Architecture, Exhibitions

Victorian photographs of the abandoned Dreamland amusement park in Margate, Kent

All images from the series Dreamlands © Rob Ball, courtesy Dewi Lewis publishing

This month, Dreamland Margate will open to the public again for the first time in more than a decade. Photographer Rob Ball documented Britain’s oldest amusement park in the years leading up to its renovation. Ahead of a forthcoming exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery and a book published by Dewi Lewis, Ball talks about the project.

At its peak in the 1960s, Dreamland Margate thronged with visitors. Millions of them, young and old, families and couples, piled into the seaside amusement park to laugh, flirt, ride the famous Scenic Railway rollercoaster, try their luck at the coconut shy, and wolf down candy floss and jellied eels.

But over the decades that followed Dreamland waned in popularity, changing its name, losing its lustre and eventually shutting in 2003.

Now, thanks to a local campaign and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the park is about to throw open its doors again to the public, reimagined by Hemingway Design as a hip, vintage attraction.

In the years between closure and redevelopment, Dreamland was left to rot. From 2013, photographer Rob Ball captured this Dreamland, mainly using the Victorian tintype wet collodion process. Tatty, forlorn but still oddly majestic, the empty park takes on a haunting air in his photographs. The tintypes will go on show at The Photographers’ Gallery.

They also feature in a book, published by Dewi Lewis, along with contemporary colour shots by Ball and historical images of the park sourced from the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which he deputy directs.

Tintypes were first popular in the 1860s – around the same time, as Ball points out, as the Dreamland site’s first use as an entertainment venue, although it wasn’t until 1920 that it was named Dreamland, after another park in Coney Island.

“Tintypes weren’t massive in the UK, it was more of an American thing, but where they were popular was in the coastal resorts – Margate, Blackpool, Brighton,” says Ball. Because it was cheap and comparatively instant – seaside photographers could develop their tintypes in a makeshift darkroom on the street in as little as five minutes – it was one of the first democratic photographic processes,” he adds.

Portrait of Rob Ball