What is Weston-super-Mare famous for?
Located on the Severn Estuary, Weston-super-Mare has the second-highest tidal range in the world. Once a small village, Weston has become a popular seaside resort with distinct architecture and fascinating history.
A brief history of Weston-super-Mare
In the mid-17th century, around thirty-five families lived in Weston, fishing, farming and collecting seaweed for fertiliser. By the end of the century, a few visitors came to study the area’s natural features.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the area attracted some health-seekers, including sea bathers. A fledgling resort began to develop, and by 1831, the population had grown to 1,310 – a considerable increase from the 125 people living here just twenty years earlier.
Transport links by road and sea encouraged visitors from Bath, Bristol and south Wales, and the arrival of the railway in 1841 brought mass tourism to the resort.
By the end of the century, Weston’s population was nearly 20,000. New infrastructure was built for residents and visitors, which continued until the Second World War.
Like many seaside resorts, Weston’s popularity declined in the second half of the 20th century. The resort’s economy naturally affected its infrastructure, but new projects to protect the seafront from tidal flooding and strategies for regeneration are helping to once again make Weston-super-Mare an attractive place to live, work and visit.
The fledgling resort
In 1773 the poet, philanthropist and social reformer Hannah More went to the village of Uphill near Weston-super-Mare to convalesce.
Her friend, Reverend William Leeves, who was rector at Wrington, a village some 16 km to the northeast, was so taken with the area that he built a cottage overlooking the sea in about 1791.
The cottage still survives as The Old Thatched Cottage Restaurant and is considered Weston’s oldest surviving building.
The Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel was Weston’s first hotel. It was built on the seafront between 1807-8 and 1810.
Originally known as simply The Hotel, it was leased to Bristol hotelier James Needham, but a lack of custom saw it close in 1811. It didn’t reopen until 1814.
By the middle of the 19th century, demand was such that the hotel was extended. The first three bays on the right-hand side of this photograph are the extent of the original building.
In 1828 Knightstone Island at Weston was acquired by Dr Edward Long Fox, a Quaker physician from Brislington House lunatic asylum in Bristol. Fox advocated sea bathing to treat mental illness and physical ailments.
Fox and his son, Dr Francis Ker Fox, opened a purpose-built bathing establishment on the island in 1832. The ground floor included a reading room and eight bathrooms. Above were sitting rooms and bedrooms.
Attached to the bathhouse were vapour and shower baths and an open seawater swimming bath.
Built in 1840, Victoria Buildings was the first terrace of houses to be built on the seafront at Weston.
The houses were originally built for wealthy residents but were soon used as lodgings for visitors to the resort.
This photograph shows that since their construction, an extra storey has been added to all but two of the houses on the terrace.
The Victorian and Edwardian town
Weston’s population jumped from 2,103 in 1841 (the year the railway arrived) to 23,235 in 1911. New buildings and amenities were put in place to meet the needs of residents and visitors alike.
Streets were laid out, and houses, places of worship, schools and other public buildings were built. One architect who made a noticeable mark on the look of Weston was Hans Fowler Price, who moved to the town in 1860. Of the 861 projects he is believed to have been involved in, the majority were in Weston.
Several of Price’s buildings survive, some of which have been recognised for their historical and architectural significance on the National Heritage List for England. One example is Weston’s Town Hall, which Price enlarged and remodelled in 1897.
Former Baptist Chapel, Wadham Street
Weston’s first Baptist chapel opened in 1850. In 1862, Hans Price was engaged in increasing the building’s capacity. Price’s extension added a further 400 seats for the congregation.
Hans Price’s Magdala Buildings was built in 1870. In 1905, the angled corner section of the building housed the Shaftesbury Hotel, a ‘high-class temperance’ hotel.
Board School, Walliscote Road
A school board was established in Weston in 1893, and Hans Price was appointed architect.
The board’s first school opened on 30 July 1897. An architectural competition was held, but the selected design was overruled, and Price’s design was chosen instead. This was somewhat controversial as Price’s plan had initially been disqualified for breaching the conditions of the competition.
Gaslight Company Workshops and Stores
Weston’s first gasworks was built in 1841. A new, larger gasworks replaced it in 1856.
The town’s Gaslight Company built workshops and stores in 1912. It is the last known work designed by Hans Price and now houses the town’s museum.
A century of fun and entertainment
In 1844 an estimated 23,000 holidaymakers visited Weston by train. This was a huge increase on pre-railway figures. For families and excursion groups, Weston’s sands were a major attraction.
However, great investment was made in providing the kinds of leisure and recreation facilities that most of England’s seaside resorts strived to offer masses of holidaymakers and day trippers.
Before the First World War, the number of bank holiday visitors was around 38,000. In 1921 the August bank holiday brought 51,000, and in 1937 it was a massive 78,000, all of whom expected to be fed, watered and entertained.
Birnbeck Island and Pier
Weston-super-Mare boasts two piers. The high tidal range of the estuary restricted steamer services, so plans emerged in the 1840s and 1850s to construct a pier designed for landing tourists.
However, it was not until 1867 that Weston’s first successful pier opened. Designed by the renowned pier engineer Eugenius Birch, Birnbeck Pier used Birnbeck Island at the pier head to house a multitude of facilities for visitors.
In the early 20th century, the pier amusements included a water chute, switchback railway, shooting gallery, helter-skelter and merry-go-round.
In the second half of the 20th century, the pier declined. By 1994 it was in such a poor state of repair that it was closed to the public.
The Grand Pier
Weston’s Grand Pier opened on 11 June 1904. It was designed by Peter Munroe and constructed by Mayoh & Haley of London.
A fire destroyed the pier’s pavilion in 1930. A replacement opened in 1933, followed by a cafe and a ballroom in 1935.
Another fire caused considerable damage on 28 July 2008. A new building, pictured here, containing a range of attractions and facilities, opened on 23 October 2010.
The Grand Atlantic Hotel
In 1859 a private boys’ school called ‘the College’ moved to new seafront premises on Beach Road. The school moved out in 1889, and the building was enlarged to create The Grand Atlantic Hotel.
Walker and Ling: Weston-super-Mare’s 130-year-old Department Store
The west end of Weston-super-Mare’s High Street is characterised by a unique and unusual group of 20th-century buildings.
Walker & Ling opened its doors in 1892 and was restored to its former glory in May 2021.
Public Lavatories, Marine Parade
These seafront public lavatories date to 1905. The building features a central portico decorated with strapwork and arabesque ornamentation.
A cafe and shop were later incorporated into part of the building.
An area of Glentworth Bay at Weston was successfully enclosed by 1929 to create a relatively safe bathing area.
The barrage between Knightstone Island and the mainland retains a large expanse of seawater, regardless of the state of the tide.
Weston-super-Mare’s magnificent Odeon Cinema opened on 25 May 1935.
It was designed by the Nottingham architect T Cecil Howitt and was constructed by C Bryant & Son Ltd of Birmingham.
When built, it had 1,174 seats in the stalls and 633 on the balcony. In 1973 it was divided into three screens, and a fourth was created by 2001.
Weston-super-Mare’s seafront open-air bathing pool opened in July 1937.
Single-storey changing rooms flank a central, two-storey entrance block with roof terraces for sunbathing.
The pool’s three-tier diving platform was demolished in 1982, and the pool closed in 2000. Since then, the site has hosted several events, including artist Banksy’s Dismaland in 2015.
Weston-super-Mare: a Heritage Action Zone
In March 2017, Weston-super-Mare was chosen as one of ten successful bids for Historic England’s Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) scheme. Between 2017 and 2022, the HAZ scheme provided funds, research expertise and advice to help breathe life back into historic places and stimulate economic growth. Our research contribution included a book called ‘Weston-super-Mare: the town and its seaside heritage‘, an Historic Area Assessment, an aerial investigation and mapping project, and a historic landscape characterisation report. They informed reviews of Weston’s listed buildings and conservation areas.