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Sun, sand... and stench from the old gasworks!
ESPLANADE House is infamous in Southend as a ghost office block which haunted the seafront for two decades.
Anyone who saw the huge half-demolished concrete shell in Eastern Esplanade, its empty windows staring out mournfully over the estuary, before it was demolished last month, would struggle to believe it was once a town landmark.
Even more surprising is the revelation that the old Southend gasworks site behind Esplanade House – some of which is earmarked for social housing and a new Premier Inn - was once a tourist attraction, drawing daytrippers to the seafront.
The gasworks, which began supplying the burgeoning town with gas from the site then at its eastern fringe in 1855, became a sprawling industrial development, stretching from Northumberland Road to the seafront, and from Victoria Road to Arnold Avenue and Burnaby Road.
The firm W J Holding, of Milton Street, Southend, built brick buildings and a furnace on the site in the 1890s.
Its gas holders would become a feature of the lower town’s skyline for the best part of a century.
Local historian Arthur Woodward said: “You could see the gas containers all over Southend.
But visitors weren’t drawn by the gasworks’ impressive scale – Edwardian holidaymakers sat on the beach opposite, where coal to produce the gas was unloaded on to the corporation pier, believing the mixture of coal tar vapour and sea air was good for their chests.
Small coal-carrying ships and sailing barges would tie up alongside the jetty, which jutted out into the river about 200 yards, and the coal would be unloaded on to a hopper.
From the coal hopper, small trucks would take the coal to the main furnace. Hot ashes would be brought back by the same method and tipped into the sea.
At low tide, the debris would be picked up and loaded into barges.
Coke, a by-product of the gas production, was also taken away on barges, but one would often see people waiting outside the works with wooden handcarts, because when the coke was cool enough, it could be bought cheaply.
Much of the gasworks was cleared by the Sixties, with the advent of North Sea gas making the process unnecessary.
However, Esplanade House was built at the southern end of the site, on Eastern Esplande, to house North Thames Gas Board staff.
Mr Woodward, 71, of Bournemouth Park Road, Southend, said: “It was a white building which stood out like an eyesore, as far as I could see.
“It was built for gas board employees, but it was never used much. It was a blot on the landscape.”
In the 1970s the Pye group finally announced the closure of its Ekco subsidiary in Priory Crescent, Southend.
At the same time, a group of major banks were setting up a joint operation, the Access Credit Card Company, to combat the growing success of Barclaycard.
With the Ekco offices conveniently available, Access chose to make its headquarters in Southend. As the business grew, more and more staff were trained, which made Southend a growing area to set up new call centres.
Access took over Esplanade House in the Eighties as its headquarters for NatWest Access, with staff praising the sea views.
But like all too many of the office blocks built in Southend’s Seventies customer service boom, the huge building was empty again by the Nineties after Access shrunk and moved its main headquarters to Basildon.
The site has been derelict ever since.
Property firm Robert Leonard Estates bought the site for redevelopment and part demolished the building to avoid paying business rates in 2008. Southend Council initially rejected plans to redevelop the site as 220 flats, a 64-bedroom hotel, restaurant, shops, a public square and affordable housing the same year, as it feared buildings up to 18 storeys high were too big.
It agreed a scaled down plan in 2010, but work is yet to start as the recession made such a major development unviable.
The council also chose the Southend-based property firm over John Cross, owner of the Boatyard restaurant in Old Leigh, to redevelop the site of the old corporation loading pier as a top-class restaurant in 2008, but again work is yet to start.
Premier Inn was granted permission to build an 80-bed budget hotel with a Brewers Fayre bar on the site next to Esplanade House, which Robert Leonard Estates also owned, last September. The chain hopes the new hotel will be ready by the end of this year.
Robert Leonard Estates agreed to tear down Esplande House as part of a deal with Premier Inn and a wrecking crew started demolition in November.
Rubble still remains to be cleared, but residents, businesses and long-suffering councillors have welcomed the demolition of the “monstrous carbuncle” that sawSouthend dubbed “Beirut-on- Sea”.
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