Historic photography Listed places

10 Historic Sites to See in Margate

Check out these must-see historic sites when visiting this famous Kent seaside town.

Margate in Kent has an essential place in the story of seaside holidays.

It vies with Scarborough and Whitby in North Yorkshire and Brighton in East Sussex for the title of England’s first seaside resort, and it was the first to offer sea-water baths to visitors.

A black and white photograph of a seaside town with people and horse and carriages travelling up a parade.
A view along the Parade in Margate, Kent, between 1890 and 1910. Source: Historic England Archive. View image OP00641.

Margate can also claim other firsts, including the first Georgian square built at a seaside resort, the world’s first sea-bathing hospital site, and the first popular resort frequented by middle-class holidaymakers.

A photograph of a seaside town with a 21st-century art gallery on the harbour arm.
The Turner Contemporary and seafront in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP247045.

Here are 10 sites you shouldn’t miss when visiting this famous seaside town.

1. Dreamland Cinema

Dreamland amusement park was opened in 1920 by promoter John Henry Iles. It drew some 1.5 million visitors during the first year of operation.

A photograph of a seaside promenade with a beach on the left and an art deco cinema on the right.
Margate seafront with the Grade II* listed Dreamland Cinema on the right. © Historic England Archive. View image DP247041.

Iles named the park to reflect the glamour of Coney Island in New York City, the world’s leading amusement park, which, between 1904 and 1911, included a park named Dreamland.

The Dreamland Cinema was built between 1933 and 1935. It was influenced by German cinema design and was the earliest English Art Deco cinema in an Expressionist style.

A black and white photograph of an art deco cinema.
The Grade II* listed Dreamland Cinema in 1935. © Historic England Archive. View image CC47/00761.

Dreamland cinema featured in the 2022 film ‘Empire of Light’, starring Olivia Colman.

2. The Scenic Railway at Dreamland

The Scenic Railway at Dreamland opened on 3 July 1920, two months after the park. It was among the earliest types of roller coaster and was advertised as the largest in Europe.

In its first season in 1921, nearly one million people took the ride.

A photograph of a scenic railway at an amusement park.
The Grade II* listed Scenic Railway at Dreamland in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP141002.

Dreamland was closed during the Second World War, and while the Railway escaped significant bomb damage, much of the structure was destroyed by a fire in 1949 and again in 1957.

Dreamland’s Scenic Railway is the oldest of only two remaining in England. The other, at Great Yarmouth, dates from 1932.

3. The Shell Grotto

The Shell Grotto was discovered in 1835 by a schoolmaster and his sons digging their back garden.

A photograph of a wall and ceiling lined with shells.
The Grade I listed Shell Grotto in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP032099.

Many theories have been advanced for the origin of the Grotto, including Phoenician origin or a Roman Mithraic Temple. However, it’s most likely from the early 19th century, as there are traces of modern brick in one of the arches.

The Grotto has about 2000 square yards of shell mosaic consisting of 28 different types of shells, many of which are from abroad.

4. The Former Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

In the 18th century, Margate was chosen as the location for a sea-bathing hospital to treat people suffering from scrofula. It was the first hospital of its kind in the world.

A photograph of an 18th-century hospital.
The Grade II listed former Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP219033.

Patients were taken to the sea and fully immersed using the hospital’s bathing machine.

A painting of people using sea bathing machines.
‘Dipping for Health’ in Margate, Kent, around 1780. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. View image BB91/21390.

The hospital grew during the 19th century, and indoor salt-water baths were established for year-round treatment.

The hospital became part of the NHS in 1948 but closed in 1996. It has been converted into apartments.

5. The Old Town and the Tudor House

A handful of 16th and 17th-century buildings survive in Margate’s ‘Old Town’, providing a glimpse of the town before it became a seaside resort.

The earliest buildings in Margate survive in the streets around the Market Place, the heart of the historic town.

A photograph of a 2-storey, 17th-century house.
Houses from the 1680s on King Street in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image AA050591.

The Tudor House on King Street is a 16th-century timber-framed house that was likely the home of a wealthy citizen.

A photograph of a 2-storey, 16th-century Tudor-style, timber-framed house.
The Grade II* listed Tudor House in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image AA046458.

6. India House

India House is an eccentric 18th-century seaside villa built by Captain John Gould in the mid-18th century.

A photograph of a large 2-storey, 18th-century house.
The Grade II* listed India House in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image AA050186.

Gould was a tea planter who made his fortune in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India, following colonisation by Britain’s East India Company in the 17th century.

The Captain returned to England in 1766 and settled in Margate, which might be the earliest recorded example of retirement to the seaside.

After his death, the East India Company used the house as offices. Between 1897 and 1927, it was the home of Phyllis Broughton, a celebrated music hall actress and ‘Gaiety Girl’.

7. Cecil Square

As more visitors were arriving in the 18th century, the construction of Cecil Square marked a new phase in Margate’s history.

Cecil Square was the first new square of its kind to be built at an English seaside resort. It’s also the earliest example of a Georgian development outside the main area of a historic town.

An etching of a Georgian square with people and horse and carriages.
The Royal Assembly Rooms in Cecil Square around 1860. Source: Margate Local History.

Laid out in 1769 by ‘Mr Cecil’ and others, the square contained large houses, a row of shops, Assembly Rooms and a library.

None of these sites remain; a car park and the main road now occupy the square.

A photograph of buildings in an 18th century square.
Cecil Square in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image AA049299.

8. The Theatre Royal

Vying for visitor’s attention with Cecil Square, the Georgian Theatre Royal in Hawley Square opened in 1787.

The theatre’s appearance was reconstructed in 1874, but the core of the original building survives.

A photograph of an 18th-century theatre.
The Grade II* listed Theatre Royal in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. View image DP032176.

9. The Winter Gardens

The Winter Gardens opened in 1911 and are the only known example constructed within a chalk cliff.

A sepia postcard photograph of a seaside winter gardens.
The Grade II listed Winter Gardens in Margate between 1925 and 1931. Source: Historic England Archive. View image PC08131.

The main hall was originally a concert and dance hall with a resident orchestra. Artists who appeared here included Dame Nellie Melba and Anna Pavlova.

During the Second World War, the Winter Gardens acted as a receiving station for some of the 40,000 troops that landed at Margate during the Dunkirk evacuation.

The Beatles played here on 8 July 1963.

A photograph of a seaside winter gardens with poppies in the foreground.
The Grade II listed Winter Gardens in Margate. © Historic England Archive. View image AA050553.

10. Walpole Bay Tidal Pool and the Cliff Lift

Walpole Bay Tidal Pool and Cliftonville Lido were built in the 1920s so that large numbers of people could bathe in the sea at all states of the tide. 

An aerial photograph of a massive tidal pool.
The Grade II listed Walpole Bay Tidal Pool in Margate, Kent. © Historic England Archive. 33057/038.

At Walpole Bay, the wall is designed to completely submerge the pool at every tide, ensuring a change-over of sea water twice daily. Originally two diving boards were provided.

The Cliff Lift was built in 1934 to provide easier access from the top cliffs to the beach at Walpole Bay below.

A photograph of a lift set into a chalk cliff.
The Grade II listed Cliff Lift in Margate, Kent. Source: Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Julian Osley.

Before then, access to the beach had been through the nearby Newgate Gap or the 1911 Cliftonville Cliff Railway, which initially adjoined the Cliff Lift but was demolished in 1978.

A black and white photograph of people in 19th-century dress on a beach.
Holidaymakers on the beach at Cliftonville in Margate, Kent, between 1890 and 1910. Source: Historic England Archive. View image OP00640.

Closer to town, Cliftonville Lido was built on top of the earlier Clifton Baths, originally constructed between 1824 and 1828.

In the 1920s, they were re-modelled under John Henry Iles (who also owned Dreamland) into a large complex with several levels of bars, cafes and restaurants.

An aerial black and white photograph of a seaside lido.
The Cliftonville Lido in 1931. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EPW035474.

Further reading

1 comment on “10 Historic Sites to See in Margate

  1. In 1967 I visited the shell cavern while after working on a boat electrical systems in the harbor.
    I got the impression straight away that it was only the lobby sort of part of something much bigger and important below! By stamping my foot of the ground in various areas found it to be hollow.
    I told the owners and suggested they investigate further during the winter when not busy.
    Probably due to my age and not wanting to damage the floor of a money making enterprise did nothing.
    About 30+ years later I contacted the new owners and suggested after explaining the above that they get a university or museum/government history department to use ground penetrating no destructive equipment to see what was under the floor. nowadays a fiber optic camera scope could be put in a 10mm hole drilled in the floor very simply also doing no damage, to find out if it is hollow and what if anything is below there and probably its real original purpose. putting Margate even more on the map!
    Hopefully someone reading this will be in a position to suggest this to the right people bringing the mystery of its existence to an end and finding unknown items of scientific historical interest or even more tunnels!

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