Saturday, 24 March 2018

Some mostly Ramsgate local history, thoughts on local politics

I think the key to Ramsgate’s local government problems is that from the early days of tourism, say around 1740 the UK coastal resort towns have competed for visitors from London and the other inland towns.

In the early days Ramsgate was governed from Sandwich which slowly declined as a port town from around 1500 but wanted to continue getting the port related revenues. The local government of Sandwich tried very hard to prevent Ramsgate Harbour from being built during the early 1700s.

In this area Ramsgate’s main competition for visitors and the associated wealth has been Margate, although the coastal towns further away, Herne Bay, Deal, Folkestone and even Brighton have played a part.

Ramsgate’s main attraction from 1749 when the building of the harbour started has been the combination of the large sandy beach with water deep enough to swim in during the different levels of tide and the harbour piers to walk along and survey the scene.

The mixture of the main sands and the royal harbour are underlying assets which are very hard to equal elsewhere. I think that had Ramsgate had the financial and resolve investment that Margate has had from the council’s, Turner Contemporary with KCC and Dreamland with TDC are the main examples, but this extends into the surrounding infrastructure and maintenance, then Ramsgate would be reasonably successful at the moment.

I think the huge success in terms of the numbers of people using the new Wetherspoon’s as a family leisure destination shows Ramsgate as being held back from what it could and should be.

Historically one of the main factors in the fortunes of seaside coastal towns has been their transport links to London and the rest of the country. Up until 1815 when the paddle steamers produced the first cheap and reliable service from London, it was carriage or sailing hoy.     

I think that if money wasn’t an issue then taking a carriage to Brighton was probably the best option for getting to the seaside before 1815. Margate and Ramsgate though did have the sailing hoy option, although these were unreliable and made people seasick, the sand and Thanet’s good climate helped both towns to develop.

During the Napoleonic wars, 1803 to 1815 Ramsgate developed a considerable edge, because it was an officer training town and Ramsgate Harbour was used as a troop transport port.

An officer in training, having bought a commission would have normally been fairly wealthy and I would expect them to go to Ramsgate with their family, servants, horses and rent a fairly substantial house.

In Ramsgate there would have already have been a reasonable amount of this type of accommodation for the wealthy coming down for the cure, see and 

a lot more was built in the period between this print of 1791 and the first properly surveyed map of 1822.

The map is best viewed on paper and you can look at it or buy in the bookshop.

If you want to understand this period of our history I think the main way of going about it is to read the local books published before 1850, as the cheap reprints of these are arranged in date order on our website, this may be a starting point, here is the link

The books are split into history books written at the time and are mostly focussed on looking back before 1750 and the guide books written for what can loosely be described as tourists.

1815 was a key date in the tourist calendar of Thanet and particularly Ramsgate where a social summer season had developed around marrying off your daughter to a likely young officer.

The Napoleonic wars ended and the first paddle steamer service started, this meant the beginning of cheap and reliable transport from London to Thanet, giving us an edge over Brighton.

Initially the paddle steamers were reluctant to go round the foreland, dispatching passengers at Margate, where the pier wasn’t long enough for them to get to, into rowing boats.

Soon they made it to the end of the Ramsgate harbour piers or arms, where the water was deep enough and Margate competed with a series of jetties the first built in 1824.

Ramsgate was held back by politics as it was governed from Sandwich, private development was successful in some cases the railway got to Ramsgate in 1846, but I don’t think the Railways became a better option than the paddle steamers until much later.

The railway got to Brighton 1841 and slowly the railway became the preferred form of transport with Brighton being reliably closer to London somewhere around 1865  when a transport infrastructure lead Thanet decline began.

I think he first economic indicator of this was Edward Pugin building The Granville as seaside houses for the wealthy, their failure to sell, their conversion to an hotel and eventually Pugin’s bankruptcy over houses that would probably have sold in Brighton.

Meanwhile the people of Ramsgate oblivious to the decline in aristocratic patronage but having very narrow and difficult streets leading to the seafront were trying to wrest local government and the proceeds of the rates away from the decaying town of Sandwich.

It wasn’t until 1884 that Ramsgate managed to get control of its own governance, by 1904 most of the major improvements to the seafront had been planned, financed and constructed.

These improvements which were made by Ramsgate council included, the red brick arches by the harbour, the Pulhamite outcroppings and waterfall of Madeira Walk, the widening of harbour parade and building The Royal Victoria Pavilion.

I think this ongoing improvement the building of Westcliff Hall, opened in 1914, the widening of the shopping streets in the town, the development to the Westcliff with its Pulhamite bridge and outcroppings, building the Marina swimming pool went on until WW2.

Post war reconstruction was a bit patchy, with nearly as much damage done by various development schemes as the war. With attractive buildings or parts of the town that you can see in old photos but have gone now and initially assumed to be the result of the blitz actually having demolished to make way for some very ugly modern buildings.

There has been a lot of the building of housing designed by architects who wouldn’t want to live in it themselves, much of this for the local councils, often under the disguise of some housing association or another.

I think the problem of local government and it’s impact on Ramsgate isn’t just as simple as TDC taking over Ramsgate Borough Council. Some of pretty dreadful things like the demolition of Eastcliff Lodge, Sanger’s and the harbour frontage between Leopold Street and Harbour Street happened under the old Ramsgate Council administration. 

There has been a transition in local government, perhaps a further extension of Parkinson’s law, where a lot of the officers with specialist abilities in maintaining and designing a good infrastructure are slowly changing towards officers with specialist abilities in maintaining and designing a good career for themselves.

There has also been a timewarp view towards developing Ramsgate as a sort of industrial transport centre in a sort of hope that something like Sally lines or Hoverspeed could happen. This seems to operate completely outside of environmental and UK infrastructure changes during the last forty years.

Obviously Margate is and has been Ramsgate’s main rival as a town and governing Ramsgate from Margate is bound to lead to serious problems for Ramsgate. There is an area where visitors who are put off going to Ramsgate may go to Margate and spend their money there instead. This gets more critical as council investment in Margate reaches levels where the council has more imperative to see it pay off.

I suppose that if transport hub development did make a town in this area work then Dover town would be a success story, but I don’t think this is the case.

With anything industrial or transport related there is the economic scale to balance, with the pollution on the one side and the economic benefit on the other. If Ramsgate is to ever revive in terms of a leisure destination then noise and air pollution would have to be kept to a minimum. 

But this leads to some very difficult questions.

Do we want to attract more people to Ramsgate?

Do we want to attract them to holiday here? Just visit for the day? Come here to live?

Or do we, the people who already live here just want to make Ramsgate better for us?

Do we want to attract quality employers here? If we do does this mean we will also have to find living space for their employees?   

Do we want to return to some particular period of time?

I suppose another way of looking at this is to try and visualise aspects of Ramsgate in the future.

Do we have sufficient attractions to entertain a family for a day? Put them all together, the tunnels tour, maritime museum, steam tug, remaining shops, cafes, I would guess if it’s a wet day, just about.

Of course when the weather is good, seaside towns are good places to be.

So what would I do?

I think in the first instance I would look towards protecting the sand repairing the groynes particularly on the sands side of the east pier, which went a long way towards stopping the main sands being swept away in the winter storms. The artificial beach, western under cliff groynes.

I would also get a proper flood risk assessment of the Pleasurama site, something that I think would probably mean that it wasn’t worth land banking it anymore.

I think I would give up on the port side of the harbour completely, looking at finding a way to make the Port Ramsgate site much more leisure orientated.

Perhaps were the council to put the money it spends on Port Ramsgate into leisure based Ramsgate projects we could at least have something interesting to do. 

I suppose a big issue is having a group of people who have some sort of vision for the future, I do wonder if this exists in our local politicians, what are they hoping for?

There is the area where local individuals could do something too, you could do something like I did, sell up and rent a local shop and have a go at doing something in it. Bet honestly I wouldn't know what to sell, I did notice a shop in King Street opened a couple of days ago selling kitchens, which is something I wouldn't have thought of.

I think ultimately most of what happens to improve Ramsgate will probably come from the people who live here trying different things, local groups seem to flounder in disagreement.

Just a final note, my laptop has just died so I will be operating with phone only until I get it sorted out, so reduced service on the weekend response front.

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