Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside

Bognor Regis has a number of regular summer seaside events, which are advertised nationally to encourage visitors to the resort.

From the 1870s, entertainment was very home-grown, and the whole town ‘would close down’ so that everyone could enjoy the events, such as the annual regatta, which would include, rowing competitions, a greasy pole event and a tug of war.

Uncle George entertained the crowds from 1897 to 1928 near the west end Marine Gardens. His real name was Augustus Sears and his own open-air seaside entertainment was always popular.

Uncle George came to Bognor after a successful seven-year career in Margate. He brought with him a troupe of artistes known as The Thespians who could be found entertaining the crowds near Park Road, in their distinctive uniforms of green blazers and straw boaters.

If you have ever been to the theatre to see the show Cavalcade written by Noel Coward, it contains a seaside revue, which it is claimed was actually based on Uncle George and his seaside entertainers.

Seaside entertainment consisted of many different styles, including the Dazzle concerts that would regularly visit the concert party premises at the Olympian Gardens, situated at the seaward end of Lennox Street.

Some of the shows here included the Pierrots, and one of the popular visiting groups was Walter Howard’s Gay Cadets. How time and words change.

This venue eventually closed in 1930 and the site was occupied by the new company – Butlin’s Recreation Shelter.

Following the success of the various shows, they moved to the Esplanade Theatre, which opened in 1939, where many famous stars started to ‘tread the boards’ before gaining stardom.

Today the Hotham Arts Centre fills this role, but many entertainers now have their apprenticeships at holiday camps, on cruise ships, or television programmes such as The X Factor and Britain Has Talent, before hitting the big time.

Then of course family entertainment was required, and there were goat carts available – which I must confess were a different idea to me.

The Neale family operated donkeys as well as the goat carts, and they housed their animals in Market Street and Ockley Road. The Neales’ donkeys had a stand at the end of York Road. They were always popular and many children had their picture taken on a donkey, or goat cart, while others sent home the postcard view of Bognor Regis with the donkeys to relate how much they were enjoying their holiday.

At Sands of Time this year, we again saw the donkeys on the seafront. The beach itself has always provided an area for entertainment.

In the past Frank Bale, better known as the Bognor Clown in the 1920s, would operate with his wife their marionette stand on the beach in front of the Royal Hotel. He was born in London and went to America, but he returned to Britain to settle with his family in Ockley Road.

This of course was a long time before the popular Clown’s Convention in the 1980s and 1990s. The family eventually moved to The Steyne where Mrs Bale operated a boarding house. They stayed in the town and provided entertainment. Just before World War II Mrs Bale died and Frank left the town and moved to Lincolnshire, where he died in 1944.

Samuel Mather, the Sand Scratcher, would daily entertain the crowds looking over the railings in front of the Landsdown, as they watched him carve intricate pictures in the sand, to the delight of all. Samuel was born in 1873, lived in Gravits Lane, and was a milkman who sold cockles for a living, while also working as a porter for a local furniture company.

While Bale and Mather entertained the crowds, the public would throw coins onto the beach to show their appreciation.

Over the years I have met a number of people who recall that, when they were children, they would take great delight in going down to the beach early in the morning and search through the newly-washed sand to see if any coins had been missed at the previous day’s coin collections.

For a small seaside resort we have had a range of model and miniature trains operating over the years. One of the earliest operated in the area now occupied by The Regis public house.

Another site where children could enjoy a train ride was an area of ground at Longbrook, which eventually became utilised for the building of Butlin’s holiday centre in 1960.

One person has contacted me to say that he could remember a miniature railway in Aldwick; can anyone else remember this railway?

Finally, one of the longest train operations was that of the pier, which at one time was 1000ft long and it was possible to ride to the end on a number of trains including diesel, steam and the memorable Donald Duck engine.

One could be forgiven for believing that the beach was much larger than it was, with many postcard views available, some of which show a seaplane on the beach, in 1912 and 1913, while another showed boat carts operating.

While researching for this article, I was interested to discover that motorcar and motorcycle races were held on the sand in 1914.

During the 1950s, when everyone was recovering from the trauma of war, a visit to the seaside was extremely popular and it was not unusual for groups to arrive in the town for a day trip. These groups often comprised more than 600 people arriving by train from a housing association, club, London group or tenant’s associations.

For entertainment they would just sit on the beach in deck chairs, and let the children run down to the sea.

Advertising in one local guide for 1954 proclaimed that ‘beach games’ would be held subject to the weather and tide during the summer holidays and this would include organised sport, physical training and other games. Can you imagine the attraction of physical training on the beach? This was in addition to the sand competitions.

There was also the pier, the Kursaal and, of course, for many years the ever-popular bathing machines. These are from a time when a visit to the seaside provided sufficient entertainment, with just a swim, a sit or a walk along the prom, such a long way from the provision that seems to be required for the seaside visitor of today.

You can see more pictures of seafront activities in the publication Reflections of Bognor Regis, available from the town museum in the High St.