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Changing Times | Seafront site has history of leisure activities

Olympian Gardens is a name long forgotten today so I thought I would seek out the information on this area along our promenade at the junction with Lennox Street.


An early record mentions that this was once a coal yard on the corner plot. Can you image how boats would be moored at the pier in the 1890s and they would unload their coal across the road to the coalyard?


The yard was known as Mr Osbourn’s yard Eventually, Tom Foss had an idea, that of using one of his coal carts as a stage and this was to be the start of Pierrot shows on the site. The shows included such entertainment as apple and treacle eating competitions, a conjurer and a pianist.


One person who was here was Gertrude Lawrence, who became very famous in her time, but who earned a prize at a concert in the theatre. Tom called his little ‘theatre’ Olympian Gardens, as it was so tiny and had no garden – some irony there. By 1910, the coalyard was fenced in, covered with a canvas roof.


The well-known promoter, Wallis Arthur, provided seaside shows, alongside his other seaside shows around other seaside resorts. These were entitled Al Fresco Concerts, but the audience hoped it did not rain, as the rear of the little theatre had not been roofed. Eventually, major improvements took place, installing a sloping floor, lighting a heating system, which consisted of two modern radiators, and decorating took place.


By November 14, 1910, Mr Arthur, in conjunction with a well-known trader in the town, Edward Lawrence Wood, of the High Street, opened an ‘electric theatre,’ and the seating capacity was registered as 400. Tickets were priced at 4d (2p), 6d (2.5p) and 1s (5p) for the 8pm show. For many years stars of the era would come and perform at the little theatre.


Wallis seemed to have the ability to attract new and established stars and have an eye for new talent. But once this failed him.


A nervous, shabbily dressed young man attended to ask if he could join the Pierrot show. He was rejected because it was felt he was not suitable. He left the UK and went to America. His name was Charlie Chaplin!


I have seen a memory of the theatre, written in 1966, about ‘Doris Lee, the lively soubrette and Albert Lyne, the pianist.’ Hard for us to imagine.


This memoir stated members of the company appeared as Pierrots in the first half of the programme, and then in the interval changed into evening dress. Children would be excited to see what was worn in the second half. Apparently, towards the end of a season they had ‘topsy-turvy’ nights, where the cast would take on each other’s parts of the show. They would also have benefit nights for members of the company.


Over the years, there were regularly advertisements in the local newspaper for the various shows that were available for the general public and visitor alike.


However, because of competition, the Electric Theatre was short-lived, but the premises remained for many years as a theatre. Mr Arthur continued with his patronage of this little theatre on the promenade. One recollection of going to the Olympian Gardens was of the excitement and how the family would make it ‘an occasion’ with everyone dressing properly – best dress and straw boaters.’ This was coupled with the purchase of sugared almonds.


Newspaper articles also extolled the virtues of the shows. I have one from 1923 remarking about the visit of Enrico Muzio, a singer, who eventually went on to sing worldwide. The report was that he could only take four encores to protect his voice.


Another paragraph I found interesting. so will quote: ‘Muriel Stevens, grave and gay, reached popularity at one bound, and is enshrined in favour in the hearts of many. Her versatility is amazing, and her views on men are at times too true to be comfortable.” Such interesting reporting.


In 1927, there appeared the Cabaret Kittens who kindly produced a farewell performance programme. This contained an extensive detailed list of those appearing with Enrico Muzio detailed with his work in Naples, Germany, Belgium etc., and before royalty.


A very interesting programme was listed and then a few words of appreciation from the company. They apparently ‘unanimously agreed that their Bognor season had been one of the happiest on record’, the chief contributory cause being the staunch support of friends ‘from over the footlights’.


Time was running out for this little theatre and it closed on Saturday, September 27, 1930. The final show was Leonard Henry and his little show. Apparently, the council of the time had refused to renew the entertainment licence for the premise in its present state.


In 1931, a new era was to begin on this site, with the arrival of a new name to the town, that of Billy Butlin, who was to take his first site on the corner of Lennox Street which was before the start of his holiday camps.


He built his first camp in 1936 in Skegness. It was suggested to him that when building his new temporary construction in Bognor Regis he could set aside an area for a forecourt and public footpath, this he did for £3.


Allegedly, half of this premises he took freehold at a cost of £7,000 and the rear half from Jones’s garage for a total of 14 years. He took on Oswald Bridges FRIBA as the architect for the construction and who was chairman of the council at the time.


Eventually, in 1932, Mr Butlin opened his Amusement Shelter, where there were one armed bandit machines, but also his newly introduced dodgem cars, the licence of which he had acquired and brought in from America.


This was to be the beginning of his journey through Bognor Regis. More areas were developed on the seafront with his zoo, until finally, in 1960, he opened on his present site.


The Olympian Gardens site is still providing entertainment on the seafront in the form of Cassino Amusements who kindly helped with the unveiling of a blue plaque to Billy Butlin two months ago.

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