November 9th, 2022
A highlight of the BBC TV series ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is the episode that takes place at the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool, considered to be the spiritual home of ballroom dancing. To celebrate the return of the Tower Ballroom episode of the current season of Strictly (after a two year break due to Covid), we’re shining our spotlight on Blackpool with this selection of nostalgic images from The Francis Frith Collection.
The arrival of the railway in 1846 sparked Blackpool’s growth into a major holiday resort with the emphasis firmly on fun and entertainment. Blackpool catered especially for the rapidly-expanding working-class holiday market of the late 19th century and promoted itself right from the start as a busy, unbuttoned and rumbustious place where those who worked hard could come to play even harder during their annual holiday away from their labours. Factory and mill workers from the northern industrial towns flocked there in their thousands each summer, and by the 1890s the town could accommodate a quarter of a million holidaymakers.
The resort was developed along mainly down-to-earth lines, and there was much investment in its attractions as Blackpool grew in popularity. Blackpool’s famous Tower was built as a novelty to draw visitors to the resort rather than to its rivals and opened in 1894. It was the idea of John Bickerstaff, mayor of Blackpool, local hotelier and entrepreneur. He was inspired by Gustave Eiffel’s great tower in Paris, which had opened five years earlier in 1889, and believed that a similar outstanding landmark would put the seal on Blackpool’s growing reputation as a resort. Bickerstaff raised the money to construct it by calling on all the cotton barons of Burnley, Blackburn and Preston, and persuaded them to invest in the project – thus it has often been said that Blackpool Tower is built on bales of cotton. When it opened it boasted a permanent circus, a menagerie, and an aquarium in the building at its base. Note the camel giving visitors a ride along the beach in front of the Tower this view!
The spectacularly opulent Tower Ballroom was commissioned by John Bickerstaff a few years later, in 1899, and decorated in the French Renaissance style, modelled on the Paris Opera House. On a busy night in the 1930s as many as 6,000 couples might have been dancing on the floor on 75,000 blocks of mahogany, oak, maple and walnut. At one time, the Spinsters’ Ball was a regular occasion, where thousands of rose petals were showered on to the dancers. In 1956 the ballroom was gutted by fire, but was entirely rebuilt to its original designs. It was famous for its Wurlitzer organ, which featured in countless BBC broadcasts and made organist Reginald Dixon, ‘Mr Blackpool Himself’, a household name from 1930 until he retired in 1969.
One of Blackpool’s former attractions that is seen in many old photographs of the seafront was a gigantic Ferris wheel, which was constructed in 1896 beside the Winter Gardens to compete with the Tower. 30 cars, each accommodating 30 people, rose high into the air to give a spectacular view of the town. However, the wheel was a financial disaster, unpopular with visitors because every time one of the cars reached the bottom, the wheel was stopped while it was unloaded and reloaded; the structure was dismantled in 1928.
In 1896 Alderman William George Bean founded Pleasure Beach, Blackpool. The 42-acre site was in the perfect spot, opposite the tram terminus, and Blackpool hoped that this new amusement park would be a big success. One of the early rides at the Pleasure Beach was Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machine, which was built in 1904 and so was quite new when this photograph was taken in 1906. Passengers sat in captive cars that revolved and swung outwards at an exhilarating 40mph, simulating flight. The Blackpool Flying Machine is still in operation and thrilling visitors at the Pleasure Beach today, virtually unchanged from Maxim’s original design, and is the oldest operating amusement ride in Europe.
It was in Blackpool that the first sticks of seaside rock were made, their success assured by the novelty of them having ‘Blackpool’ written all the way through. In 1937 George Formby recorded a famous comic song about his misadventures ‘With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock’.
The men who maintain the steel structure of the Blackpool Tower are known as ‘Stick Men’. In 1994, to commemorate its centenary, abseiling painters highlighted the sides of the Blackpool Tower with gold. Today’s holidaymakers can shudder with pleasurable vertigo as they stand on the glass floor at the top of the most iconic seaside building in the world.
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