Blackpool, UK - a Short Historical Visit Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Blackpool, UK - a Short Historical Visit

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The Blackpool Tower at night, silhouetted against the glow of the town below.

Blackpool - a vibrant holiday resort on the coast of Lancashire, England. You either love it, or hate it; a little bit like Marmite actually. But whatever your views, it has a history, so here it is.

In the Beginning

During the Roman occupation, the area now known as Blackpool was still covered with old oak forests and dangerous bog land. The local inhabitants at this time were a tribe of people known as the Setantii, 'the dwellers in the country of water'. The Romans eventually got round to doing what they're most famous for and built a road. This went through Preston to a settlement just outside Kirkham and continued westwards towards a Roman port called Portus Setantiorum, which is mentioned by Ptolemy in his 2nd Century geographical work. The exact location of this port is not certain, but is thought to have been situated just north of Fleetwood, where the River Wyre runs into the Lune Deeps.

During medieval times, Blackpool's early boundaries were marked by the old township of Layton with Warbreck, (now both separate, and still going strong) which was part of the manor of Layton, (also still around). These, together with Bispham and Norbreck (guess what - also to be found in the A-Z), formed the ancient parish of Biscopham (which means 'Bishop's estate' or Bishop's house' and is now simply named Bispham), as recorded in the Doomsday Book.

In 1416, members of the powerful Butler family were granted manorial rights over much of the Fylde coast area. This included 'Le Pull' or 'pool', which was a stream draining the mile square Marton Mere into the sea near present day Manchester Square. The peat through which the stream ran discoloured the water, hence 'Black Poole' (it could have been so much worse!).

17th Century Blackpool

The first recorded mention of Blackpool, to indicate its existence as an established town, is in the 1602 entry of the Bispham parish baptismal register. It is noted as 'de poole' and 'de blackpoole'. At this time there were a few cobble and clay dwellings situated along the coast near the 'pool'. By the end of the century changes were afoot as a number of landed gentry, notably the Tyldesleys of Fox Hall, settled in this area. Edward Tyldesley was a member of a well-known Catholic family and no-one knows why he chose this particularly desolate spot to build his summer residence (there are a few rumours, but that's another story). On the site of the original Fox Hall - described as 'Vauxhall' by William Hutton (more of whom below), is now the Foxhall Hotel.

18th Century Blackpool

Blackpool started to attract visitors from Lancashire's gentry by the 1720s and in 1735 a cottage owned by Ethart a' Whiteside was opened as the first guest house used for visitors. In 1750, drainage dykes were cut from Marton Mere to the River Wyre, reducing its size to around 15 acres. 30 years later, Blackpool had four substantial hotels and four alehouses with two more in Layton. Blackpool's major roads were also developed at this time following an act of parliament which also included the enclosure of common land, split into plots and allocated to landowners.

Some old 18th Century Quotes

The houses were few and scattered; from the church to the sea, the small white cottage previously mentioned stood [as] a solitary dwelling: from the hovel standing on the site of Bennet's Hotel to Fumbler's Hill, eight cottages might be numbered, all of them, with the exception of Forshaw's Hotel, merely huts: and at the lower end of Blackpool eighteen battered buildings, many of which are now washed down and the others dilapidated: these composed the village.
Henry Banks, of Blackpool in 1768 and the 1770s.
You desire an account of Blackpool. You shall have it. Blackpool is situated on a level dreary moorish coast; the cliffs are of earth and not very high. It consists of a few houses ranged in line with the sea and four of these are for the reception of company. One accommodates thirty, one sixty, one eighty, and the other one hundred persons. We were strangers to all, and on the recommendation of the master of the Inn at Preston we drove to the house of eighty which is called Lane's End.
Catherine Hutton, in 1788.
At Blackpool, on the 7th September, 1786, as W Tidd, Esq was bathing (the weather being tempestuous, and the tide ebbing) he was taken off his feet, and by the violence of the waves involuntarily carried out to sea, to the distance of a mile. Some gentlemen on the beach saw him, and declared the impossibility of him returning alive; and being exhausted he called out, but too late for any help to be given to him.
Richard Hall (surgeon), writing in 1795.

19th Century Blackpool

This is the era in which Blackpool started its journey towards becoming a major resort, mainly for the industrial working classes of Lancashire and Yorkshire. In 1801 the town's population is recorded as 473 - a century later it had reached 47,348!

The emergence and improvement of the railways helped to boost the number of visitors - these reached the area in 1840. By 1846 the railway extended to Talbot Road (its present location). This enabled cheap excursion trains and for the first time brought thousands of working class people to the resort. The majority of Blackpool's famous attractions were developed during the latter part of the 19th Century. These included the Tower (1894) which took three years to complete and at the time was the tallest building in the country at 518 feet, North Pier (1863), Central Pier (1868), which was originally called South Pier until the construction of South Pier (1894), the Grand Theatre (1894), the Winter Gardens, (1878), which after a dodgy start became highly popular thanks to its inexpensive all-day entertainment and refreshments and the Gigantic Wheel (1896), originally located at the Winter Gardens.

Blackpool is most famous for its Tower. Originally to be called 'Blackpool Eiffel Tower,' it was designed as an English equivalent to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and in its slender shadow a number of amusement attractions appeared so that it could continue to draw the crowds whatever the weather. There is a time capsule in the cornerstone of the Tower, which contains a recording of the voice of the man who laid the cornerstone along with newspapers and other items of the time. At one point during the construction of the lift, one of the huge concrete blocks used as a counterweight managed to dislodge itself and plummeted straight into the foundations. The block was never removed and is still there. There used to be a small zoo and the famous ballroom is still there, which frequently draws fans of ballroom dancing. The tower was built on the same site as an aquarium, whose tanks were built into the tower's design. Like the CN Tower in Toronto, Blackpool Tower has a 'walk of faith.' Parts of the floor are made from clear material that you can walk over while looking down. One of the less well-known facts about the tower is that it was constructed in such a way that, in the unlikely event of its collapse, it would fall towards the sea, thereby causing less damage. More tower facts: It is 518 feet and nine inches tall, weighs 2,586 tons and originally cost £45,000 to construct. The number of lift trips is approximately 50,000 per year.

The illuminations first appeared as features on the trams to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The first static display was unveiled in 1912 as part of a visit by Princess Louise when she opened a new section of the promenade. This rather tiny display, by today's standards, consisted of only 10,000 bulbs. Mechanical movements were introduced to the lights in the 1930s and after the Second World War new technology was used to upgrade the displays. The lights stretch a good six miles from Bispham down to Starrgate and are known as 'The greatest free show on earth.'

The Blackpool Tramway was officially opened on 29 September, 1885. It started life on the Promenade between Cocker Street and Dean Street - basically running from North Shore to South Pier. It was operated by Blackpool Electric Tramway Company until 1892, when Blackpool Corporation took over. The first extension to the tramway took place in 1895 and many further extensions then took place, both along the Promenade and to inland areas. The Promenade Line had become a double-tracked paved reservation by 1905. In 1936, the first inland route closures took place, the final one closing in 1966. Today the line runs from Fleetwood to Starr Gate. The most familiar trams are the 'Balloons' - the double-decked, curvy-lined variety. 26 of these were built and all but one remain in service. There are also five 'Boat Trams,' 13 closed single-deck two-man trams, seven two-car motor and trailer trams and eight single-deck one-man trams. There are also several special historic streetcars and 'Tour of Illuminations' trams, which can be seen brightening up the Promenade during the autumn season. The tramway offers a fully-operational passenger service, with trams running about fifteen minutes apart. On busy days, particularly in the summer, the service can be every two to three minutes on the most popular stretch of the line - mainly from North Pier to the Pleasure Beach.

Fish and chips, along with candy floss, rock, cockles, whelks and mussles are tasty treats that are all associated with Blackpool. A trip to Blackpool is incomplete without the obligatory stroll along a blustery Prom, desperately trying to keep your precious chips in their paper cone. The most famous chip shop is of course Harry Ramsden's, although the whole country is now dotted with branches of this restaurant. There are, if you care to count them, 123 chip shops of various types throughout the Fylde area. Approximately 60 of these are in Blackpool itself!

The manufacture of Blackpool rock can be traced back 200-300 years. It wasn't until 1887 that a visitor, Ben Bullock, decided it would be fun to put the name 'Blackpool' through the rock. The Coronation Rock Company is the most well-known manufacturer and was established in 1927.

Donkeys! Who could forget the donkeys? They sit forlornly on the beach, huddled together with their little jackets proclaiming their names. They exude a distinctive aroma and the sound of their tinkling bells is a joy to hear as they trot off on their short return journey, heads bowed. Oh! They have a day off on Fridays.

And did you know that Blackpool was the first place in the world to have electric street lighting? The town was granted a Charter of Incorporation as a borough on 21 January, 1876. Dr William Henry Cocker was the first mayor.

20th Century Blackpool

More of Blackpool's famous attractions were developed in the early part of the 20th Century, namely the Pleasure Beach (1905) and Stanley Park (1926). The illuminations were first created in 1912, effectively extending the holiday season by eight weeks beyond that of Blackpool's competitors. Tourism fell during the Second World War but over three quarters of a million servicemen received their initial training in the Winter Gardens.

After the war, transportation by road grew in popularity for tourist traffic. In 1964, Central railway station was closed and additional car parking took its place. In 1975 the M55 opened, linking Blackpool to the national motorway network. In 1986 a link road was built along the site of the former railway line - from the motorway to one of the country's largest open air car parks.

From the 1970s onwards, Blackpool has had to compete with the lure of foreign holidays, adjusting and re-designing its character to match the demands of an ever-changing public. At present Blackpool has seen its visitors less likely to come on traditional family holidays than on stag and hen parties and has starting to cater more for the younger generation - this is reflected by the ever-increasing appearance of clubs and pubs.

Whatever its appeal, Blackpool will always be the epitome of the cheap and somewhat brash British holiday.

Further Reading

A book entitled, A Description of Blackpool in Lancashire; Frequented for Sea Bathing was written by William Hutton, a wealthy businessman from Birmingham. He visited Blackpool for three months during the summer of 1788 with his wife and daughter. He was obviously impressed and his book is now in its fifth edition.

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