When I last stayed in Blackpool for a birthday celebration we took a walk along the North Pier at dusk. On the way back to the promenade I ended up in conversation with two siblings, Richard, who was twelve but looked sixteen and had lost a tooth in a rugby match, and Natalie, eighteen, who was about to read medieval history at a university of her choice.
Natalie, who’s grown up down south and whose immediate family usually holidays abroad, was fascinated by the unfamiliarity of being in the great working-class resort of the north-west. I pointed out that the Tower is a vertical pier – sturdy engineering topped with a fairy-tale structure five hundred feet above the sea. When it opened in 1894 anybody with a few pence in their pocket could stand nearly five hundred feet in the air, an experience otherwise only accessible by balloon.
When we returned to the promenade a tram glided past, one of those huge double-deckers gleaming with light. I mentioned that Blackpool had one of the first electric street tramways in the world, dating back to 1885. At least as important, in historical terms, is the fact that the Corporation tramway department pioneered the development of Blackpool’s greatest stroke of municipal acumen.
To mark a royal visit in 1912, the tramway electricians were asked to festoon the promenade with coloured lamps, which drew so many extra visitors that from 1913 onwards, interrupted only by two wars and the General Strike, the Illuminations, as they were called, extended the Blackpool season by anything up to two months, adding to the prosperity of landladies, hoteliers and shopkeepers, enhancing the profits of the railway companies and subsidising the municipal rates from the increased profits of the trams themselves.
It made practical sense, during the busy summer season, for tram engineers to work on the Illuminations, while all their vehicles were needed on the road, and the autumn visitors kept the trams busy to the end of October. Eventually, a separate Corporation department was established to run the Illuminations, and until the establishment of the National Grid, Blackpool had to buy additional power from Preston Corporation, because their own generating works couldn’t cope with the extra load.
As I pointed out to Natalie, when people go to see the Blackpool Illuminations, they’re doing something essentially Victorian – admiring electricity.
Details of this year’s Illuminations are at http://www.blackpool-illuminations.net.
The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all: the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside: the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.