Many of the thousands who flock to Southend each year come for the beaches, or the entertainment offered at the Cliffs Pavilion or nearby casinos. There is however, another side to Southend. Southend is a city rich in culture and history. With many buildings surviving from the later 18th and early 19th century, Southend can be considered something of a cultural hub. There is everything here from the ornamental gardens of Prittlewell Square with their pond and fountain, to contemporary art galleries, and entertainment venues such as the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend has all an art lover could desire.
Prittlewell Priory is the oldest building in the Southend area. It was founded by the Cluniac Order in the early 12th century, and formed a cell of the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes, in Sussex. Prittlewell was never a large monastery, it never home to more than eighteen monks at one time. Over the years the building has undergone significant alterations. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1536, and in the 18th century further alterations were made. It was not until the 20th century that a partial restoration and rebuilding took place. Despite these alterations and the passing of time there are a number of significant original features which have survived intact. Chief among these is a 12th Century doorway boasting a striking chevron and dog tooth ornamentation.
Following the Dissolution of the monasteries Prittlewell Priory became a private residence for many years. By the end of the 19th Century the last family to live there, the Scrattons had departed the building but their lives are explored today in an exhibition inside the building. In May 1922 Prittlewell Priory opened as Southend’s first museum. Further work has been ongoing since that time, most recently in 2011 refurbishment work began, along with the construction of a new Visitor Centre.
With the help of funding from Cory Environmental Trust, and the Heritage Lottery Fund the Priory was able to reopen in the summer of 2012, with the new Visitor Centre following in February 2013.
The Royal Terrace
The Royal Terrace and the accompanying Royal Hotel are the only surviving Georgian terrace in the town and were constructed in the 1790s as part of the first phase of the ‘New Town’. They demonstrate the earliest serious attempt to develop Southend as a fashionable resort, along the lines of Brighton or Margate.
A grand ball was held in 1793 to mark the opening of the Royal Hotel. Residents could enjoy the shrubbery fronting the houses as a private garden while at the rear the Royal Mews functioned as their stables.
It was in 1803 following a visit by Princess Caroline, the wife of the then Prince Regent, that the ‘Terrace’ acquired the Royal name, and for a while fashionable society embraced Southend, however, the difficulty of accessing the town from London placed a brake on development, and little more was done until the arrival of the railway in 1856.
The Kursaal is one of the most interesting buildings in Southend. Located on the Eastern Esplanade the Kursaal is a Grade II listed building, which was first opened to the public in 1901 as one of the world’s earliest purpose-built amusement parks. It was 1894 when father and son Alfred and Bernard Wiltshire Tollhurst, opened the ‘Marine Park and Gardens’ on this site. Seven years later they opened a grand entrance pavilion there, and called it The Kursaal. It contained a ballroom, a circus, a dining hall, and an arcade. It went on to become the biggest fairground in the south of England. In addition to many fairground rides the site also played host to Southend football club, and for a sort while, greyhound racing.
During the early 1970s the fortunes of the Kursaal declined, and the outdoor park closed in 1973, with the main building following in 1986. While the outside areas were later to become a housing development the main Kursaal building was spared and has had a major redevelopment. In 1998 it reopened and is now home to amusements once again, including a casino, and a bowling alley.
What else can I see?
There is more to Southend culture than just historic buildings, there is a thriving arts scene in the town.
Why not take in a show at the Clifftown theatre or see what one of the local galleries has to offer?
The Beecroft art gallery on Victoria Avenue boasts a eclectic array of paintings produced by local artists. They also have a full programme of exhibitions throughout the year. If you prefer more contemporary visual art then the Focal Point gallery is the place to look. They concentrate on promoting and commissioning solo exhibitions, and thematic shows. Their events programme includes everything from film showings to performances and talks. They also occasionally participate in temporary public artworks.
Focal Point receives funding from the Arts Council which allows them to concentrate on the ‘experimental and visionary use of lens-based media’.
Whatever your cultural interest there is sure to be something in Southend to capture your attention, and to keep you coming back to this fascinating town.