'Happy Birthday Clacton!': Memories of the Essex town as it celebrates 150 years

  • WATCH: Charlie Frost live from Clacton Pier's ferris wheel & full report

  • 150 years ago Great Clacton was farmland, encased on one side by rocky headland, beautiful golden beaches and the North Sea. Little did this sleepy corner of East Anglia know of the bright lights that lay ahead.

The birth of Clacton as we know it comes down to one man, Ipswich born engineer and entrepreneur Peter Bruff.

Already established as key player in the creation of the railway in East Anglia, when Bruff first laid eyes on the golden sands of Great Clacton, his eyes lit up.

'Seaside bathing' was growing increasingly popular and he knew this empty patch of farmland could attract Londoners looking for a day by the sea.

It was the perfect business opportunity, and soon Bruff bought some land and was seeking permission to build a pier.

And it is the pier that sparked Clacton's rise to one of the greats of the Great British getaway.

in 1871 Peter Bruff's Pier at Clacton was complete and ready to welcome steamboat loads of Londoners. Credit: Clacton and District Local History Society

In 1871 Bruff's pier was complete and on the 27th of July Clacton welcomed its first visitors.

The Woolwich Steam Packet Company bringing 300 guests from Tower Pier in London onboard pleasure steamer SS Queen of the Orwell and landing them on the pier to take part in the opening celebrations. 

Clacton Pier opened in 1871 simply as a place for steamboats filled with Londoners to land. Credit: Clacton and District Local History Society

It wasn't until the 1880s that the visitor experience was transformed into more than a stroll along the cliffpaths.

In 1882 Bruff brought his railway line from Walton to Clacton, it was a gamechanger.

The pier was also lengthened, making it easier for the paddle steamers to land at any time of the day and to stay longer.

In the 1880s the pier itself started to become an attraction with bathing pools and a pavilion theatre. Credit: Clacton and District History Society

More entertainment was needed for the increasing number of visitors and the Pier Dining Rooms were built along with the pavilion theatre, hot and cold sea water baths and gardens.

Soon the town centre followed, filled with boarding houses and cinema.

This all changed with the coming of World War 1 and by the end of the war the pier went bankrupt.

It was Ernest Kingsman who renewed its fortunes in 1920, buying it and beginning its transformation into the amusement park we know today.

6.5 acres into the North Sea, Clacton Pier is now full of rides and amusements characteristic of the British seaside. Credit: ITV Anglia

Now a local, historian Norman Jacobs first came to Clacton on holiday when he was 3 years old.

"The big one of course that everyone remembers was the Steel Stellar, which was over there, the rollercoaster, that was the big, iconic pier ride really. There was also the helter skelter, don't think it's the same one as the one that's there today!

And the pier swimming pool, he built a swimming pool on the pier that which was a full Olympic sized swimming pool, 50 metres! And there were also four theatres on the pier, nevermind the whole of Clacton! There were four theatres on the pier alone."

Local historian Norman Jacobs first visited Clacton as a child on holiday, before making the town his home. Credit: ITV Anglia

Twelve years ago the Ball family took over Clacton Pier, investing millions in it since.

The biggest pier in Europe, at 6.5 acres out in the North Sea, it isn't always plain sailing running such a big structure.

  • WATCH: Birthday well wishes from locals and visitors enjoying the delights of Clacton.

But, for the family, and especially Managing Director Billy Ball, to play a part in the 150 year history of such a landmark, is an honour.

"It's my home town - I've grown up in Clacton, my family have been here for three generations, but it's more than that. You walk along the seafront, I did anyway as a child, and look back at the pier and marvel at the pier, the birth place of the town. And, people enjoying themselves having fun. It's a seaside, it's a town that doesn't take itself too seriously."

This Clacton couple have lived in the town for 40 years and say Geo's is the best fish and chips! Credit: ITV Anglia

Another longstanding Clacton landmark is the Westcliff Theatre, home to the longest running Summer Show in the country.

The current theatre was built in 1928, but the stage is still in the same place it was when the theatre first opened in 1899.

In that time, many famous performers have trod the boards.

Almost entirely run by volunteers, the Westcliff Theatre has managed to keep its famous Summer Show running. Credit: ITV Anglia
  • Clacton's 'Holiday Heyday': 'It was buzzy, absolutely buzzing everywhere!"

In 1938 Billy Butlin opened his holiday park 'Butlins' in Clacton. It was his second, the first opening in Skegness in 1936.

His camps were to transform the British holiday, but it wasn't until after World War II that they really took off.

That's when the week long holiday, Saturday to Saturday, became the trend.

Business was booming at Butlin's holiday park in Clacton in the 1950's and 60's. Credit: British Pathe

Clacton-on-Sea was now competing in the super league of seaside resorts alongside the likes of Bournemouth, Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and Southend.

Janet Price ran the Waverley Hall Hotel on the seafront, where Premier Inn now sits, from 1956 to 1979.

Moving from Liverpool with her husband Leslie to the town when her father in law bought the hotel as a family project, they were thrown into the deep end!

"We knew nothing about running hotels, so my husband and I went to Blackpool and did a week there learning how to dish out porridge - that was our total training!"

Janet and her husband Leslie (sat on the floor at the front) ran the Waverley Hall Hotel for 24 years. Credit: Janet Price
A Premier Inn now sits on the seafront where the Victorian Waverley Hall Hotel once stood. Credit: Janet Price

For people living in post-war Britain these were the austerity years and your week away from your factory job or housework was an exciting luxury.

You saved up all year to be looked after and entertained, it didn't matter if your day was quite strictly structured, your meals simple and served at set times and you had to share a bathroom at your guesthouse.

A Butlin's redcoat helps bikini clad guests onto their float ahead of the Clacton Carnival parade. Credit: British Pathe

It was escape, it was novel and it was exciting.

"They came every week and the boys with barrows would meet the trains to carry the luggage to the different hotels. It was buzzy, absolutely buzzing everywhere."

The 'barrow boys' met visitors off the train to carry their luggage to their prospective hotels and guesthouses. Credit: Clacton and District Local History Society

But in 1979 Janet and her husband decided to sell the hotel as it began to struggle financially.

Air travel and foreign holidays had become a lot more easily accessible, and people's expectations of their trips had become different.

Guests wanted ensuite bathrooms and the Waverley, like many Victorian hotels in Clacton just wasn't properly equipped to meet the new demands.

In the early 1980s Butlin's closed too, which locals feared would mean the definitive beginning of the end of Clacton.

Clacton takes great pride in its beautiful promenade gardens and this year the town has seen a bumper number of visitors. Credit: ITV Anglia

There is no doubt Clacton did enter a period of decline, it, like many UK seaside towns faces plenty of challenges.

But, recently, with big investment in the Pavilion and the pier, as well as The Royal Hotel, it feels as if the buzz is coming back.

And whilst last year was a bit of a write off for tourism because of Covid-19, this year Clacton is enjoying the renaissance of the British seaside.

With travel restrictions on foreign holidays still pretty hard to navigate because of the pandemic, many have opted for trips closer to home.

  • WATCH: Donuts prove most popular on pier!

Billy reckons his visitor numbers on the pier will be up 20 - 30% on the 1 million customers it usually attracts.

An opportunity for Clacton to show off what it's got to people who may have last seen it when it was more down on its luck twenty years ago.

And hopefully, if they're impressed, they'll be back and help secure the future of Clacton, for another 150 years.