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Margate Scenic Railway
Dreamland, Marine Terrace, Margate, Kent, UK
Margate Scenic Railway
associated engineer
John Henry Iles
date  1919 - 3rd July 1920, 15th September 2014 - October 2015
era  Modern  |  category  Amusement Structure  |  reference  TR349705
photo  © Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Margate Scenic Railway has been the main attraction of the seaside town’s Dreamland amusement park for almost a century. It is one of the few timber rollercoasters still in existence worldwide. After falling into disrepair and suffering fire damage, it was saved from demolition by heritage listing and has been reconstructed as close to the original design as possible, incorporating modern health and safety features.
Rollercoasters are not new. In the late 19th century, LaMarcus Adna Thompson (1848-1919), an American carpenter and inventor, developed and patented gravity rides for amusement parks. In 1884, his Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. It is thought to be the first purpose-built rollercoaster, though running at only 9.7kph (6mph) it would seem rather tame by modern thrill-seeking standards.
Switchback rollercoasters had a lift at the end of each linear run for completing the return journey. Technological advances produced the scenic railway with complete circuits and endless cables or chains to pull the trains up inclines.
English entrepreneur John Henry Iles (1871-1951) owned the European rights to the scenic railway, and built the first one at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1907. Margate Scenic Railway was constructed 1919-20, making it the oldest surviving rollercoaster in Britain and the second oldest in Europe, after Thompson’s Rutschebanen (opened 1914) in the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.
In 1919, Iles purchased the site of the Hall by the Sea pleasure gardens (developed from 1867) at Margate, on the north Kent coast, for £40,000. He apparently owned the site jointly with American showman Claude Carroll Bartram (b.1873), and set about transforming it into an American-style amusement park called Dreamland. The park opened in May 1920, and the scenic railway on 3rd July 1920.
Iles’ railway was the centrepiece ride at Dreamland. An undulating timber lattice superstructure, oriented north-west to south-east, supports an elongated double loop course about 915m long in total. Part of the course passes through a roofed enclosure and crosses under one of the hills.
The superstructure consists of upright timbers approximately 150mm square braced by horizontal and diagonal timber struts, all originally of elm. The top of the railway is some 14m above ground, and has inclines of up to 12.2m drop.
Three-car trains travel round the single iron track, which is laid in a timber trough to help keep the cars on the rails. The trains do not have under-track wheels to provide side friction, which limits the speed and steepness of the drops.
The scenic railway is powered by electricity. An engine house containing the motor, machinery and pulleys to operate the continuous steel cable used to haul trains up the inclines sits in the centre of the track’s northern loop. Storage sheds and workshops occupy the land between the tracks in the mid-section.
The ride starts when a train rolls, or is pushed, out of the station on the west side of the loop. It is controlled by a brakeman, sitting on a raised seat between the first and second cars. As the first car reaches the bottom of a lift, the brakeman uses a lever to grip the cable, holding the train to the haul cable until the carriages reach the top of the hill. He then releases the clamp, allowing the train to run downhill under gravity, applying the brakes as required.
Each of the two three-car trains carries a maximum of 28 passengers and weighs an average of 3 tonnes fully laden. They reach a top speed of 48kph (30mph), though speeds can increase in rain and hot weather. The trains are of timber with iron wheels, and each is equipped with metal brakes and auxiliary timber brakes (rarely used). During the opening year, the railway carried nearly 500,000 people. In 1921, almost a million people took the four-minute ride.
Between 1920 and 1935, Iles spent more than £500,000 on Dreamland, adding new rides and visitor facilities. However, in 1938, he went bankrupt and Dreamland was taken over by his son, Eric (Henry Frederick Bird Iles, 1900-72). It closed following the outbreak of World War II (1939-45) when the park went into voluntary liquidation.
Billy Butlin (William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin, 1899-1980), who pioneered holiday camps in Britain in the 1930s, became chairman of Dreamland 1946-50. With Butlin finance, the park re-opened on 6th June 1946. Eric Iles was its manager — a position later taken up by his younger brother John Bird Iles (1907-84).
In August 1949, at least half of the scenic railway’s superstructure was destroyed by fire. Restoration was carried out, reputedly using timber intended for repair work on Claremont Pier at Lowestoft in Suffolk. In 1957, another fire caused further damage, subsequently repaired.
In 1968, Dreamland was acquired by Associated Leisure, ending the Iles era. The scenic railway’s main timbers were replaced in Douglas fir — Dutch elm disease having stopped supplies of elm — and the track rebuilt in Canadian pitch pine. The enclosed section of the ride was opened up at about this time, and some carriages were sold to Battersea Fun Fair (closed 1974) for use on the timber rollercoaster, the Big Dipper.
On 9th March 1981, the company Dreamland Leisure (Margate) Ltd was formed by the four Bembom brothers from Holland. From 31st December 1981 to 24th January 1996, the company ran the park under the name Bembom Brothers Ltd — renaming it the Bembom Brothers White Knuckle Theme Park, a name it kept until 1990. During the Bembom years, one seventh of the timbers were replaced annually, as maintenance required. However, the ride’s original configuration was preserved.
Kent businessman and amusement park owner Jimmy Godden (1945-2012) bought Dreamland in 1996, part-funded by an EU grant. He refurbished the scenic railway and park, but removed some of the major rides including the Big Wheel, Looping Star rollercoaster and Water Chute.
On 1st March 2002, Margate Scenic Railway was given Grade II heritage listing, the only fairground ride to have such a designation, reflecting its importance to social history and heritage. In January the following year, Godden announced plans to close Dreamland and use the land for retail and commerce, to widespread public opposition. In 2005, the Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company Ltd bought the park for £20m.
On 17th November 2005, independent government inspector Harold Stephens delivered his report into the Thanet Local Plan Inquiry, held in June 2004. He concluded that Dreamland should remain an amusement park and the listed scenic railway should be protected.
After sporadic opening since 2004, Dreamland and the scenic railway closed in September 2006. All the rides, other than the listed railway, were dismantled and removed from site. In 2007, the Dreamland Trust was formed and suggested that Dreamland could become a vintage amusement park showcasing heritage rides brought in from closed funfairs.
On 7th April 2008, a major fire (arson) destroyed about a quarter of the railway’s timber superstructure, and parts of the station, storage sheds and the workshop containing the cars. The car bodies were ruined but their underframes were salvaged. The engine house, with its electric motors and winding gear, survived as did some 80 percent of the track.
in November 2009, the Dreamland Trust was awarded a £3.7m grant from the UK government’s Sea Change initiative to restore the railway and revitalise the Dreamland site. Thanet District Council contributed at least £4m to the overall project, with £3m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (November 2011) and £1.9m from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund (October 2014).
On 7th July 2011, the rollercoaster's heritage status was amended from Grade II to Grade II*. Designer Wayne Hemingway (b.1961) was appointed to design the vintage theme park. On 3rd September 2013, the Dreamland site was acquired by Thanet District Council under a governmental compulsory purchase order, issued in 2011 and approved on 16th August 2012.
On 15th September 2014, work began on the park’s £18m refurbishment. A 10-month programme commenced to dismantle the railway and replace all its timber components by hand using traditional craftsmanship. The idea was to remain true to the spirit of the original 1920 design, while meeting current legislation and meeting health and safety requirements.
However, in the early hours of 27th December 2014, with half of the rollercoaster under construction, some two thirds of the superstructure were blown over in gale force winds. Repairs were effected and work resumed.
The 14m high rebuilt superstructure sits on neoprene pads above new concrete foundations. The pads absorb shock loading from the moving trains, and gravity holds the structure in place. Dynamic analysis of the ‘worst case’ loading was carried out for each trestle location around the ride, including on horizontal and vertical curves and at the cambers at bends. The process enabled structural detailing to be generated for every trestle, each of which is different.
The extant softwood structure was replaced by 320 tonnes of durable sawn Spruce sourced from Germany. The C24 grade timber was pressure-treated with preservative. The original nail fixings were replaced by more secure bolted connections — more than 30,000 of them.
The restored ride has 930m of track in total and trains travel over it at up to 56.3kph (35mph). Automatic magnetic brakes are installed at strategic locations around the loops, as current regulations do not allow total dependence on the brakeman to control speed. The two three-car trains have been rebuilt, each accommodating up to 28 people. The new carriage bodies are of construction grade Opepe hardwood from Africa, with high-sided metal side grilles.
Dreamland re-opened on 19th June 2015, and the scenic railway began operating on 16th October 2015. The railway is subject to rigorous inspection to maintain safety. A carpenter walks the track circuit every day.
The park has two other heritage structures: the Grade II listed remains of menagerie enclosures and cages (TR350705 and TR350704) dating from 1874, and the Grade II* listed cinema (TR349706) building designed by Julian Leathart and William Granger and constructed 1933-5.
Contractor (2014-5): Topbond plc of Sittingbourne
Carriage building (2014-5): WGH Engineering Ltd of Doncaster
Timber supply (2014-5): Timbmet
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Request for Spot Listing of the Scenic Railway Roller Coaster Dreamland Amusement Park, Margate, Kent" by Nick Laister and David Page, May 2001
"Creating a scene" by Nick Spurrier, Engineering and Technology Magazine, Vol.4, Issue 3, 17th February 2009
"The Scenic Railway at Dreamland", Advice Report, English Heritage, 29th June 2011
http://antill.org.uk
http://houseofhemingway.co.uk
www.bbc.co.uk/news
www.c20society.org.uk
www.dreamland.co.uk
www.dreamlandtrust.org.uk
www.historicengland.org.uk
www.margatelocalhistory.co.uk
www.nce.co.uk
www.princes-regeneration.org
www.savedreamland.co.uk
www.telegraph.co.uk
www.thanet.gov.uk
www.timbmet.com
www.topbond.co.uk
Location

Margate Scenic Railway