In the C16th, Douglas was a tiny settlement of a few houses clustered around the mouth of the Douglas River. “Castletown”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/south/castletown/castletown_town/index.html was the capital and power house of the island.
Douglas began to grow in the C18th as a result of the smuggling trade, a better harbour than at Castletown and good links to Liverpool. The harbour developed and merchant’s houses and warehouses were built along North Quay.
Douglas didn’t really begin to develop as a port until the introduction of steamships at the start of the C19th which provided a much more reliable service than sail. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company running the service is the oldest continuously operating passenger shipping company in the world.
A breakwater and piers were built to form an outer harbour. It is the only deep water harbour on the island and boats can dock at all stages of the tide. The modern Sea Terminal is still the first sight for most visitors to the island.
The inner harbour is now a marina, which is accessible for about 2.5 hours on each side of high tide.
Despite the breakwaters, the waters of the bay are still dangerous if there are easterly storms. After witnessing two shipwrecks, Sir William Hillary, a Douglas resident, drew up plans for a lifeboat service manned by trained crews, intended not only for the Isle of Man, but for all of the British coast. The first lifeboat station was built in Douglas in 1802 and by 1825 was the first station to have a purpose built lifeboat. The original lifeboat station closed in 1895 and the present station on south quay was established in 1874.
Sir William was also responsible for the building of the Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay after Steam Packet St George foundered on Conister Rock in 1830. He realised it was too far to swim to the shore and the Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay was built on 1832 to offer offer shelter and provisions for sailors awaiting rescue. The tower originally had a bell to summon help and a supply of bread and fresh water. It is possible to walk to the tower at very low spring tides, although the tide comes in very quickly and visitors can be stranded.
With the start of a regular and reliable service from Liverpool, wealthy holiday makers soon arrived in Douglas. 60.000 visitors in 1870 had grown to over 310,000 by 1887. Grand hotels grew up along the sea front to accommodate them and a promenade was built. Maze like older streets were demolished in slum clearances between 1870-1920 to be replaced by wider streets, lined with imposing buildings.
“Railways”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/transport/steamrailway/index.html were built to carry holiday makers to Peel on the west coast as well as Port St Mary and Port Erin at the southern end of the island. “Horse trams”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/transport/horsetram/index.html ran along the Promenade to take holiday makers to the terminus of the “Electric Tramway”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/transport/manxelectric/index.html which ran north to Ramsey.
Douglas became the capital of the Isle of Man in 1865 when Tynwald, the Manx Parliament, moved here from Castletown. It still has a busy working harbour and is a thriving finance centre. It is also the main shopping centre of the island.
Douglas also manages to retain the feel of a Victorian seaside town with is wide sweeping bay with a sandy beach and promenade and Marine Gardens. The Victorian buildings survive although many are now flats or holiday lets. The splendid Jubilee Clock celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria still stands at the foot of Victoria Street and is still telling the time.
The Gaiety Theatre and Villa Marina along the Promenade, have both been restored to their Victorian splendour and still offer year round entertainment. Only Castle Mona stands neglected and unloved. This was built in 1804 as the residence of the fourth Duke of Atholl, who was appointed Governor of the Isle of Man. When he arrived he complained that neither Peel Castle or Castle Rushen were suitable for him to live in and he was obliged to live in an ale house. Castle Mona was built from stone imported from Arran and was reached by a long driveway along what is now the Promenade which led to a magnificent gateway. After his death it became a hotel and the grounds were swallowed up by the Promenade and Villa Marina complex. but The hotel closed in 2006 and this once splendid building is now empty and for sale.
Douglas is also the start and finish of the TT races which bring visitors in their thousands to the island every year.
There are more pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/man/central/douglas/index.html