by Mick Sharp
: Added April 2011
In September 2010, North Tyneside Council opened up the legendary Whitley Bay Dome as part of Heritage Open Day weekend. This would give members of the public an opportunity to see inside the building for the first time in ten years, and to see for themselves what progress had been made to secure the future of the structure. To accompany the event, the Council asked our design company, Black Dog Design, to research, write, design, and install a historical exhibition in the ground floor space of the Dome. This exhibition would then result in a book about Spanish City being released.
The Exhibition

We are still convinced that we were offered the contract because we could meet the deadline (pretty tight – just two months from beginning to end), and do the job within the budget! We suggested that the Council should do a bit more than just a ‘standard’ exhibition, and they were keen to include our ideas for projections, archive film, and a film of people talking about their memories of going to the fairground.

Articles went out in the local press, asking people to contact us with their memories of the Spanish City, Empress ballroom, and Rotunda. We were pleasantly surprised at the response; phone calls came in almost immediately from people with very happy recollections of visiting Whitley Bay.

A local lady told us the story of meeting her husband in the Empress ballroom during the Second World War, and how there were ‘professional’ women dancers who would offer to dance with single men, for a fee!

A gentleman who visited as a boy in the 1930s – from the very distant Sunderland! – likened the Dome to the Taj Mahal; we heard tales of being sewn into pairs of ultra-tight jeans in nearby toilets to impress the Waltzer boys; how, during Scottish Fortnight in the 1950s and 1960s, it was virtually impossible to collect the money on the rides as there were so many people on them; we heard about the fights during the 1950s and 1960s; people told us their fairground family histories...Even during the 1980s and 1990s, when the fairground was deteriorating and the Dome was crumbling, people still made special trips to Whitley Bay to spend a night at the Spanish City.

I spent hours at the Local Studies Centre, sifting through old Whitley Bay newspapers for anything about the Spanish City, and looking at hundreds of photos of the fairground and Dome. I couldn’t imagine how the place must have seemed to people in the 1910s – to me, the style of the rides looked like something from an American fairground.

The Spanish City Waltzer

I only knew the Spanish City from the 1960s to the 1990s – there was very little there to come near to rides such as the Figure 8 or Water Chute, and the later Virginia Reel. As for Ye Olde Mill?  Well, I just couldn’t understand what it must have been like! As I looked through the old photos, I began to realise the important part that the Spanish City had played in the lives of the people who visited it.

A fantastic set of colour photographs showed the construction of a suspended ceiling inside the Dome in the 1970s, turning the space into what looked like a posh, swanky social club. Unfortunately, it also completely obscured the revolutionary Dome!

We ended up with too much material for the exhibition, and had to select the most interesting stories and photographs to show. Over 13,000 people visited the Dome, the highest attendance at a Heritage Open Day event in the country; the second-best attendance was only 6,000! Comments in our visitors’ book frequently asked where the book was which accompanied the exhibition.

The Book

So here it is, The Dome of Memories.  More photographs and stories, and a comprehensive history of the Spanish City and its Dome. Even after the exhibition, loads of information came to us which shed even more light on the day-to-day life in the fairground and the Rotunda, and I’ve tried to include as much as I could in the book.

A photo handed to me by one of the stewards at the exhibition showed the newly-installed Helter Skelter which replaced the Virginia Reel in about 1957.  A postcard bore the name Iona Gordon, whose grandfather Eugene had bought the Virginia Reel from its inventor Henry Riehl, and whose father Paul had replaced the historic ride. I visited Iona and she produced more photographs, as well as her father’s fairground account books. Among the many personal photos in the book, two of my favourites are of Paul Gordon’s children Iona and Morag speeding down his Helter Skelter, with Morag in the arms of her mother Hazel.

Also of great interest are a series of photos given to me by Brook Hoadley, the son of  John Hoadley, who was manager of the Spanish City until the later 1970s. One of these is a general view of the fairground from about 1947, which shows Dome still  under camouflage after the Second World War.

However, my favourite photo is of the workforce who built the revolutionary Dome (it was built using reinforced concrete) in 1910. They are seen posing in front of the skeleton of the structure, wearing nothing but cloth caps!

The workforce building the famous Dome.
Mick Sharp's book on the history of the Spanish City Fairground and its famous entertainment complex - The Dome of Memories - is now available from Joyland Books at £12.99.

The history of Whitley Bay ’s Spanish City is retold in a collection of nostalgic anecdotes and unseen photographs spanning the past century. Click here for details.

People reliving memories of the Spanish City. Picture: Mick Sharp

Dodgem workers in the 1960s. Picture: William McNeill

Visitors inside the Spanish City Dome. Picture: Mick Sharp

Queuing for the exhibition that would be the UK's most successful Heritage Open Day of 2010. Picture: Mick Sharp

On the site of the Virginia Reel in the 1950s: the Helter Skelter. To the left stands the Figure 8 Roller Coaster, which previously stood alongside the Reel. Picture: Iona Gordon

The massive Corkscrew ride in the 1980s. Picture: Ernest Storey


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More on the Spanish City
The Dome of Memories by Mick Sharp
The Spanish City: The Heart and Soul of Whitley Bay in Words and Pictures by Keith Armstrong
Reeltime Memories - Blackpool Pleasure Beach's sister ride to the Spanish City's Virginia Reel
Spanish City Gallopers at themagiceye
'Whitley Bay' by Eric Hollerton: book includes a whole chapter on the Spanish City
Wikipedia page on the Spanish City
About Mick Sharp
Mick Sharp is a graphic designer from Whitley Bay. He runs Black Dog Design with his wife Cathy. (www.blackdogne.co.uk).

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