Situated on the northwest coast of England, overlooking the Irish Sea, is the town of Blackpool – the main borough of Lancashire. It is a beloved seaside resort with miles of sandy beaches, its Promenade bespangled with dazzling ornamentation. It is where the famous Blackpool Tower, formerly the tallest building in the British Empire, has stood since 1894. Entertaining tourists and residents alike for over 200 years, Blackpool has a rich and colourful history that is fascinating to explore.
So let’s dive in!
The name goes back all the way to the Medieval ages. The first mention that we have of ‘Blackpool’ is in the baptismal register of the Bispham parish, dated 1602. An incident occurred in which a historic drainage channel ran over a peat bog and a massive discharge of discoloured water rushed into the Irish Sea. This black pool of water was dubbed ‘Le Pul’. Over time ‘Black Poole’ became ‘Blackpool’.
The Charlton Elk
In 1970, an exciting discovery was unearthed on Blackpool Old Road. A 13,500-year-old skeleton of an elk. The reason this finding was so remarkable was because of the man-made barbed arrowheads dug up with the carcass. This is the earliest available evidence of human habitation this far north in the UK, dating back to the Palaeolithic era.
The Rossal Hoard
A set of Roman coins were discovered at Rossall, Fleetwood, in 1840. The Rossal Hoard is a puzzling tale centred around the Hasketh family, the founders of Fleetwood. In 1926, more coins were found at Hackinsall, dating from the period of Roman occupation around AD 80.
Though Blackpool is now most famous for its near-endless variety of entertainments, the town really began as a popular spot for sea bathing, starting sometime around 1750. Sea bathing was thought to be a remedy for ailments and was the trend of the day among the well-to-do of society. Sizeable portions of working people from nearby manufacturing towns journeyed in carts or on foot to bask in the healing properties of salty sea air.
By 1781 four large hotels had been constructed to accommodate the wealthier sea bathers, along with other facilities such as archery ranges and bowling greens. Sir Henry Hoghton and Thomas Clifton funded a road to Blackpool, which became the common route for stagecoaches from Halifax and Manchester.
In 1801 Blackpool was home to a mere 473 residents, but more people started to flow in not long after Henry Banks (“Father of Blackpool”) purchased the Lane Ends estate and hotel in 1819. He built many holiday cottages, and Blackpool’s assembly rooms were erected by his son-in-law, Dr John Cocker, in 1837, which remain standing next to Bank Hey Street and Victoria Station.
The growth of Blackpool really picked up steam in 1846, with the completion of a Blackpool branch line from Poulton. A rapid flood of holidaymakers and sightseers, arriving by train, gave new impetus for entrepreneurs to establish various venues for entertainment and accommodation. This snowballed throughout the 1850s and 1860s, with an official Board of Health being assigned in 1851, gas lighting being introduced in 1852, and piped water in 1864. By 1851 Blackpool’s population was over 2,500.
Further growth took place due to the practice of the Lancashire cotton mill owners of shutting down their factories for a single week per year to service machinery. These periods were dubbed the ‘Wakes Weeks’. With every town’s mills closing on a different week of the year, Blackpool managed to maintain a consistent flow of visitors over a lengthy stretch of the summer.
North Pier was completed in 1863 and became the central attraction for high society visitors. This was soon followed up by the Central Pier in 1868, which drew people in with a theatre and an under-the-stars dance floor. The expansion of Blackpool then continued southward, through the Golden Mile, towards the South Shore, and South Pier was constructed in 1893. This made Blackpool the sole town in the country to have three piers. Winter Gardens opened in 1878, and a decade later incorporated the Opera House, second in size only after the one in London.
Blackpool received a Charter of Incorporation in 1876, making it a municipal borough. The town then had its first mayor – W.H. Cocker, son of Dr John Cocker and grandson of Henry Banks. Blackpool became an official county borough in 1904.
The bright future of Blackpool was set in the 1870s as the town grew to become the front runner in the use of electricity. Blackpool became the very first municipality in the world to have electric street lighting. Its Promenade wired and its streets aglow, Blackpool solidified its position as North England’s primary holiday resort. This is the very energy and character that gave birth to the modern Blackpool Illuminations lights festival.
The world’s first electric tramway was laid in 1885, stretching as a conduit line from Cocker Street to Dean Street on the Promenade. In 1895 another tramway line was added from Manchester Square to South Shore, later getting extended further north to Glynn Square, and then to Fleetwood. The conduit line was upgraded to overhead wires in 1899, which is still running today.
Unsurprisingly, the population of Blackpool had jumped to 35,000 by the 1890s. The town could host 250,000 visitors. Blackpool saw an estimated three million holidaymakers per year, most choosing to spend a week at the glowing seaside resort. Blackpool Tower and the Grand Theatre both opened their doors in 1894, the latter being one of Britain’s first all-electric theatres.
The 1900s kicked off with the accelerated development of the Promenade, expanding it further southwards towards Harrowside and Squires Gate. This was about the same time that the Pleasure Beach was established. The town first set up its seasonal static Illuminations in 1912, but because of the First World War and its ramifications, they were only active for two seasons and were not switched on again until 1925. The Illuminations served to extend the holiday season well into September and early October, its lights being customarily switched on by household names and other notable figures.
After the First World War, Blackpool became the foremost holiday destination, and by 1920 was claiming eight million yearly visitors – that is three times the amount of its local rivals – from East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Blackpool then laid out the plans for Stanley Park in 1920 and it opened in 1926. The local residences surrounding the park had become prestigious and in constant high demand.
Littlewoods – a retail and football betting company – opened in 1937. The Blackpool Co-operative Society Emporium was built in 1938 and assimilated the Jubilee Theatre. The site stood on Coronation street but was demolished in 1988 for a shopping mall. It was abandoned and derelict until being transformed into a car park. Once the Hounds Hill Centre was built, the site got redeveloped to house the Debenhams Store.
There is evidence that suggests that the reason why Blackpool was not caught up in the Nazi air raids during the Second World War was that Adolf Hitler had decided to set it aside as a place of leisure for his own people after taking over the country. However, on 11 September 1940, German bombs struck the ground not far from Blackpool North railway station, killing eight people in the surrounding residences on Seed Street. Today, that is the site of the new Town Hall offices and a Sainsbury’s.
In July 1940, the Free Polish Air Force established its headquarters in Blackpool, after evacuating from France. They are famously known as No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron RAF and were one of two Polish squadrons to join the Battle of Britain, the other being No. 302 Squadron. Piloting Hawker Hurricanes, No. 303 Squadron shot down the highest number of enemy aircraft out of all the 66 allied fighter squadrons fighting in the Battle of Britain, with a total confirmed kill count of 126 German machines in only 42 days, despite joining the fray a whole two months after the battle had begun.
No. 303 Squadron was disbanded in 1946 with a distinguished combat record. The Layton Cemetery is now the resting place of the 26 Polish airmen. “Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry,” wrote Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, “I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle (of Britain) would have been the same.”
The population of Blackpool levelled out in 1951, with 147,000 people living in the town. After the Second World War, the town continued to pull in visitors, reaching a yearly average of around 17 million. But it soon became obvious that this was unsustainable. The textile industry had experienced a sharp decline and this resulted in a cutting of the traditional week-long break, also known as wakes week. People began to flock abroad on their package holidays, to places with a better climate. Lastly, more roads had been built in and out of Blackpool, especially the construction of the M55 motorway in 1975, which in turn brought Blackpool closer to residents of neighbouring towns, who by now had cars and were able to drive to Blackpool in just a couple of hours and did not see the need to spend the night (or an entire week) at the resort. That being said, Blackpool still remains economically rooted in the business of leisure and entertainment, catering to around 6 million visitors per year.
Now let’s explore more deeply the history of individual attractions and why they pull in millions of adventure-seekers every single year.
It may not be obvious, but the Blackpool Tower was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Standing at 518 feet tall, it is the world’s 125th-tallest freestanding tower. The Blackpool Tower is also part of the Tower Buildings, which is a red-brick entertainment complex within a three-floor block – so there is the tower itself, the Tower Ballroom, Tower Circus, and roof gardens.
The Blackpool Tower Company was established in 1890 by Standard Contract & Debenture Corporation, which purchased an aquarium on the Central Promenade in hopes of erecting a miniature copy of the Eiffel Tower. A former mayor of Blackpool, John Bickerstaffe, was then requested to assume the position of chairman for the new company.
Two local architects, James Maxwell and Charles Tuke were central in designing and overseeing the laying of the foundation stones on 29th September 1891. The Blackpool Tower finally opened on 14th May 1894, but by then both men had passed away. New engineers soon took over the project, Heenan and Froude, and continued building and maintaining the tower, the electric lighting, and the steel front pieces for the aquariums.
The design and construction of the Tower Buildings cost about £290,000. Construction of the tower and base required five million red Accrington bricks, 3,478 long tons of steel and 352 tons of cast iron. However, unlike the Eiffel Tower, Blackpool Tower is not truly freestanding and hides a base underneath the Blackpool Tower Circus building. The total area occupied by the building is 6,040 square yards. The height of the tower peaks at the tip of its flagpole, measuring 518 feet and 9 inches tall. It should also be noted that a time capsule was buried beneath the foundation stone on 25th September 1891.
The design of Blackpool Tower was well ahead of its time. A BBC columnist wrote: “In heavy winds the building will gently sway, what a magnificent Victorian engineering masterpiece.”
The first 3,000 customers paid sixpence each for admission, another sixpence for a ride to the top of the tower, and sixpence more for the circus. In September 1983 the first member of the public, a journalist, ascended to the top of the tower using constructors’ ladders. Four years later, in 1897, the top platform of the tower had caught fire and could be seen from up to 50 miles away.
The idea of demolishing the tower had been floated briefly because the Tower was not painted properly and had begun corroding. It was deemed better to rebuild it instead, which led to all the steelwork being replaced and restored between 1920 and 1924.
First displayed in 1879, the Illuminations were described as “artificial sunshine”, lighting up the Promenade with only eight carbon arc lamps. This monumental event took place twelve months before Thomas Edison’s patent of the electric light bulb. But as magical as that moment was, it was not until May 1912 that the Illuminations began to glow in a way we might see them today, which was a special event then because it marked the first British Royal family trip to Blackpool. Princess Louise presented a brand new section of the Promenade called the Princess Parade. The decorations of the Promenade that day were described as “festoons of garland lamps” and used 10,000 bulbs. In the September of the same year the Chamber of trade, along with local businesses, requested Blackpool Council to stage a similar event once more. The following event turned out to be a massive success and in 1913 the Princess Parade lights were displayed again as an end of season event.
With the dawning of the First World War, the light displays ceased until 1925, which was when the lights were switched on again and ran from Manchester Square to Cocker Square. Animated tableaux were strung up along the cliffs from North Shore to Bispham in 1932, and soon the Illuminations were extended to the present length stretching from Starr Gate to Red Bank Road at Bispham. In 1935 Alderman George Whittaker, the Mayor of Blackpool had been scheduled to front the Switch-on ceremony, but upon meeting Railway Queen Audrey Mosson, aged 15, he requested for her to perform the ceremony. Then, in 1985, Audrey returned to complete the ceremony shoulder-to-shoulder with actress Joanna Lumley.
Once again, the Illuminations were suspended in 1939 at the raging calamity of the Second World War, and the lights were not turned on until 1949.
There is also the yearly Festival of Light, featuring interactive installations. The event is described as “a contemporary look at the concept of light and art working together to create entertainment.”
The Pleasure Beach is an amusement park on Blackpool’s South Shore. Founded in 1896 by A.W.G. Bean and his associate John Outhwaite, the amusement park has, since its inception, been a family run business.
The park can easily boast of its record-breaking roller coaster rides, including a uniquely sizeable collection of wooden roller coasters: the Blue Flyer, Big Dipper, Nickelodeon Streak, and Grand National. Upon opening in 1994, The Big One was deemed the world’s tallest roller coaster, as well as the steepest, inclined at an angle of 65°, and the second-fastest, reaching its top speed at 74mph. As it stands now, The Big One remains the tallest coaster in the United Kingdom at 213 ft, with a drop of 205 ft.
Pleasure Beach was the first park in Europe to present a wholly inverting steel coaster, Revolution. It is also the world’s last park to still have a Steeplechase roller coaster. The Grand National stands out as one of three Möbius loop coasters in the world. Then there’s also the oldest amusement park ride in Europe, which opened in 1904, Sir Hiram Maxims Captive Flying Machine. The Valhalla is up there as one of the biggest and most costly indoor dark rides in the world at £15 million, designed by Sarner and produced by Intamin. At the 2018 Golden Ticket awards it won the “Best Water Ride”, and it has upheld its status throughout the years. The park also manages Nickelodeon Land and maintains the only Wallace & Gromit ride in the world, the Thrill-O-Matic. Red Arrows Sky Force, manufactured by Gerstlauer, opened in 2015 and is a beloved Sky Fly thrill ride, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. And last but not least, the newest record is held by Icon, a multi-launch roller coaster, product of a German manufacturer Mack Rides.
An indoor waterpark with 18 slides and attractions, Sandcastle Waterpark maintains an 84-degree tropical climate. It opened for business as a joint public/private partnership in 1986 in the same location where South Shore Open Air Baths used to be.
Sandcastle houses popular slides like the Master Blaster, which is the world’s longest indoor roller coaster water slide, as well as the first vertical drop slide Sidewinder. Out of the many beloved family attractions, three notable ones are the Shimmering Shallows, the Typhoon Lagoon Wavepool, and the Ushi Gushi Action River.
Juniors should try out the Caribbean Storm Treehouse, a play area that is interactive and has a large coconut that tips over and empties 600 gallons of water over anyone lucky enough to be standing underneath it. You can also find a range of mini slides, water cannons, and jets.
In 2003 Blackpool Council assumed operation of the centre, and since then there have been considerable reductions in cost and an increase in the number of yearly visitors and spending. A sizable investment of £5.5 million was agreed to fund new attractions and was carried out in two phases, the second opening in 2006 on schedule and within the set budget.
Sandcastle Waterpark opened a further two new Aztec themed slides in 2012, one of them being a chamber called ‘Aztec Falls’, and the other a sled-like ride called ‘Montazooma.’
2016 saw a month long celebration of Sandcastle Waterpark’s 30th birthday. It involved a variety of events in collaboration with several community groups and local charities. As a result of these celebrations, 26th June 2016 was the day when the waterpark reclaimed its world record for the most riders descending a waterslide in the span of a single hour. The previous record was held by a Dutch Waterpark at 396 riders, but Blackpool Sandcastle Waterpark managed to knock it out of the park with a new official world record of 529 happily soaked riders.
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