Category Archives: Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage

Funny Girls

Former Odeon Cinema, now Funny Girls, Blackpool, Lancashire

Former Odeon Cinema, now Funny Girls, Blackpool, Lancashire

In the summer of 1939 Blackpool ignored the possibility of war.

The huge new Art Deco, 2,920-seat Opera House auditorium opened in the Winter Gardens, starring George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned Out Nice Again.

A short distance down Dickson Road the Odeon Cinema, designed by W Calder Marshall for Harry Weedon’s practice, opened on May 6th 1939.  Its capacity of 3,088 made this the largest auditorium in the company’s chain, bigger even than the flagship cinema in London’s Leicester Square:  it cost £82,500.

This was one of the relatively few 1930s Odeons intended to have an organ, a magnificent five-manual Compton instrument, big enough to stand comparison with the Wurlitzers in the Tower and Winter Gardens.  Oscar Deutsch disapproved of theatre organs:  he thought they were a waste of money.

As it happened, the Odeon organ was not delivered until after war broke out, and was apparently bombed in the railway sidings at Blackpool.  Eventually, in 1946, the Conacher organ from the Ritz, Southend, was installed.

The Blackpool Odeon was tripled in October 1975 and closed in 1998.

It stood derelict for some years, until Basil Newby recreated it magnificently as Funny Girls [http://www.funnygirlsonline.co.uk], refreshing the meaning of the expression “holiday camp”.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click hereTo order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Blackpool’s Big Wheel

Former Big Wheel Café, St Michael-on-Wyre, Lancashire

Regular clients on Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times tours are used to finding that the tour contains more than the outline promises.

This isn’t simply perverse marketing:  sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute, too late to advertise, and I like to have a reputation for providing more than it says on the tin.

The guests on the Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage (July 10th-15th 2013) tour were mystified to be taken to see Judith Hunter’s conservatory next to her caravan-site in St Michael’s-on-Wyre, a few miles inland from Blackpool.

I told them they would see perhaps the only surviving relic from the Blackpool Winter Gardens’ Big Wheel.

The Big Wheel, along with the Empress Ballroom, was the Winter Gardens manager Bill Holland’s response to the arrival of the Tower in 1894.

The Ballroom was a great success, and provoked the Tower Company to embellish their assembly room into the Tower Ballroom.

The 220ft-high Big Wheel of 1896 largely failed to compete with the higher, simpler Tower, except in one respect:  in quiet periods (there were many) young men escorting young ladies sometimes bribed the attendant to hold the Wheel for a time when their carriage was at the top.

When the Tower Company took over the Winter Gardens in 1928, almost their first act was to dismantle the Wheel.

The thirty carriages were auctioned off as garden sheds and summer houses, and Judith’s was bought by Miss Edith Swallow, the first matron of Blackpool Orphanage, to serve as a holiday home for the orphan girls.

For some years Judith used it as a café but now she keeps it for private use.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The People’s Caterer

Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

The great rival of Thomas Sergenson, Blackpool’s late-Victorian theatre impresario, was William Holland (1837-1895), “the People’s Caterer”, who first made his name managing the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury_Music_Hall].

Bill Holland was employed by the Winter Gardens Company specifically to counter the competition from Sergenson.

Against the opposition of a number of Winter Gardens directors, including the chairman, Dr Cocker, Bill Holland proposed and carried through the construction of the predecessor of the present-day Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham and built in nine months flat at a cost of £9,098.  It opened with a D’Oyly Carte production, The Yeomen of the Guard, on June 10th 1889.

As part of the same project, Frank Matcham redesigned the Winter Gardens Pavilion in the form of a proscenium-arched theatre.

Holland promoted an all-day admission charge of 6d which included operatic ballet spectaculars directed by John Tiller.  Fixed budget catering also appealed to thrifty Blackpool holidaymakers:  “One Shilling Dinner and One Shilling Tea.  Plenty of Everything.  Help Yourself!” 

Bill Holland apparently owned an old grey parrot, which he had trained to say “Going to see Bill Holland’s ballet?”  For the Winter Gardens, he initiated The Great Parrot Scheme:  he bought a hundred parrots, each in a cage marked “Blackpool Winter Gardens – Two Shows Daily”.

The birds were lined up in rows four deep and trained to repeat the grey parrot’s message and were allegedly placed all the leading hotels and restaurants of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The total investment in the Opera House and associated extensions cost the Winter Gardens Company approximately £14,000:  gross receipts trebled between 1887 and 1891 to £36,000 and the dividend reached 8%.

In response to the opening of the Tower in 1893, Bill Holland persuaded the directors to install electric lighting throughout the Winter Gardens at a cost of £3,307, and to pay an additional £975 to buy out Dr Cocker’s 1875 covenant against dancing, so that he could plan the Empress Ballroom, designed by Mangnall & Littlewood of Manchester (who shortly afterwards built Morecambe’s Victoria Pavilion), with a barrel-vault roof, a balcony promenade and a proscenium stage. 

The Empress Ballroom was at the time one of the largest in the world, 189ft × 110ft, with a dancing-area of 12,500 square feet.

The Art Nouveau decorative scheme included plasterwork by J M Boekbinder and twenty-eight Doulton tile panels of female figures symbolising jewels by William J Neatby.

It opened in 1896, the year after Bill Holland’s death.

The Tower Company paid him a posthumous compliment by refurbishing their somewhat functional Assembly Hall as the sumptuous Tower Ballroom.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Grand theatre

Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Lancashire

Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal, has now gone, destroyed by fire in 2009: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/BlackpoolTheatres/TheatreRoyalBlackpool.htm.

In the late nineteenth century its lessee was Thomas Sergenson, who ran a stage-production of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne – “Dead!  Dead!  And never called me mother!” – for twenty-five summers.

He was a smart businessman and made enough money to purchase a plot of land in 1887 to build a Grand Theatre.

He initially erected a row of shops with a temporary circus building behind, until it became apparent that he held a prime site between the Winter Gardens and its new rival the Tower, which was started in 1891.

Accordingly, he commissioned Frank Matcham to complete the Grand Theatre auditorium at a cost of £20,000 and opened it on July 23rd 1894, two months after the Tower opened, with Hamlet, starring Wilson Barrett.

By 1901 Sergenson had bought out his business partners, and he sold the theatre to the Tower Company on December 23rd 1909 for £47,500.

Like so many Victorian theatres, the Grand was threatened with demolition:  in 1972 it was planned to demolish it to make way for a department store.  It was restored, after vociferous public protest, first as a bingo house, and then sold for a quarter of a million pounds to its present owners, the Grand Theatre Trust.  It was reopened as a theatre by HRH the Prince of Wales on May 29th 1981.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Nobbut an annexe

Opera House, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

Opera House, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool’s Opera House is the third on its site – a lavish art-deco design by Charles MacKeith, with two balconies and a total seating-capacity of 2,920.  The full stage-width is 110 feet, with a proscenium opening of 45 feet.

The opening-ceremony on July 14th 1939 was performed by Jessie Matthews, who was appearing in I can take it at the Grand Theatre just down the road, with an organ-recital including a duet by Horace Finch, the Winter Gardens’ resident organist, and Reginald Dixon.

The stage show included a train-wreck scene incorporating a full-size replica of the Royal Scot locomotive.

The first variety bill at the reopened Opera House starred George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned out nice again.

The Opera House was the venue for the first Royal Variety Performance to take place outside London, in April 1955.

When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remarked what a fine building the Opera House was, the company chairman Douglas Bickerstaffe commented, “Ay, I suppose so, although it’s nobbut an annexe to t’Tower.”

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Pleasure Beach

Casino, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, Lancashire

Casino, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, Lancashire

Apart from being great fun, the Pleasure Beach has a long, proud history as part of Blackpool’s entertainment culture and as a hugely successful business dedicated, in the words of its former director, Leonard Thomson, to “separating the public from their money as painlessly and pleasurably as possible”.

Leonard Thomson was the son-in-law of one of the co-founders of the Pleasure Beach, William George Bean, who brought an American Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway to Blackpool’s South Shore in 1895 and collaborated with a Yorkshire meat-trader, John W Outhwaite, to import other rides from Coney Island to set up a permanent fairground on what had previously been a gypsy encampment.

Their ambition was to create, in the words of W G Bean, “…an American Style Amusement Park, the fundamental principle of which is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character”.

In 1906 they contracted for an electricity supply from the Tramways Department, which meant that the rides could operate into the evening, which in turn increased the traffic on the tramway.

When the Corporation widened the Promenade across the site in 1913, Bean and Outhwaite secured an advantageous agreement that no amusement facilities or tram services would be permitted further south for fifteen years.

Their price for varying this agreement when the trams were extended to Starr Gate in 1926 was that all trams made a compulsory stop at the Pleasure Beach, and those trams terminating there showed the destination “Pleasure Beach” rather than “South Shore” – providing free advertising that continues to this day.

When Leonard Thompson died in 1976 his widow Doris became Chairman and their son, Geoffrey Thompson, Managing Director.  Mrs Thompson made a point of testing each new ride as recently as 2002 when, aged 99, she rode the Spin Doctor.

Geoffrey Thompson ran the company until his death at the age of 67 in June 2004:  his mother died, aged 101, shortly after her son’s funeral.

The company is now operated by Geoffrey’s children, Amanda and Nicholas Thompson.

The Pleasure Beach website is at Blackpool Pleasure Beach: UK’s Most ICONic Theme Park.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Essentially Victorian Blackpool

Blackpool Promenade (2003)

Blackpool Promenade (2003)

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.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Reginald – and Reg

Blackpool Tower Ballroom

Blackpool Tower Ballroom

U3A in Sheffield has an admirable Lunch & Lecture event twice a year, and I was invited recently to be the “turn” with my lecture Fun Palaces:  the history & architecture of the entertainment industry which, inevitably, includes a segment on Blackpool Tower.

At the end of the lecture a gentleman came over and discreetly pointed out that I should not refer to the Tower’s most famous organist as “Reg” Dixon.  To Blackpool people, he was and is always Reginald Dixon.  In future, I mean to get that right.

As it happens, Reginald Dixon was born and bred in Sheffield.  He learnt to play at the Cemetery Road Congregational Church on the southern edge of town, and worked as a professional organist at, among other cinemas, the Heeley Palace, where he had to keep an eye on the level of the River Sheaf as it flowed past the building, in case it threatened to flood the orchestra pit.

When he applied for the vacant post as organist at the Tower, he bluffed in saying he could play dance music, but his idiosyncratic style proved ideal for the demands of accompanying ballroom dancers, rather than silent movies, on an orchestral organ.  His contract began in March 1930;  he made his first radio broadcast a month later, and by 1933 was able to persuade the Tower Company to install a completely new, three-manual, thirteen-rank Wurlitzer with a carillon and an additional piano.  The original Tower Wurlitzer was transferred to the Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens.

Reginald Dixon became one of the most potent of Blackpool’s legends.  He is famed for ‘Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside’, but when he reinaugurated the Wurlitzer after the 1956 fire he began with the first tune he ever played in the Ballroom, ‘Happy days are here again’.  He made a point of accompanying Christmas concerts and performances of Handel’s Messiah on the Wurlitzer.  He switched on the Illuminations in 1956 and was awarded the MBE in 1966:  he played his final concert at the Tower on Easter Sunday 1970.  He died, aged eighty, in 1985.

Actually, there was a Reg Dixon also.  He was born in Coventry in 1915, and died in 1984.  He was a comedian popular in the 1940s and 1950s, the closing years of variety. His catch-phrase was “I’m not well.  I’m proper poorly.”  There is interview-footage of him at http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=78574 and further footage at http://deanocity3.piczo.com/coventrystvandradiopersonalities?cr=5&linkvar=000044.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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.

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 £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.