Carnoustie - Brighton of the North
Carnoustie has been a popular holiday destination for almost all of its 200 year history. It had been popular as a sea bathing resort in the early years of the nineteenth century when people would spend a month sampling the healthy sea water and air. Its heyday was from approximately 1900 to the outbreak of World War 2. In 1914 the Season began in mid June and finished at the end of August. It was later extended into September. Carnoustie’s attractions included al fresco Pierrot shows, band concerts, the Pavilion cinema, sea bathing, fairs and sport. In addition there were country walks, sea fishing from Westhaven and charabanc tours, a kind of bus. Visitors came from all over the country - from Dundee, Forfar, Leith, Troon, Strathblane, Hawick, Oxford and London and from further afield. In 1924 visitors to the Bruce Hotel include New York, Madras, Shanghai, the USA, Java and Hong Kong.
Carnoustie promoted itself as a healthy resort with plenty of invigorating sea air. Its slogan before World War 1 was the Home of Health and Happiness. Carnoustie attracted visitors in their thousands. The Carnoustie Guide and Gazette reports that the beach was black with holidaymakers. Carnoustie claimed, with justification, that it was the most popular East coast resort in Scotland. Hundreds of houses were available to let during the season. Many people moved out of their houses to stay with relatives or even moved into specially built summer houses built at the bottom of their gardens. Most let out rooms to visitors and provided meals for them. So many visitors came to Carnoustie that extra trains were laid on at the weekends to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Prior to World War 1 there was much debate about Carnoustie’s long term future. Despite its popularity there were concerns that it would flicker out as a resort. Some even campaigned to make Carnoustie into a northern Blackpool. In the 1920s complaints regularly appeared in the Guide and Gazette about the lack of amusement - "one soon gets tired of the Pierrots". It was a lovely spot "simply lost for the want of attention". Efforts were made to add new attractions such as tennis, bowling and golf tournaments, children’s singing competitions, sand building competitions, the miniature railway, paddling pool, charabanc tours and special programmes at the Pavilion.
During World War 2 Carnoustie benefited from the ‘holiday at home’ campaign. People from surrounding areas still came for day trips. Those who could find a landlady stayed for the week. There were fewer landladies about due to the concern over food rationing. Many of them were involved in war work themselves. Some hotels and boarding houses closed down. Facilities were more limited. The Pierrot shows ceased and the beach was off limits. The Links became the centre of activities. Football matches, boxing and bagatelle contests were among the facilities offered.
The beach was always the focus of the holidaymakers’ activities. Bathing was the earliest of Carnoustie’s attractions. The season began on 1 May of each year. Legend says that men bathed at the east end, women at the west, but in reality Carnoustie’s practised mixed bathing. This was quite a contentious issue in its day with many letters being written to the Guide and Gazette on the subject.
Until World War 2 sea bathing coaches were a feature of the beach. They had big iron wheels and doors at the front and back. The floor had draining boards, benches to sit on and hooks for hanging up clothes. As you changed into your swimsuit the coach was pulled into the sea by a horse and you were then ready for your swim. Bathing was quite a lucrative business. In 1920 Carnoustie Town Council made £79 for the season from the coaches.
The beach offered other opportunities for enjoyment. You could enjoy a stroll, eat a picnic and watch the world go by. You could hire a donkey. The council did not favour this activity and suspended them in 1921. They were back by 1924 but deckchairs were banned instead. You might also wish to enter the Daily Mail’s Sand-building competition which started in 1924. In 1925 it was won by a traditional castle with a lion coming a close second. The links beside the beach also featured a great many attractions. The bandstand regularly featured Sunday afternoon concerts by the Burgh Band who played both religious and military music. In 1924 an evening concert was introduced which featured a programme of dance music. This was quite a bold move as it must be pointed out that dancing was not allowed on the Links. Children could play on the swings or paddle in the pool. By the early 1930’s you could also enjoy a nice cup of tea in the Links Pavilion.
If you were more daring you could always enjoy a scenic flight over Carnoustie bay. In 1931 a small aircraft used the area between the Bandstand and Barry Burn as a landing strip. It was a short lived service.
The Pavilion Cinema in Park Avenue played an important role in Carnoustie’s leisure history. It was built in 1912 as the Park Avenue Variety Theatre. The building itself was designed in the Art Nouveau style and was a wonderful addition to Carnoustie’s facilities. The building was demolished in the 1980s.
Films were shown twice nightly at 7pm and 9pm They were of a superior nature. Each programme consisted of a double bill. Films were commonly advertised by the length of footage. The Christmas Day programme was particularly popular. Extra matinees at 11am and 2.30pm were put on if it was wet during the summer. In 1931 the Pavilion staged its first sound film called Sunny Side Up.
The Pavilion also staged plays, variety shows and could be hired for dances. In the winter of 1913 a Black Watch Ball held there was described by the Guide and Gazette as "the most gorgeous spectacle ever seen in Forfarshire, excluding Dundee". During the winter the Pavilion aimed to make Carnoustie one of the least dull towns around.
The Pavilion also offered an elegant tea room where the dances could also be held. In 1920 it was described as a very bright room with light streaming in from the French windows. The china was tastefully selected and "the comestibles [were] of a first rate quality".
The first manager was Alfred T Ruse who was originally a bookseller’s apprentice in Reading. His love of music led to him being sacked from his apprenticeship and packed off to sea to cure him. It didn’t work. Although he was in the army during the Boer War, he later broke into showbusiness as a piano player for a touring theatre company. He eventually fetched up in Kirriemuir at McIndoe’s Picture Show from where he was recruited to Carnoustie as manager and accompanist. He was a very dedicated manager. On one occasion when a film failed to arrive he caught a train to Dundee and went to another cinema where he borrowed films. He returned to Carnoustie within the hour and started the evening programme only 15 minutes late. The same evening his variety act cancelled so he replaced them with his own daughter, Ethel who was an accomplished dancer. After he left the Pavilion he taught music privately from his home in Millar Street.
In 1923 Alex Webster was appointed as manager. He was a local lad who had been an entertainer as part of Alberta Flahey and Tenor. He was both the tenor and Alberta Flahey’s husband. He had pursued a solo career as a concert singer but he could see that the circuit was dropping off and he had changed to the more profitable vaudeville. He sang and Alberta had played the violin. He took the job at the Pavilion when Alberta had become run down and needed a rest.
In the inter-war years the Pavilion provided Carnoustie with an important part of its recreation, for both locals and visitors alike.
The Pierrots’ al fresco concerts were one of Carnoustie’s biggest attractions. They were an essential part of every Edwardian seaside resort’s entertainment. Pierrots were buffoon figures who wore long sleeved white robes. They stemmed from the tradition of the commedia dell’ arte and replaced the earlier minstrels, transforming themselves into the more sophisticated Pierrot when the fashion changed. Entrepreneurs recognised a money making prospect when they saw it and hired performing pitches from local councils. This was quite lucrative for the council who in turn would guarantee no competition for the lucky troupe. The Pierrots performed songs, dances and comedy sketches. Some of the troupes were truly dreadful, others were very good. Carnoustie always attracted quality Pierrots, who viewed the resort as a step on the way to fame.
Gilbert Payne and his troupe entertained Carnoustie’s holidaymakers for many years. His slogan was "There is no pleasure without Payne". Gilbert Payne was very well known in the world of the music hall. In his day he was rated as one of the six best comedians in the country, and in the same league as his contemporary Harry Lauder. His main character, Mr Bungle, was known nationally and his trade mark was a big red wig.
Payne played the comic but he also managed the shows, engaged the entertainers and staged the numbers. His troupe performed two shows daily after a morning rehearsal. It was a hard life, as he organised these shows in Broughty Ferry, Arbroath and St Andrews too.
It was Gilbert Payne who first proposed that instead of a temporary wooden stage for the Pierrots, that a concert hall be built. In 1914 he proposed to the council that he would build this hall at a cost of £250. He would lease it for five years and then they would have the option to buy it. Nothing happened. The next year Gilbert Payne did not apply for the Pierrot concession. Instead he pursued his career as a big variety star. He did return to the town in 1934 with the Jolly Jesters, the same year in which the Beach Hall was opened. His slogan then was "Not al fresco, not revue. But something novel! Something new!"
The Busy Bees
In 1915 Birmingham based Leo Bliss and the Busy Bees came to Carnoustie. "After 14 years of Payne, you need a little bliss". He was a vaudeville artist with a reputation as a safe comedian who could "make a mummy laugh". He worked with his wife Dorothy B Lloyd, another talented comedian. They introduced a number of new features. They regularly featured local Carnoustie artists. They also varied the content of the shows by introducing singing and novelty competitions for the audience. Special request evening shows also added variety. Bliss arranged that if it rained, the concerts would be held in the YMCA. He also introduced a series of end of season benefit concerts for each member of the troupe. The songs used by the Busy Bees were described as "absolute winners" and came from successful and well known songwriters. The Busy Bees had the reputation of being the best on the Scottish coast. Bliss also ran a troupe in Dunoon.
1924 was a bad year for the Busy Bees. They lost the Pierrot pitch to a local company, the Rebels, and Leo Bliss died. He was appearing in pantomime in his native Birmingham. He had been drenched while playing golf and taken ill with double pneumonia, lung trouble and heart failure.
The company was taken over by his wife Dorothy B Lloyd. When they failed to hire the traditional Pierrot pitch, she rented Wilson’s Park. There she erected a canvas marquee and advertised it as the Cosy Corner. She assembled local and national talent and dressed the Company in old style Pierrot outfits. They only lasted a couple of seasons.
Carnoustie now had a pair of rival Pierrots. The ‘official’ Pierrots in 1924 were the Rebels, managed and directed by Carnoustian Alexander Webster, a successful entertainer and part of the double act Alberta Flahey and Tenor.
In 1921 they gave a couple of concerts at the Pavilion along with their 12 year old daughter Allie while on holiday in the town. In 1923 Webster became manager of the Pavilion. The following year the Carnoustie Pavilion Company started up the Rebels under Webster’s management. He travelled to London to secure the best acts. They followed the Busy Bees in offering prizes and holding children’s singing competitions. They erected a commodious pavilion for the performances. The performers’ costumes were gorgeous and spared no expense. The company had only one week in which to rehearse. They proved to be very popular and the Guide and Gazette claimed this was attained through sheer merit.
The Links Hall
On 30 June 1934 Provost Ramsay opened the Links Hall, an idea suggested 20 years previously by Gilbert Payne. It was built in the Art Deco style and was designed to house a variety of activities - the Pierott shows, a concert hall, theatre and a dance hall. At the time of its opening it was described as the last word in comfort. Gilbert Payne’s Jolly Jesters were the first to perform there for the 1934 season. The Hall brought a new degree of comfort to its audience but much of the charm was lost from the al fresco shows.
The Miniature Railway
The wee train only ran for two years. It was opened on 12 May 1937 on Coronation Day after which the engine was named. It was built by Harry Ferguson but the Town Council had the original idea. Ferguson’s neighbour in Rose Street was Bailie Fred Murray, a steam enthusiast. He was offered the site for a peppercorn rent. He ordered the engine but built the carriages himself.
The railway was 140 yards in length and ran from the swings to the paddling pool, running parallel to the main line. It had a proper station where you bought tickets and an engine shed. It was firm favourite with children. Many Sunday schools chose it as their summer excursion, sometimes travelling from as far away as Glasgow.
The wee train closed in 1939 due to the war and never re-opened as Ferguson had moved away.
The Paddling Pool
Other attractions were added to the resort’s repertoire during the 1930s including the large paddling pool fed by the Lochty Burn. It was the focus for the smaller children and provided endless hours of fun. Paddling pool sports were very popular. If it was raining they would be held in the Beach Hall. A favourite pool game was the scramble. Ten shillings worth of half pennies was thrown into the pool which became a seething mass of bodies instantly.
Post War Change
Carnoustie changed after World War 2. Neither the bathing coaches nor the Pierrots returned to the beach. Tastes had changed and the burgh changed with the times. There was more of an emphasis on activities for all the family and events for teenagers emerged.
Carnoustie always had loyal and appreciative visitors and new ones were created with the increased range of activities. The Guide and Gazette quoted two happy customers in 1957: "No other town does anything like as so much for its visitors." Another said: "We have holidayed all over the place but Carnoustie is the best of the lot".
During the 1950s the emphasis moved away from the beach to the Rest Gardens where activities were staged everyday. In 1956 Bill Cumming was appointed as the town’s publicity and entertainment’s manager. He introduced a range of new attractions. He believed that you had to give people what they wanted. Many holiday makers timed their holiday to coincide with a particular event. One of these was the very popular talent contest. On one occasion a little girl’s singing dog won. A novel idea was the ‘follow my leader’ for cars. Bill would drive the publicity van along back roads and lead the following cars to places they might not otherwise find. Mrs Cumming followed in the rear to round up the stragglers. They would travel within a thirty mile radius of Carnoustie. Bill Cumming reckon that he drove over 3,000 miles in total for this event.
Other events included beauty contests for all ages. It was easy enough to persuade the younger girls to participate. On one occasion 99 girls entered the Beauty Princess competition. That was every girl who was eligible and present. Kute Kiddies was open any child. They were interviewed by Bill Cumming with a view to getting them to say something amusing. Sometimes they would and sometimes they would not. Baby shows, beach games, sport competitions and even tiddlywinks contests were also on offer. Sausage sizzles were instituted for the teenagers with 200 attending in 1957. Midnight bathing sessions began with 32 swimming and 100 watching. It was a cold and rainy night. This was a re-introduction of a pre-war favourite.
Musical entertainments continued with concerts of all types. A fun sounding show was Alice Fox’s dancing fairies!
Beach leaders were employed in the summer to organise games for children every morning. This could include tide games. This involved the children in making barriers against the incoming tide. The last one left standing was the winner. Another popular activity was the miniature car racing held in the Beach Hall.
Teenagers were always the hardest to cater for. In the early 1950’s bops and dancing competitions were held, both indoor and outdoor. Dances in general were very popular with them but in the late 1960s a bad element crept in and violence broke out. There was no alternative but to scrap the dances.
Times changed and the advent of the cheap package holiday in guaranteed sunshine meant the effective end of many British resorts.
This information was derived from a study of the Carnoustie Guide and Gazette. Angus Archives holds extensive extracts and notes on the subject plus slides of period postcards, video footage of 1950-60s recreation activities, slides and cuttings albums of Bill Cumming, Entertainment Officer.
© Angus Council 1998 - 2013