FOR half a century, it was a Bournemouth landmark – attracting holiday-makers, coach parties and even the odd famous name.

The shell house at Southbourne took shape 70 years ago this year.

Among its admirers over the years was the pop star Barry Manilow, who asked his chauffeur to stop so he could have a look around. Margaret Thatcher visited during the Bournemouth East by-election in 1977.

The creator of the shell house, at 137 Southbourne Overcliff Drive, was George Howard, who had been a hotelier and served in the army, the merchant navy and the police, as well as working at Bournemouth’s ice rink.

In 1957, the Echo reported that, over nearly a decade, Mr Howard had transformed the garden into “an attraction which people come from miles around to see”.

The report added: “Working with sea shells, which he collects from all over the world, he has obtained some remarkable effects. He has built a grotto in the garden, and his latest effort – finished only July in July – is a wishing well.”

There were eventually two grottos, incorporating bits of broken pottery and untold thousands of shells from Mr Howard’s travels. There was lava rock from Iceland, coral from the Red Sea, Porto Cristo rocks from Majorca, rocks from St Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, a prehistoric tree from Portland and quartz from South Africa.

Giant clam shells, several feet tall, provided a setting for children to have their photographs taken.

It was said that valuable William Morris and William de Morgan art noveau tiles were embedded in the concrete, and there was a statue of King George and the Dragon, said to be worth £3,500.

The garage was full of information about the gardens, with many volumes of visitor books and a display of cuttings from the Echo.

In 2000, George Howard’s son Raymond revealed that a family tragedy had most likely inspired the creation of the garden.

It was probably a memorial to Mr Howard’s other son, Michael, who died of meningitis in the 1940s, at just 14 years old.

Raymond said: “People have often asked me why my father did the garden and I haven’t an answer except that I believe it was a memorial to my brother.”

George Howard had said of his shells: “They are the only things in this world that grow more beautiful after death.”

Mr Howard made no money from the shell house, but he raised many thousands of pounds for charity.

That Echo report of 1957 revealed that coins thrown into the wishing well already filled five sacks and amounted to more than £50 for the mayor’s Christmas appeal.

In 1988, Christchurch Hospital’s new patients’ activities centre was named the Howard Social Centre, in recognition of the many thousands of pounds he had raised for the hospital’s League of Friends.

George Howard died in 1986, and his wife Sarah died in 1989, leaving Raymond to maintain the house. It was still a high point of many a tour of Bournemouth, even though it had its critics. (An Echo report in 1997 sniffed that it “manages to be both grotesque and charming at the same time”.)

But by the 21st century, Raymond was unwell, and the house was often targeted by thieves and vandals.

In February 2001, neighbours were woken at 7am by demolition workmen smashing the shell house’s cement features and using a digger to clear the rubble. One neighbour said: “We’re shocked. No-one told us this was going to happen.“It’s such a shame. The shell house is a part of local history and a lot of people are going to be very disappointed to see it gone.”

A demolition contractor said: “We were asked to clear it by the owner and that’s what we’re doing. I’m aware it might not be a very popular move but a job’s a job.”

Ken Male, Bournemouth’s head of tourism, said: “It’s been a Bournemouth icon for decades and a feature enjoyed by many. I’m sure a lot of people are going to be very sad not to see it when they stroll along the clifftop.”

One charity worker told the paper that the shell house had been the best attraction in Bournemouth for a party of school children who had visited from Chernobyl.

During the demolition, the four massive clam shells – which had been set aside for donation to Somerford Infants School – were stolen. They were thought to be worth £1,000 each, although the contractors said it would have been illegal to sell them.

The house itself remained, with a patches of shells surviving, until 2003, when it was bulldozed to make way for a block of flats.

In 2007, George Howard’s granddaughter Carol Mason wrote to local historian Andy Foot ( that from the 1980s, the garden was being “constantly vandalised”.

“Statues that Grandad had lovingly placed were either smashed or stolen,” she said, with some of the thefts requiring a heavy lifting operation.

“It is soul destroying to see something that a loved one has spent so many years building, being slowly violated.”

She added: “Believe me, it took incredible strength on behalf of the whole family to end the garden. Maybe we should have made public our intentions to demolish the garden, but it was hard enough without all the adverse comments and publicity that would have ensued if it had been made known. We made the decision as a family and grieved as a family.”

Seventy years after its creation, several online tributes and YouTube videos show that the Shell House is still remembered with fondness.