ONE Saturday afternoon in August of 1937 one of Southend’s most popular buildings was destroyed in a matter of minutes.

Holidaymakers and residents gathered in the pouring rain in their hundreds to watch the almost unbelievable spectacle – the Floral Hall was burning down after being struck by lightning during a storm.

A bolt of lightning had struck the women’s dressing room and an instant blaze had broken out.

Crowds watched open-mouthed and in horror as flames shot through one of the town’s largest entertainment venues, located in Western Esplanade.


Blazing woodwork rolled down the esplanade as the fire took hold and spectators were forced to flee to Southend Pier for safety.

Firemen battled to douse the flames but the after 45 minutes the hall – largely made of wood – collapsed to the ground in a hellish roar.

“It had been reduced to a skeleton,” one witness described.

“The front of the building crashed with a roar not many feet from the heaving crowds of onlookers.

“Dense smoke poured out over the sea, and very soon the roof and most of the walls fell in, leaving only iron girders in position. Hundreds of holidaymakers watched the scene. In spite of the heavy rain, blazing woodwork rolled down the cliffs on to the Esplanade.”

One solace to come out of the fire was that nobody died, although at least 20 performers instantly found themselves out of work.

Earlier that afternoon the concert party usually performing at the Floral Hall – the Paramount Follies – hadgiven a performance at a local cinema, otherwise they would have been at the hall. When they heard what was happening members of the Follies rushed to the burning building to try to save some of their belongings, but it was too late.

Echo: The popular Westcliff concert party, the Fol-de-Rols, pictured at Southend’s Floral Hall in 1922The popular Westcliff concert party, the Fol-de-Rols, pictured at Southend’s Floral Hall in 1922 (Image: Newsquest)

One member of the group, Charles Cornford, watched the fire helplessly from the side of the street – dressed only in a pair of flannel trousers.

Everything else he owned was inside the building. “I have lost almost every stitch I possess,” he cried.

The Floral Hall had sprang up out of the former Happy Valley entertainment venue in 1920.

It was built by Minsk-born composer and music publisher Herman Darewski but was later taken over by the Southend Corporation when he ran into financial troubles.

Darewski ended up in the bankruptcy court in 1922 with liabilities of more than £64,000.

As well as the Floral Hall Darewski had built The Arcadia Theatre in Tylers Avenue, Southend.

But it appears he had overstretched himself as both venues ended up having to be sold off.

The Floral Hall’s name came from the flower shows that it was renowned for hosting, but it went on to become just as famous for its variety acts and music hall shows.

The hall was capable of seating 1,000 people and was built so that the roof could be opened up in the summer months and closed when the winter came.

One of the most popular acts to ever perform there was the Westcliff concert party, the Fol-de-Rols. They were the hottest ticket in town in 1922 and returned in subsequent years to entertain patrons.

Another event the Floral Hall became well known for was the annual crowning of Southend’s Carnival Queen. The first ever carnival queen, Ena Bone, was crowned there in 1928, even though the carnival had been going since 1906.

Another performer who had been a favourite amongst audiences at the Floral Hall was Harry Wood, better known under his stage name ‘The Great Cyril’.

Harry, who had been born in London, met with an accident early in life and this left him disabled permanently, but not sufficiently enough to prevent him earning a living on stage.

Despite his physical disabilities he soon realised his passion for the stage and his skill for ventriloquism.

He became a professional entertainer and appeared before audiences in many parts of the world.

He came to Southend as he was a friend of Herman Darewski, who had invited him to perform at the Floral Hall.

‘The Great Cyril’ died in 1939, two years after the Floral Hall burnt down.

After the demise of the Floral Hall Southend Council paid the licensee of the venue £500 but it wasn’t enough to rebuild the hall.

Another part of Southend’s entertainment history was reduced to rubble – and is barely remembered today.