A History of Blackpool & Blackpool Tower

Britain’s Most Iconic Seaside Resort

Vintage Postcards of Blackpool

Blackpool is seen by many as an illuminated anachronism of the very worst, and the very best of the English seaside resort, but whatever your feelings it’s a step back into a time almost forgotten. Once there, and you’ve taken in several deep breaths of very fresh, very bracing Irish Sea air, climb aboard one of the original corporation trams and you’ll soon notice that Blackpool has a past that can be seen, and heard, as you clank and rattle passed three of the most beautiful Victorian piers you’re ever likely to see. Stay aboard the green and cream tram and you’ll witness a parade of 19th and early 20th century architecture at its most robust. And when you eventually get off the tram at the Pleasure Beach you can indulge yourself in the delights of one of the oldest fairgrounds in the world, with one of the biggest big dippers in the world too.

If you don’t fancy the big dipper you can still laugh along with the original Laughing Policeman — you might even spot a real policemen — and when giddy from the innumerable, and terrifying rides, you can (pink candy-floss in hand) take a horse drawn carriage back along the Golden Mile to the Tower Ballroom and watch, and listen, as the ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ organ rises from beneath the stage in a fog of dry ice with the familiar chords of ‘Oh I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside’, encouraging hundreds of ballroom dancers to their feet. After a quick-step or two why not take a ride up the Tower itself — 125 years old — and from your 518 ft (and 9 inches) advantage point see the lights of the Grand Theatre, the Opera House, and the Winter Gardens, venues that still pack in the paying audiences every summer. The political Party conferences have now gone elsewhere. After that visit the ‘original’ Gypsy Rose Lee can still read your palm, if you dare. You can then easily top that eerie experience with a visit to the Tower Circus, or a show at the Opera House, or any one of the piers, followed by some of the best fish & chips in the world, all washed down with a pint or two of Tetley’s ale.

Blackpool is a living, breathing, historical monument that seems to constantly re-invigorate its own past by keeping it very much in the present. Just walk up and down the Promenade and I swear you’ll see those black and white steam driven days of the 1890s, and the motorcycles and sidecars of the 1920s and 30s. Sit in the galleries of the Tower Ballroom and you’ll hear the echo of those 1930s dance bands, or if you’re very lucky, The Beatles back in the early 1960s. Stay seated long enough and you’ll also see the decline of the resort in the 1970s when Blackpool lost out to cheap, sun-drenched holidays abroad — and ironically the not dissimilar attractions of Disneyland.

And it’s only in the last couple of decade or so — with a couple of large new hotels opening on the north Promenade — that Blackpool has tried again to attract more visitors, plus trade shows and conferences, including the International Chess Congress, and the ‘Talk of the Coast’, which is one of the biggest talent contests in the world; and according to those who know Blackpool has also become the gay capital of the North, with clubs such as ‘Funny Girls’ a popular spot for stag and hen nights.

But many of Blackpool’s elected wanted to change its external image dramatically by building a huge hotel and casino complex — the gambling industry has been buying-up property along the Golden Mile for years — that will take more money in a single night than all the ‘eyes down’ bingo stalls could possibly take in a year — and pour a small fortune into the corporation coffers. Local opposition from small hotels and businesses, who saw the proposals as a threat to their livelihoods, have managed to see off the proposals for the time being. Time will tell.

When the Scottish born screenwriter — he co-wrote most of the Will Hay films — humourist, and lyricist, Marriot Edgar (aka Edgar. G. Marriot, and half-brother of crime novelist, Edgar Wallace), wrote The Lion and Albert monologue for Stanley Holloway in the 1930s, he didn’t choose the geographical setting of his first verse lightly: There’s a famous seaside town called Blackpool, That’s noted for fresh air and fun, And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom went there with young Albert, their son. Edgar chose Blackpool because it meant — had meant for over 150 years — exactly that: fresh air and fun.

Blackpool was just a scattered collection of farms and fishermens’ huts in the first half of the 18th century, and it must have felt cut off too situated as it was at the end of a long stretch of flat rather marshy land through which no one had thought of building a road. What was the point? And until the construction of the M55 the road system across that strange piece of treeless land was pretty abysmal and confusing. But Blackpool did have something a bit special: several miles of sandy beaches and an Irish Sea that came right up to the shoreline at every high tide, which was soon to satisfy the craze for sea bathing.

The 1750s saw the first real influx of bathers prepared to charge naked into the freezing Irish sea, which caused a good deal of consternation amongst the fisherman and farmers until they realised that with the arrival of these hearty folk came the chance to make some money. The 1770s and 1780s saw several enterprising locals build Inns and small hotels to house the increasing number of the gentry — and a growing number of the new merchant rich — who, in the summer months, ventured along the twisting footpaths to seek their watery pleasures. By the end of the 18th century a road had been built — with regular summer stage coach services from as far away as Halifax — which was the first step toward Blackpool’s future success, with ‘bathing accommodations advertised in newspapers across the north of England to encourage the new industrial rich to come to Blackpool.

With the explosion of the Industrial Revolution — and the increase in the populations of the industrial centres of northern England and Scotland — Blackpool’s visitor levels increased steadily.

At the height of the so called ‘cotton famine’ in 1863 — when thousands of mill workers were laid-off — an amazing 195,287 passengers disembarked at the Talbot Road Railway Station during that summer season. By 1873 — with the off-season population of Blackpool just 7,092 — the influx of summer visitors reached the all time high of 850,000. Forty years later, and in the last season before the Great War, Blackpool saw its visitor numbers rise to a staggering 3.8 million! Only New York’s Coney Island could rival Blackpool in 1913. Even during the dark years of World War I — and due mainly to severe travel restrictions — Blackpool still thrived as a tourist attraction, helping to put a little colour and fun back into the life of a nation worn down by war. During the 1920s and 1930s visitor numbers continued to grow, and by 1937, when a Parliamentary Committee was debating the desirability of making holidays with pay compulsory — and, according to a newspaper poll, an overwhelming majority of the British working-class agreed that the only proper holiday was one spent by the seaside — Blackpool was attracting 7.5 million visitors between June and September.

In the early part of the 19th century new buildings appeared in Blackpool in an indiscriminate fashion, with most of them small commercial enterprises, and built as close to the beach as possible to attract as many customers as possible. The majority were built of wood and were often washed away. Only with the construction of the two-mile long sea wall in the 1860s did Blackpool begin to develop in a planned and orderly fashion. With the completion of the sea wall the North Shore development began in earnest — it was destined to become, for a short while, the ‘best end’ of Blackpool — with large three and four storey houses built along the Promenade, with slightly smaller versions in the streets behind — many of which later became small private hotels with such names as ‘The Claremont’, and ‘The Northland’, names which still conjure up the aspirations of those times.

In 1867, the imposing Imperial Hotel was also built on the North Shore which, for those few decades before the First World War — and during the early 1920s — became a summer refuge for the wealthy Lancashire factory owners, who delighted in the hotel’s sumptuous interiors.

The Imperial’s guests, turning their backs on the raucous downtown Blackpool, would, after a hearty breakfast, stroll northwards along the Promenade toward Fleetwood — perhaps sitting for a while to read the newspaper, or watch the fishing fleet heading out into the Irish Sea — before returning to the hotel for lunch. In the afternoons they might enjoy the delights of the many bars, play snooker, or broil gently in the Turkish Baths, or perhaps listen to an afternoon recital of Gilbert and Sullivan. Then, after dinner — for which it was obligatory to ‘dress’ — they’d dance to a splendid palm court orchestra, play cards, or read, before retiring to their beds. And you can still enjoy the four star luxury of the Imperial Hotel today.

Along the South Shore the development was less grand, with row upon row of narrow three storey terraced houses — invariably built of bright red Accrington brick — with bay windows painted white and proudly displaying the inevitable Aspidistra. By the late 1880s, the ubiquitous ‘Vacancies / No Vacancies’ signs began to appear alongside the Aspidistras. These guest houses, and the larger private hotels on the North Shore became, and still are, the bedrock of Blackpool’s visitor accommodation. During the 1890s, and the early part of the 20th century, the front gardens of the terraced houses along the South Shore Promenade were gradually built upon and turned into either shops or attractions of one sort or another, becoming, with the arrival of electricity, the now famous ‘Golden Mile’.

The first real visitor attraction in Blackpool was the rather ramshackle wooden building — a cross between a non-conformist church and a dilapidated Southern mansion — called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which was built in the late 1850s on the North Shore to house such attractions as shooting galleries, a theatre and dance hall — with nightly minstrel shows — and a long bar in the style of a Western Saloon. It remained in use until just after the First World War. Blackpool’s first pier, the North Pier — a stone’s throw from the Talbot Road Station — opened in the mid-1860s for the exclusive use of the burgeoning middle-classes. It had a 2d entrance fee which allowed its patrons an ‘extensive and agreeable promenade’, and access to, and landing from, pleasure boats and other machines.’ It was a huge success, but according to the operators, attracted from the outset the ‘wrong sort of people’.

A second pier, the South Jetty, was built for those wrong sorts, with its entrance constructed on land donated by Robert Bickerstaffe, which just happened to be opposite his own Wellington Hotel. It opened in 1868, but didn’t succeed until Bickerstaffe’s nephew, also named Robert, took over the management of the pier in 1870. He immediately instigated a bar and dance hall at the end of the pier, cheap boat excursions and fairground attractions, all of which attracted huge crowds, and huge profits. Over the next twenty years or so a small group of Blackpool entrepreneurs constructed the Raikes Hall Pleasure Gardens, the Winter Gardens, the Grand Theatre, the Opera House, and the Central Pier, plus large shopping developments, and the first Yates’ Wine Lodge.

Blackpool was beginning to take on its now familiar character. The 1890s also brought the first Gypsy encampments — situated on the site of today’s Pleasure Beach — which became, in itself, a large visitor attraction. This encampment is thought to have been the home of the first, and original, Gypsy Rose Lee. The first official Illuminations opened in May 1912 ( there had been an earlier version where six gas arc lamps were used to illuminate a carnival along the Promenade in 1879, which attracted over 100,000 people) and with the exception of the two World Wars have gone from strength to strength, with, today, over six miles of lights (at a cost of many millions of pounds), creating one of the world’s finest illuminated extravaganzas.

Paris’ Eiffel Tower, built for the International Exposition of 1889, provided the initial inspiration for Blackpool Tower, with the actual construction proposal coming from the London based Standard Debenture Company who, on paper, had plans to build several towers around the country. It was, to quote historian, John K. Walton, “…a shell company, with very little of its capital subscribed, which aimed to acquire a plot of land and sell it on to a newly created Tower Company, at an inflated profit, and then go into liquidation at an early stage.”

This would leave the project stranded with virtually no prospect of constructing “…a viable business on the over-valued site.” What Standard Debenture had not reckoned with was the Mayor of Blackpool, John Bickerstaff (who’d invested 2,000 of his own money in the project), who was, like other members of his family, not in the business of losing money. And because Bickerstaff became suspicious of Standard Debenture early on he made it difficult for them to attract sufficient new investment, which effectively stalled the project, allowing Bickerstaff time to take over and reconstruct the Tower Company, attract new local investment and complete the job.

The foundation stone of Blackpool Tower was laid by Sir Mathew White-Ridley Bart, MP, on the 25th of September 1891, with the main construction carried out by Heenan and Froude of Manchester, with steel erectors Bell and Wilcox working as sub-contractors. The legs of the Tower are supported by concrete blocks each 35 feet square and 12 feet deep. Embedded in the concrete are rolled joists so that the overall weight of the Tower (3,830 tons) is evenly distributed. A ‘Tower-Rearing Supper’ (topping-out ceremony) was held on the 29th September 1893 after the crow’s nest, at 480 ft, had been completed. Sadly, both architects of the project, James Maxwell, and Charles Tuke, died before the ceremony.

The Tower opened on Whit Monday, 14 May 1894, with the red brick building beneath containing a restaurant, pavilion, aquarium, menagerie, roof garden, and, naturally, several bars. In July 1897 an electrical fault in a searchlight cable caused a fire at the top of the Tower and because of the Tower’s height was left to burn itself out. As a result of the intense heat the cables of the lift counterweights weakened and then snapped, sending the huge counterweights plunging downward to smash through two concrete floors before embedding themselves below one of the legs of the Tower where they remain to this day.

The elaborate rococo style Tower Ballroom, designed by Frank Matcham — with its famous quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ above the stage: “Bid me discourse, I shall enchant thine ear” — was opened in March 1899 and is still a breath-taking example of completely over-the-top interior design. But there is something magical about the ballroom, something warm and welcoming that no other building in Britain can offer. For just a few pounds you can spent a whole day in the Tower complex which gives a strange feeling of safety from the elements and the real world lurking outside.

The white and gold Wurlitzer organ was installed in the Ballroom in June 1929 — just weeks before the now legendary Reginald Dixon began his 40 year career behind the keyboards. Most of the Tower’s steelwork was replaced in the 1920s, and after another fire in 1956 the partially destroyed Ballroom was completely restored to its present glorious condition. In the 1960s the Bickerstaff family sold the Tower to Lord Delfont’s First Leisure Group, and in 1998 First Leisure sold it to Leisure Parcs. It is now owned by the local council and run by the Merlin Entertainment Group.

In these days of virtual reality Blackpool, and its treasured icon, Blackpool Tower, still stand out as a symbol of a genuine reality when fun was a collective and rather jolly experience.

It’s still a great place to visit.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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