I am often asked why are we writing a book on Blackpool. Is English Heritage now recording the history of Strictly Come Dancing or the escapades of stag and hen nights? Well, in a sense yes! That is a part of the long colourful history of Britain’s favourite seaside resort, a history of entertaining its customers for over 200 years. We wanted to celebrate this rich heritage and ensure it is appreciated today just as millions have enjoyed it over the years.
English Heritage’s new book Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage traces the town’s history of catering for visitors back to the mid-18th century. Although now renowned for its diverse entertainments, it owes its existence to an interest in sea bathing, which was first recorded there in the 1750s when a handful of this village’s largest houses accommodated and entertained its wealthy visitors. By the early 19th century the first small, purpose-built facilities were being established for the resort’s middle-class customers, but it was already clear that significant numbers of working people from manufacturing towns were travelling in carts or on foot to enjoy Blackpool’s natural charms.
When the railway arrived in the 1840s Blackpool was just a large village but during the middle years of the 19th century it began to grow more quickly. In the 1860s two piers and a large hotel, the Imperial Hotel, opened, which gave Blackpool facilities that rivalled Brighton, the country’s resort of choice for the aristocracy and middle classes. In the following decade Blackpool again demonstrated its ambition by the opening of one of the first Winter Gardens in England, an early aquarium and a set of electric street lights in 1879, which were among the earliest in the world. The love affair with electricity continued in the 1880s with the creation of one of the world’s first electric tram lines. And during the 1890s the seafront was adorned by the Tower, Britain’s tallest building when it opened in 1894.
In 1919 Thomas Luke celebrated Blackpool as ‘one of the wonders of the world’ and fifteen years later JB Priestley in English Journey proclaimed it to be ‘the great roaring spangled beast’. Blackpool had created entertainment on an industrial scale to satisfy the tastes of industrial workers; they could enjoy the elegant interiors of the Winter Gardens, promenade along Blackpool’s three piers, ride increasingly exhilarating (actually terrifying) rollercoasters at the Pleasure Beach and marvel at the breathtaking views from the Tower. At its peak Blackpool could boast around 10 million visitors per year and during the 1930s its numerous theatres and cinemas could seat more than 60,000 people each night.
During the inter-war years Blackpool Corporation had undertaken substantial investment to give the Victorian resort a fresh look and modern facilities. These included a vast new lido, an indoor swimming pool, tram stations and even a very early multi-storey bus station and car park for the growing number of visitors arriving by bus and car. After World War II Blackpool remained Britain’s busiest resort, but a growing section of its traditional market could now afford holidays abroad or were attracted to other British destinations. Blackpool was perceived in some quarters to be old-fashioned, run down and suffering from social problems, but Blackpool Council responded to these concerns and in 2003 published a Masterplan containing proposals to regenerate the town’s distinctive neighbourhoods, its town centre and the seafront. Major investment has followed, transforming the arrival experience for motorists leaving the motorway, creating new sea defences with a modern promenade and tram system behind. Work is well advanced on the Talbot Gateway development, which is creating new homes and a central business district near Blackpool North Station.
Blackpool’s colourful and varied heritage is playing a significant role in the regeneration of the town. In April 2006 a Townscape Heritage Initiative was launched to stimulate private investment in the town centre and in subsequent years many historic buildings have been refurbished, while the streets have been repaved and new, futuristic lighting installed. The Winter Gardens and the Tower were bought by Blackpool Council in 2010 and ambitious restoration programmes have begun to revive these key attractions.
So why a book on Blackpool? Blackpool’s not just a town for people who want to foxtrot across the floor of the Tower ballroom or dress as a golfer or a pirate on a stag night. It has miles of sandy beach, a wealth of entertainment, hundreds of traditional B&Bs, modern hotels, three piers, a fairground unrivalled anywhere in the world and views from the Tower to blow the mind.
Blackpool is a town with a colourful past and a bright future!
Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage was published by English Heritage in March 2014. It was written by Allan Brodie and Matthew Whitfield, who are members of the Heritage Protection Department. Brought together to work on Blackpool they have now gone their separate ways, Allan to research the seafront of the English seaside resort and Matthew to write about English suburbs.
You can purchase a copy of Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage from the English Heritage online shop.