Margate History and Heritage

A Gate of the Sea and a Haven of Health

It's hard to believe today, but Margate was once a small fishing village. 'Meregate' had a large, partly-12th century church of St John's set on a hill and a track down to a cluster of houses round the harbour. But the 1730s brought a passion for sea bathing, sparking the growth of Margate as a fashionable resort. Hoys, or sailing vessels, later steamships and eventually trains all brought countless visitors down from London.

The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, beyond the west end of the harbour (now mainly flats) bears imposing witness to the advantages of inhaling the ozone. Margate is crammed with historic and architectural gems, and today Margate Sands, the pier and Droit House (the attractive little building at the beginning of the pier) are as fine a sight as ever - especially when great cloudscapes billow overhead.

Make sure you take a walk down the Harbour Arm, the atmospheric pier of 1810-15. Nearby you can see the area where Margate's most famous fan, J.M.W. Turner lived with his landlady and companion, Mrs Sophia Booth. Visit the Turner Contemporary Gallery to find out more

Margate has always been looking to entertain its visitors - particularly in what became the celebrated Dreamland amusement complex. Originally called The Hall-by-the-Sea, it was presided over by the self-styled ‘Lord' George Sanger, circus proprietor and menagerie owner par excellence. A monument to the Sanger family, which features a mourning circus pony, can still be seen in Margate cemetery today. A multi-million pound renovation of Dreamland is taking place over the coming year.

Margate's Theatre Royal dates from 1787. Still going strong today, its charming interior reveals further evidence of the 'diversions' put on for those early visitors. For further historic insights, take a walk round the genteel late-Georgian Hawley Square nearby, or stroll down towards the seafront and The Parade through the Old Town. This overflows with recently renovated, small-scale shops, galleries and houses.

Dating back to 1911 the Winter Gardens has hosted many famous faces - from Dame Vera Lynne and The Beatles, to Laurel and Hardy and Status Quo. Not far away is the restored Tudor House, one of Margate's most venerable buildings. To try to solve what appears to be an insoluble mystery and to experience a real surprise, visit the Shell Grotto, in Grotto Hill near Dane Park. Is it an eighteenth-century folly, or if not, what is it? Visit then make up your own mind.

John Betjeman once evoked strolling in Margate with the lines: ‘As soft over Cliftonville languished the light/Down Harold Road, Norfolk Road, into the night'. A visit to Cliftonville, part of Margate's later Victorian and Edwardian expansion, is a must. As is a trip to the grand Walpole Bay Hotel. Dating back to 1914, with a museum, splendid teas, and décor mostly unchanged since Betjeman's days, it provides a true taste of Margate's rich past

For more on Margate's History visit the Civic Society website or take a tour with Margate History Walkers