Guest blog by Carolyn Oulton, Director of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (Canterbury Christ Church University).
When readers of Somerset Maugham’s 1930 novel Cakes and Ale first encounter ‘Lord’ George Kemp of Whitstable, they are meant to realise that there is nothing aristocratic about him. He is described as ‘flashy, loud and boisterous. He said the town was dead and he was going to wake it up. He was going to get the company to run excursion trains. He didn’t see why it shouldn’t become another Margate.’ In fact he bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Lord’ George Sanger, who came to Margate in 1874 and established the iconic Hall-by-the-Sea – or Dreamland, as it is now better known. In his memoirs Sanger remembers housing lions and wolves (‘all as tame as dogs’ he claimed breezily) on the seafront.
By the twentieth century Dreamland had become an obvious focus for crime fiction with a seaside setting – in an early example, Burford Delannoy’s 1902 The Margate Murder Mystery offers the ludicrous suggestion that a murdered woman has been killed by an ape escaped from Sanger’s. The investigating barrister is snobbishly dismissive of ‘the flags, the highly-coloured pictures, and the public-house’ associated with it. In the 1930 Death in a Deck-Chair Milward Kennedy describes the scene at the height of the tourist season, where ‘you can lounge on the pavement and listen to a variety of Concert Parties, and cross the road to dance in Wonder-land.’
But if it was a colourful backdrop for murder, Dreamland found its way even more readily into the holiday romance of the interwar years. Pamela Wynne’s Love in a Mist (published in 1932 but set in the years immediately after WW1) never quite makes up its mind about ‘the new Margate that hurriedly calls itself Cliftonville and tries to pretend that it has nothing to do with the old vulgar Margate, with its … Lord George Sanger and its funny old-fashioned jetty poking out into the sea.’ But for the unhappily married Pauline there is little consolation in ‘charming old-fashioned streets and queerly shaped houses’ or even ‘surely the most beautiful sands in the world.’
Many of these books are now out of print, and a trip to Margate Library or Margate Museum may be the only way of finding a copy. But like so many forgotten novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ‘Gates to the Glorious and the Unknown’, a digital project by the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers, tries to imagine what it would have been like to visit this iconic hall in the heart of Margate. Using up to date digital technology to bring the past to a new generation – we like to think Lord George Sanger would have approved.
Want to explore Dreamland's history more? The International Centre for Victorian Women Writers will be holding an event with Prof Shane Blackman, author of Youth Marginality in Britain and Dr Ian Higgins, specialist in Victorian boredom, 'Hall By The Sea: from Sanger's to Dreamland' on Thursday 22nd November. Tickets are free, but must be booked in advance.