immediate outcome of the case! But then the defendants appealed. The Appeal Court consisted of both Deemsters and a further Appeal Judge. For a while it seemed that if the playing boards were precisely level and with no slope, which, as was pointed out, would have necessitated the Police being equipped with spirit levels in the execution of their duties, the argument that the game was based exclusively on skill might have been accepted. Although one Deemster said he could see no evil in the game, the law had to be upheld and conviction was confirmed.


However, the matter was not to rest and further cleaning up operations took place in the following year at Onchan Head. This time a fine of £10 was imposed, but the High Bailiff, on learning that costs of £1 were being sought, reduced the fine to £9. The scope of the law was then extended to Port Soderick and netted, amongst others, Manx Amusements Ltd. whose Managing Director, Mr. Charles Hawtree, was also Managing Director of Manx Hotels Ltd. which ran both the Majestic Lido and the Fort Anne hotels. Again the cases hinged on whether the games depended exclusively on skill. In the case of a game called "The Bomber", in which the objective was to cause a metal ball to fall from a model aircraft and to land in a hole, the Attorney General propounded that no skill was involved as the player could not keep his eye on the hole, and on the ball at the same time. The High Bailiff retorted that in this respect it was the same when playing golf! Nominal fines of £1 were imposed and the High Bailiff commended a suggestion made by Mr. Hawtree, who operated over 1,600 similar machines in Blackpool, that the Police should give the operator a chance to withdraw any game to which they objected before bringing charges. Whether this had any effect on the number of prosecutions in the future is unknown but perhaps the High Bailiff had more time to keep his eye on the ball, and on the hole, when on the golf course!

During the war years of 1939-45 operations at the White City came to a halt but in 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the Onchan Commissioners suggested that Onchan Head be laid out as a park and gardens and approached the Government to purchase the site for this purpose. The idea was not taken up and they attempted to purchase it themselves but financial assistance was not obtainable. Whilst this scheme would have preserved the Head for posterity, the loss of the White City amusement park would have been a considerable blow to the amenities available in the tourist boom of the immediate post war years.

Among the various attractions to re-open at Onchan Head after the war ended was The Onchan Head Pavilion. Seemingly endless crowds of visitors made their way along the promenades and up past Port Jack to see the shows at this little theatre.

In 1948, a variety show entitled "Capers and Sauce" was presented at the Pavilion by Tom Barrasford. There were performances every evening and prices of admission ranged from 2/- to 4/-. The star of the show was the "..incredible, amazing, unbelievable, mysterious Kitao.." who was billed as "..The World's Greatest Living Yogi.." and as "..The Man they cannot Kill..". Among the methods employed to achieve that end was the breaking of large rocks on his chest, by means of a sledge hammer, as he lay on a bed of six-inch spikes. There were also attempts to strangle him with the rope used in a six-a-side tug-of-war and swords were passed through his body. In addition to these activities, he was also a fire-eater and "washed" in broken glass. Supporting acts included musical comedians Mike and Burn (sic) Winters, Hal Blue, The Four Glamourettes dancers, and Marcella the dancing juggler. As well as "..a full supporting program of Laughs! Songs! & Music!..", Sunday performances at the Pavilion featured a "Talent Search and Competition" which offered cash prizes and "..for those considered suitable the chance of A Theatrical Contract or A Film Test..".

In 1949, Gladys Morgan, the Welsh comedienne, was at the Pavilion with her company and the next year saw another change of program. These variety shows at Onchan Head proved to be great attractions but, in the early fifties, stage hypnotism was becoming a popular form of entertainment and tended to take over from variety at the Pavilion. One of the best known hypnotists was Joseph Karma with his assistant Elizabeth. Many of those who flocked to see his performances will recall the volunteers from his audiences, who whilst in a trance, would suck greedily at what they believed were sweet, juicy oranges, only to find, when awakened, that the fruits were in fact lemons.

Gradually tourism declined and the attractions at the Onchan Head funfair became fewer in number. The Pavilion Theatre was destroyed by fire during the night of 23rd February 1960. At that time it was stated to have seating for a thousand patrons and was owned by Mr Barnet Myers. The roller coaster was dismantled in 19** and finally all that was left of The White City's amusements were the "Go Karts" run by Billy Moore. A feature of this operation was a loud-hailer system and the plea to "Brake Now", directed at those more reckless drivers, could be heard at some distance away. Some who ignored orders from the management had to be forcibly stopped by placing old car tyres on the track. Eventually this method was replaced by high technology in the form of an electronic "zapper" which cut off the offender's engine ignition and brought him to a halt.

On 25th March 1985 The Examiner noted that Myers Amusements Ltd. had received planning approval in principle to demolish the White City and to lay it out as 15 building plots, but it was reported that the amusement park would continue in being until the end of the 1985 holiday season. The White City closed down in September and in October The Examiner reported that its operators had made an approach to Douglas Corporation to set up their amusement park at the Noble's Park recreation grounds in Douglas. The suggestion was not accepted. In the same month of October 1985 came the news that planning permission had been given for 23 apartments to be built on the site of the former White City's boating lake. By the end of 1985, the demolition of the amusement park's buildings was almost complete. During the clearing of the site in readiness for the new developments, around 12,500 tons of hard core, infill and top soil were removed to the site of the new golf club at Groudle Road.

And so an era of entertainments, catering for visitors and residents alike, and which had extended over a period of around eighty years at Onchan Head, came to an end.