Walter Mearns Johnston was born in 1885 and was one of the “movers and shakers” in the earlier days of Holland on Sea. In the 1920’s he leased the cliffs and foreshore from the eastern edge of Star Point, by Hazlemere Road, through to Cliff Road from the owner, and Lord of the Manor, C. W. Hayne and invested in developing the seaside facilities in a drive to attract business through both tourists and local residents; constructing a number of refreshment kiosks and changing pavilions. These were built of shiplap and sat on substantial timber piles that had been driven through the sand into the clay bed below. Blocks of beach huts were also constructed and positioned atop of freshly formed concrete sea defence walls which not only acted as a base but both protected them from the ravishes of the sea and helped stop cliff slippage. Each hut was personalised with its own name, such as “Sea Breeze”, “Invictus”, “Sandy Gap”, “Olympus”, and “Sonia”. Johnston had his own corporate colours and all the huts and pavilions were painted in orange and cream/white, alternating on each shiplap plank, and adding to the gay seaside atmosphere. Unfortunately, despite his not inconsiderable civil engineering, it didn’t prevent cliff landslides, and the concrete walls probably added to the scouring of the beach, with consequential damage occurring as walls toppled; all credit to him, the piled pavilions faired a lot better. Johnston certainly helped attract visitors to the area where he could make a modest charge for using both his beaches and facilities and the 1930’s were the golden years. But a dark cloud loomed on the horizon with the outbreak of the Second World War and not only did it prevent visitors from coming to Holland on Sea, the arrival of civil defences prevented the ongoing maintenance of the structures. As well as the attack of mother-nature, the area found itself surrounded by barbed wire, minefields, and even the building of a concrete pill box inside one of the kiosks; the roof remaining but the wooden sidewalls removed. If nothing else it did highlight the solidness of the piles that bore the weight admirably. After the war, and with Clacton Urban District Council having acquired the foreshore in 1938, the remains of the beach huts were removed, the kiosks surveyed and, all but one, demolished. The wooden piles remained, below Kings Avenue and York Road, until the mid 1960’s but the one remaining refreshment kiosk continued operating until 1984 when it too was demolished.
But Johnston was also a successful builder and operated a works depot in Kings Avenue with a yard that cut through to Dulwich Road. In the early 1930’s he built an impressive shop front between the seafront and Madeira Road, where Maplin Court now stands, which had his office landward side, a shop that sold beach paraphernalia in the middle, and Queen’s Cafe on the sea-side corner. Work continued with the construction of a theatre extending out the back and a solid set of entrance doors in the centre of the building frontage; this now having a canopy that sheltered the foyer, supported by orange painted posts and a mottled glass fringe around it in an art deco style; the theatre opening in 1935. Entertainment was provided by a professional company during the summer months, whilst in the winter it was used for amateur dramatics, as well as whist drives, dances, and other social events. The land that was situated between the side of the Queens Hall Theatre and the seafront was turned into an attractive tea garden as part of the cafe.
Sadly, as visitor numbers fell away, to both Holland on Sea and the theatre, shops and cafe, so the building became uneconomical and was demolished in 1972. The Maplin Court flats that were subsequently built on the site had, for some years, just empty shells on the ground floor as it was rather optimistically hoped that these would be the base for a number of small shops and offices but when this failed to attract any interest they too were converted into residential dwellings.
Both Johnston and his wife became councillors for the Clacton East Ward, and he died on 1 April 1972, aged 87.