Westgate-on-sea is a seaside town in northeast Kent, England, with a population of 6,600. It is within the Thanet local government district and borders the larger seaside resort of Margate. Its two sandy beaches have remained a popular tourist attraction since the town’s development in the 1860s from a small farming community.
The town is notable for once being the location of a Royal Naval Air Service seaplane base at St Mildred’s Bay, which defended the Thames Estuary coastal towns during World War I. The town is the subject of Sir John Betjeman’s poem, Westgate-on-Sea. Residents have included the 19th century surgeon Sir Erasmus Wilson and former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple. The artist Sir William Quiller Orchardson painted several of his most well-known pictures while living in Westgate-on-Sea. The British composer Arnold Cooke attended the town’s Streete Preparatory School in the early 20th century.
Before the 1860s, Westgate consisted of only a farm, a coastguard station (built 1791 and still standing in Old Boundary Road) and a few cottages for the crew that surrounded it. These were located beside the coast at St Mildred’s Bay, named after Mildrith, Thanet’s patron saint and a one-time Abbess of Minster. The town inherited its name from the Westgate Manor, which was located in the area in medieval times. In the early 20th century, the remains of a Roman villa were discovered in what is now Beach Road, where a stream once used to flow. Fresh water can still be seen rising from the sand at low tide.
During the late 1860s, businessmen developed the area into a seaside resort for the middle-classes. A stretch of sea wall, with promenade on top, was constructed around the beaches at St Mildred’s Bay and West Bay, and a housing estate was built with the intention that the resort would benefit its residents rather as a ‘gated community’, than occasional tourists. The opening of a railway station, in 1871, led to the rapid expansion of the population, which reached 2,738 by 1901. The demands of the increasing population led to the building of the parish churches of St. James in 1872 and St. Saviour in 1884. St. Saviour’s was designed by the architect C.N. Beazley. In 1884 it was reported that Essex, on the other side of the Thames Estuary, was hit by a tremor so large that it caused the bells of St. James’ Church to ring. In 1884, ownership of most of the resort passed to Coutts Bank, after the previous proprietors had gone bankrupt.
Around twenty schools were opened during the late 19th century, although many had only a few pupils or closed within a few years. The largest of the schools were Streete Court School, Wellington House and St Michael’s School. Streete Court School was opened in 1894 by John Vine Milne, the father of the author A. A. Milne. In the 1890s, the school was attended by St John Philby, the father of the spy Kim Philby.
The Coronation Bandstand was built by the cliff edge in 1903, at a cost of £350, to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. The following year, a group of French Ursuline nuns, who were banned from teaching in France, fled with some of their pupils to Westgate-on-Sea and established the Ursuline Convent School, which in 1995 was re-established as Ursuline College. In 1910, a Swiss-Gothic styled town hall was built. However, it was soon decided that the building could be put to better use, and in 1912, it was transformed into the Town Hall Cinema. In 1932, it was renamed the Carlton Cinema.
On 1 August 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, a Royal Navy seaplane base was opened by the coast to defend the Thames Estuary naval towns against attack. It was at first used for both seaplanes and landplanes, but due to landing problems, a separate landplane base was opened in Manston in 1916. After the war, the seaplane base was decommissioned, and the landplane base in Manston eventually became Kent International Airport. During the war, the Coronation Bandstand was converted into sleeping quarters for use by the Royal West Kent Regiment. In 1925, the bandstand was refurbished and reopened as the 600-seat Westgate Pavilion theatre. By 1931, the town’s population had reached 4,554. During World War II, several schools were evacuated to inland areas, with some, such as Streete Court School, leaving the town permanently. On 24 August 1942, a German fighter pilot, Herbert Bischoff, was captured after being shot down and crash landing in a field adjacent to Linksfield Rd, just south of the town.
On 27 April 1944 a Liberator aircraft from the 392nd USAAF bombing group Based in East Anglia near Wendling, Norfolk, crashed off the beach, adjacent to the Westgate Pavilion, with five of the crew killed and four injured in the crash. A special memorial service was held for the crew by the Mayor of Margate and veterans organisations on 27 April 2009 at the war memorial overlooking the crash site.
In 1975, five historic church bells were transferred to St Saviour’s Church from the Holy Cross Church in Canterbury, which had closed in 1972. Three of the bells date back to the early 17th century and one was cast in 14th century. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Westgate Pavilion was a bingo hall, after which it closed and became derelict. In 2001, a group of volunteers formed a charitable trust to repair the pavilion and it was eventually reopened as a theatre.
Westgate-on-Sea is located in northeast Kent, on the coast of the Thames Estuary. It is bordered by the town of Margate to the east and the village of Birchington-on-Sea to the west. The town is built beside the two sandy bays of St Mildred’s Bay and West Bay, which both have a sea wall and groynes to prevent coastal flooding. Chalk cliffs are present in between the bays and either side of the bays. The whole of the northeast Kent coast has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The town is situated on the Isle of Thanet, a separate island from mainland Kent until around two hundred years ago, when the channel in between silted up. The geology of Thanet consists mainly of chalk, deposited when the area was below the sea. Isle of Thanet became exposed above sea-level once the English Channel broke through between Kent and France, causing the sea-level to fall.
The town has sandy beaches at both St Mildred’s Bay and West Bay. The larger of the beaches is at St Mildred’s Bay, where it is possible to hire beach huts, deck chairs and jet-skis. The beach is a short distance from tennis courts and a golf putting course. At West Bay, there are many small rock pools, which are popular with children. Each beach has nearby cafés, restaurants and public houses, and a European Blue Flag Award is shared between them due to their cleanliness and safety.
The town centre has several Victorian canopied shops, a library and the three-screen Carlton Cinema. In addition to the theatre, the Westgate Pavilion is a venue for discos, yoga, indoor bowls and dance classes.
Formed in 1896, Westgate and Birchington Golf Club has an 18-hole 4,889-yard (4,471 m) course on the cliff tops between Westgate and Birchington. Based at Hawtreys Field, Westgate-on-Sea Cricket Club runs two Saturday teams and two Sunday teams. As of the 2007 season, both Saturday teams played in the Kent Cricket Feeder League East; the Saturday 1st XI team in Division 1C and the Saturday 2nd XI in Division 2C. The Sunday teams do not play in competitive matches. In 2006, Thanet Council opened a free skate park at the Lymington Road recreation ground. Designed by local young people, the park caters for skateboarders and in line skaters of all ages and skill levels.
Notable residents of the town have included the 19th century surgeon Sir Erasmus Wilson, who spent the latter part of his life in the town until his death in 1884, and former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who died in the town in 1944. In 1888, the astronomer and journalist Joseph Norman Lockyer built an observatory on the side of his house in Westgate-on-Sea, from where he took observations that formed the basis for his book, The Sun’s Place in Nature. British composer Arnold Cooke attended Streete Preparatory School in the early 20th century. The artist Sir William Quiller Orchardson painted several of his most well-known pictures while living in Westgate-on-Sea. He was buried in the town in 1910. While staying at nearby Birchington-on-Sea in the 1930s, the poet Sir John Betjeman wrote about the town in his poem Westgate-on-Sea. In 1957, suspected serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams spent two weeks in hiding in the town (to escape the press) following his controversial acquittal at the Old Bailey.