The Portrush Wintergardens Company

The Portrush Wintergardens Company Limited was formed in 1909 with forty three shareholders including several members of the Town Council and Mr F. B. Audinwood, the Manager of the Northern Counties Hotel. Their proposal for a skating rink and “properly equipped variety amusement hall” was put to the railway company which agreed to rent part of their Pleasure Grounds to the company for this purpose.  Roller skating was the current craze in Great Britain at that time and no doubt the company thought this would be a major attraction. . The inventor of the roller skates, John Joseph Merlin, introduced his new sport in the 1760s by skating into a party with a violin. Unfortunately, he hadn’t practiced much, included brakes or a way to turn, and went straight into a £500 mirror; smashing it to bits!

Tenders for the construction work were sought and one from D. Anderson & Sons of Belfast for £3,539 was reported on 1st May as having been successful. The building was of wood and had to be completed by 7th July that year. It was to be of considerable size, estimated at some 200 by 60 feet. The contractor was obviously well organised and conscientious as the building opened a week earlier that planned, on Thursday 1st July. The Pavilion, as the building became known, was lit by electricity from the company’s own generator and this in itself would have been a great novelty as few homes would have had electric lighting at this time. Roller Skating proved to be popular with both locals and visitors with roller skates available for hire at a cost of 1 shilling (5p today). Ladies could also purchase fashionable garments suitable for skating from a kiosk on the premises or from Hill Bros., a drapery firm with shops in both Portrush & Coleraine.

The skating rink was usually open for “the season”, probably from Easter until the end of September each year with morning, afternoon and evening skating sessions. During the first winter the Company were permitted to enclose an area at the front of the Pavilion, which included the bandstand, with a high fence. Throughout it’s short life the Pavilion hosted many forms of entertainment: a shooting gallery, band concerts, fancy dress competitions (on roller skates), American Box Ball, hockey matches (on skates), ballroom & Scottish dancing, concert & Pierrot parties and  even the showing of silent films, advertised as “Electric Pictures”.

During 1912 half the skating rink was railed off to provide a dance floor and in 1913 dancing had completely replaced roller skating. What may have been the final event of 1911 was something rather different. Home Rule for Ireland was the major political issue at the time and on 26th September a “Monster Unionist Demonstration” was held in the Pavilion with Sir Edward Carson QC, leader of the opposition to Home Rule, being the main speaker. It was reported that a crowd of over 3,000 attended. In 1912 the Pavilion did not open until early July, perhaps an indication that all was not well financially and that the venue’s popularity was fading. Entertainment that year was by Meistersinger’s Band from London and the Sunshine Party, a Pierrot troupe led by Dan Derry. An “American” bowling alley installed some time earlier was still being advertised as was the shooting gallery. 1912 was the year of the Ulster Covenant which involved the signing of a “Solemn League and Covenant” undertaking to resist Home Rule for Ireland at any cost. Following an extended religious service some 1,500 people signed the Covenant in the Pavilion.

For the 1913 season the Company had extensively altered the inside of the Pavilion which was now divided into three separate halls each with a capacity of approximately 1,000 people. The Pavilion now boasted a cinema, a ballroom and a theatre with stage and all necessary fittings. Business improved markedly and during August there was even some difficulty in accommodating intending customers. In 1914 the cinema opened on 6th July and the theatre and ballroom the following week. But the clouds of war over-shadowed everything. On 5th August Britain entered the First World War; the last passenger ship to Ardrossan, SS Hazel, sailed the next day and there is no record thereafter of activities in the Pavilion other than a “special entertainment” on 4th September for the Prince of Wales’ War Fund.

A new manager, Mr McCandless, took over in 1915 and the cinema and ballroom proved very popular even though there was a general frowning upon entertainment at home whilst the troops were risking their lives at the front. 1916 saw a recovery of sorts with both the cinema and theatre open for business although the financial state of the company was not at all secure. On 18thNovember the Wintergardens were put up for sale as a going concern and purchased on 1st December by Mr W. J. Morrow for £1,755.

Mr Morrow and Mr Robert Chalmers, a prominent merchant in the town and a fellow member of the Urban District Council proceeded to set up a new company, the Pavilion (Portrush) Limited, with the aim of continuing and expanding the business with lettable shops, public baths, a switchback railway and a helter-skelter. However, entertainment in the cinema and theatre was spasmodic during the season and although great plans were made most failed to reach fruition, generally through lack of money. The final straw came in late October when the gas engine and dynamo which provided the electricity to run the building both broke down. At the annual general meeting early in 1919 the shareholders agreed to accept an offer of £2,300 from F. B. Audinwood, on behalf of the railway company. The company was wound up in March and workmen began dismantling the building in April as the railway company required the site to be returned to its original state. By September it was reported that the no trace of the Pavilion remained and that the Pleasure Grounds had been retuned to their original purpose as a recreative space for excursion parties.

Extracted from “Fun is our Business” by Professor James Fairley.