Originally known as Whitley, meaning white lea or pastureland, by the early 12th century the area was owned by the Prior of Tynemouth. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Priory lands and estate were enclosed and divided up, except for the area now known as Whitley Links, which to this day remains as open land. The area is subject to a covenant restricting construction on the land and outlining limits on its use. For a period of time in the 19th century the northern end of The Links was used as a soldier’s camp and firing range but by the late 19th and early 20th centuries Whitley Bay had emerged as a bustling seaside holiday resort.
On 10th October 1890 The Links golf course opened. The area of land now known as The Links takes its’ name from the original 9-hole course which was situated on this narrow strip of land along the coast, with the Clubhouse opposite Spanish City. The course moved on several occasions finding its current venue in 1954. Whitley Bay’s tourist draw was immense through the Spanish City fairground, ballroom dancing, theatre and other amusements, quality and cost-effective accommodation including the Canvas Town tented accommodation, typical seaside shops, excellent transport links, an extremely long and picturesque golden-sandy beach, promenade, beachside cafes such as Panama House and the Rendezvous Cafe, rentable beach huts, regular carnivals along the promenade and The Links, The Flower Show on the links, as well as the picturesque St. Mary’s Lighthouse.
Lovely Nelly – 1st January 1861
The brig, Lovely Nelly, still lies three quarters of a mile from the shore off Whitley Sands, opposite Brier Dene, a former toll-bar on the then turnpike road. The ship was laden with coal and driven by a snowstorm in towards the coast. The lifeboat had to be towed three miles along the coast to reach the scene, as the storm prevented it being launched at Cullercoats. One version of the event says that the boat had been hauled by women, but a newspaper report at the time records that it was pulled by horses. All the crew were saved except for the little cabin boy, Tommy, who was too frightened to jump from the rigging.
During the 1780s a massive ox, that grazed around Whitley Bay links, grew to a staggering height of 5ft 9ins at its shoulders and weighed a massive 216 stones. It became famous amongst locals and Thomas Bewick created a copperplate etching and drawings of the large ox. The engraving was published in April, 1789. Truly a local legend, the Whitley Large Ox was so big and cumbersome that when it was due for slaughter, it created a massive public spectacle. So much so, that it took seven days to walk it the ten miles or so to Newcastle, through sizeable crowds.
Panama House operated as a cafe on the promenade from 1895. Built for Stephen Fry (not that Stephen Fry) it is said that he was a senior diver during the building of the Panama Canal and that this may have been how the cafe got its name. Some believe that The Panama House café was constructed from the deckhouse of the wrecked ship, SS Panama, and hence how it got its name, however there is no evidence of this shipwreck nearby. Regardless, the quirky boat-themed café and its’ owner, Stephen, were very much part of the tourist scene in the early 1900s. People would flock to Panama House to listen to his tales until he passed away in 1912. At the beginning of 1933 plans were accepted for laying out Panama Dip between the Panama House and Blyth Road. A bandstand was part of this design and Whitley Bay’s orchestra played there in the morning and evening. Panama Dip frequently had entertainment with folk dancers from all over the world. In 1945 the Panama House Café was destroyed by fire. It was never rebuilt. In later years a pool and fountain were built beside Panama Gardens to commemorate the Civil Defence of the Second World War.
For the hardiest of souls the Panama Swimming Club, based on the Whitley Bay promenade and built in the 1950s, provides a unique base for sea-swimming. Members dip in the North Sea on a weekly basis and on New Year’s Day they enter the North Sea undeterred by the weather. Panama Swimming Club was formed in the early 1900s.