The Victorians discovered and extolled the health advantages of sea air and sea-water bathing during the later years of the 19thCentury. Even much later, in 1929, the Portrush Urban District Council was extolling the virtues of the summer Atlantic breezes – “provide a pure and bracing atmosphere which is wonderfully invigorating and far-famed as the best of tonics”.
A small sheltered beach on the East side of the Portrush Peninsula became popular with ladies and children and in time became known as “The Ladies Bathing Place”. Victorian sensibilities precluded mixed bathing so gentlemen had to find other locations such as the Blue Pool for their own bathing.
Early photographs from c1890 show a mixture of rudimentary bathing boxes on the adjacent rock area with steps leading down directly into the water. Even with the virtually full cover of a Victorian Ladies’ Bathing Costume it was not the done thing to be seen in the open between your bathing box and the water; especially not by men!
The adjacent area, with its promenade and grass lawns was popular with many people. Early photographs show tents which may have been for religious meetings or perhaps for a small Pierrott show both of which were regular activities at this time.
The promenade linking the area to Bath Terrace was designed, financed and supervised by Miss Rebecca Rice of Strandmore House as a relief scheme for local fishermen during fishing seasons in the latter part of the 19th century.
By the turn of the century the popularity of the Ladies Bathing Place necessitated the provision of better facilities which were provided in due course by Messrs Robert Chalmers, a local businessman, Town Councillor and Mr Campbell joint proprietors of “Campbell & Chalmers, The Corner Shop” Grocers and Provision Merchants on Main Street, Portrush.
Their new shop replaced the early wooden kiosks and provided confectionery, refreshments, souvenirs and other beach side requisites. The sign on the shop invited us to purchase genuine Cailler’s Swiss Chocolate which, they claimed, was the best-selling chocolate in the world.
By 1912 the upsurge in business required larger premises and again Messrs Chalmers & Campbell were there to provide for the needs of holidaymakers.
A new two storey shop with single storey side extension was provided in which there was a fine café. In good weather customers could partake of their repast on the roof balcony. This was also used for evening tea dances which might feature entertainment such as Madame Levantes’ Ladies Orchestra. A concrete breakwater and sun-deck were also constructed at this time.
By 1926 the name “Arcadia” had appeared on the café and shop and the café had acquired a roofed upper storey with the lower storey being remodelled to match. This upper storey contained a small ballroom with a stage at the seaward end and was used for tea dances and other functions for many years.
Several kiosks were still provided beside the Arcadia probably providing deckchairs and other beach goods and bathing boxes were still available to the rear with direct access to the beach and the sea.
A nearby feature was the cast iron fountain on the lawn beside the Arcadia Café which was a gift to the town from King George the fifth and remained in place until the 1960s when it was broken up and removed by the local council.
Early photographs show Pierrot Shows, such as “Dan Derry’s Cadets” and “Billy Keene’s Pierrot Party”, an Outdoor Theatre and religious events taking place around the Arcadia and on the adjacent promenade.
Photographs from 1938 show that additional promenade had been constructed and a sea water swimming or paddling pool provided for the public. This would later be converted into the much-loved Children’s Paddling Pool of the 1950s, 60s & 70s. By 1952 the area was being developed as a “Mediterranean Lido” with refreshment kiosk, seating and umbrella covered tables.
In 1953, under the new ownership of Mr Bert Blundell, an entrepreneur from Bournemouth, England and proprietor of an amusement arcade on Main Street (currently Jingles), the Arcadia was expanded with the additional of a large ballroom.
During the 1950s and early 1960s the main attraction in the “New Arcadia Ballroom” was the original Irish Showband – “Dave Glover and His Orchestra”.
Dave later added a 20 minute cabaret section into the orchestra’s repertoire and changed their name to the “Dave Glover Showband”. Crowds were drawn in from all over Ireland and further afield to dance the night away. It became known throughout the country as “The Ballroom of Romance”.
Major Orchestras such as the Joe Loss Orchestra appeared there during the 1950s & 1960s together with several pop groups and artistes in the 1960s & 1970s. The Stranglers performed at the Arcadia and were supported by The Undertones, a week before the release of their epic hit single “Teenage Kicks”.
Along the frontage of the new Ballroom were kiosks renting deckchairs, selling ice cream, candy floss, sweets and hot & cold drinks. The Arcadia Ballroom was never licensed to sell alcoholic drinks and this may have hastened its demise as a popular nightspot when competition from licensed discos arose in the 1970s and 1980s. It had a short life as an amusement arcade and snooker hall but was eventually forced to close in the 1990s and the ballroom was been demolished.
It re-opened as a café and art gallery in 2000. The café is popular in summer due to its views and the attached enclosed children’s beach play area, with water play, fountains, slides and climbing structures which are separate from the main beach. The art gallery is used to promote local artists and displays, whilst also being used to host a variety of classes on yoga, crafts and dance.