Here’s another card from my friend Jay’s recent trip during the school holidays, featuring the British seaside resort of Blackpool. To a kid who grew up amidst family holidays to beachside communities in southern California — not to mention other trips to resorts on the Texas Gulf Coast and even Atlantic City, New Jersey (and my current home on an island in southern Thailand) — the idea of such a northern location as Lancashire, England, having beach resorts seems preposterous. In fact, Blackpool was considered “the archetypal British seaside resort” at the start of the twentieth century and continues to attract millions of visitors every year.
Blackpool is on England’s northwest coast of the Irish Sea, between the Ribble and Wyre estuaries, 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of Preston, 27 miles (43 kilometers) north of Liverpool, 28 miles (45 kilometers) northwest of Bolton and 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Manchester. It had an estimated population of 142,065 at the 2011 Census. The town gets its name from a historic drainage channel (possibly Spen Dyke) that ran over a peat bog, discharging discolored water into the Irish Sea, which formed a black pool (on the other side of the sea, “Dublin” (Dubh Linn) is derived from the Irish for “black pool”). Another explanation is that the local dialect for stream was “pul” or “poole“, hence “Black poole”.
People originating from Blackpool are called Blackpudlians although Sandgrownians or Sandgrown’uns is sometimes used (as too for persons originating from Morecambe and Southport) or Seasiders (although this is more commonly associated with Blackpool F.C.).
Some of the earliest villages on the Fylde, which were later to become part of Blackpool town, were named in the Domesday Book in 1086. Many of them were Anglo-Saxon settlements but some had ninth and tenth century Viking place names. The Vikings and Anglo-Saxons seem to have co-existed peacefully, with some Anglo-Saxon and Viking placenames later being joined together such as Layton-with-Warbreck and Bispham-with-Norbreck. Layton was controlled by the Butlers, Barons of Warrington from the twelfth century.
In medieval times Blackpool emerged as a few farmsteads on the coast within Layton-with-Warbreck, the name coming from “le pull“, a stream that drained Marton Mere and Marton Moss into the sea close to what is now Manchester Square. The stream ran through peatlands that discolored the water, so the name for the area became “Black Poole”. In the fifteenth century the area was just called Pul, and a 1532 map calls the area “the pole howsys alias the north howsys“.
In 1602, entries in Bispham Parish Church baptismal register include both Poole and for the first time Blackpoole. The first house of any substance, Foxhall, was built toward the end of the seventeenth century by Edward Tyldesley, the Squire of Myerscough and son of the Royalist Sir Thomas Tyldesley. An Act of Parliament in 1767 enclosed a common, mostly sand hills on the coast, that stretched from Spen Dyke southwards. Plots of the land were allocated to landowners in Bispham, Layton, Great Marton and Little Marton. The same act also provided for the layout of a number of long straight roads that would be built in the areas south of the town center, such as Lytham Road, St. Annes Road, Watson Road and Highfield Road.
Throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Blackpool was a coastal hamlet in Lancashire’s Hundred of Amounderness, and remained such until the mid-eighteenth century when it became fashionable in England to travel to the coast in the summer to bathe in sea water to improve well-being. In 1781, visitors attracted to Blackpool’s 7-mile (11 km) sandy beach were able to use a new private road, built by Thomas Clifton and Sir Henry Hoghton. Stagecoaches began running to Blackpool from Manchester in the same year, and from Halifax in 1782. In the early nineteenth century, Henry Banks and his son-in-law John Cocker erected new buildings in Blackpool such that its population grew from less than 500 in 1801 to over 2,500 in 1851. St John’s Church in Blackpool was consecrated in 1821.
Blackpool rose to prominence as a major center of tourism in England when a railway was built in the 1840s connecting it to the industrialized regions of Northern England. The railway made it much easier and cheaper for visitors to reach Blackpool, triggering an influx of settlers, such that in 1876 Blackpool was incorporated as a borough, governed by its own town council and aldermen.
The construction of Blackpool Pier (eventually North Pier) started in May 1862, the most northerly of the three coastal piers in Blackpool. Although originally intended only as a promenade, competition forced the pier to widen its attractions to include theatres and bars. Unlike Blackpool’s other piers, which attracted the working classes with open air dancing and amusements, North Pier catered for the “better-class” market, with orchestra concerts and respectable comedians. Until 2011, it was the only Blackpool pier that consistently charged admission. As of 2016, it is still in regular use, despite having suffered damage from fires, storms and collisions with boats. Its attractions include bars, a theatre, a carousel and an arcade. One of the oldest remaining Sooty glove puppets is on display commemorating Harry Corbett buying the original puppet there.
In 1879, Blackpool became the first municipality in the world to have electric street lighting, as large parts of the promenade were wired. The lighting and its accompanying pageants reinforced Blackpool’s status as the North of England’s most prominent holiday resort, and its specifically working class character. It was the forerunner of the present-day Blackpool Illuminations.
In 1881, Blackpool was a booming resort with a population of 14,000 and a promenade complete with piers, fortune-tellers, public houses, trams, donkey rides, fish-and-chip shops and theatres. In 1885, one of the world’s first electric tramways was laid down as a conduit line running from Cocker Street to Dean Street on the Promenade. The line was operated by the Blackpool Electric Tramway Company until 1892 when their lease expired and Blackpool Corporation took over running the line. A further line was added in 1895 from Manchester Square along Lytham Road to South Shore, and the line was extended north, first to Gynn Square in 1899, and then to Fleetwood. In 1899, the conduit system was replaced by overhead wires. The tramway has remained in continuous service to this day.
By the 1890s, the town had a population of 35,000, and could accommodate 250,000 holidaymakers. The number of annual visitors, many staying for a week, was estimated at three million. 1894 saw the opening of two of the town’s most prominent buildings, the Grand Theatre on Church Street, and Blackpool Tower on the Promenade. The Grand Theatre was one of Britain’s first all-electric theatres. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Blackpool Tower is 518 feet (158 meters) tall and is currently the 120th tallest freestanding tower in the world. When the tower opened on May 14, 1894, 3,000 customers took the first rides to the top. Tourists paid sixpence for admission, sixpence more for a ride in the lifts to the top, and a further sixpence for the circus. The first members of the public to ascend the tower had been local journalists in September 1893 using constructors’ ladders. In 1897 the top of the tower caught fire, and the platform was seen on fire from up to fifty miles away. In 1949 a post box was opened at the top of the tower. The hydraulic lifts to the top of Blackpool Tower were replaced in 1956–57 and the winding-gear replaced by electric; the lifts and winding gear were again replaced in 1992.
The first decade of the new century saw the development of the Promenade as we know it today, and further development southwards beyond South Shore towards Harrowside and Squires Gate. The Pleasure Beach was first established about this time. Seasonal static illuminations were first set up in 1912, although due to World War I and its aftermath they only enjoyed two seasons until they were re-introduced in 1925. The illuminations extended the holiday season into September and early October.
The inter-war period saw Blackpool attain pre-eminence as a holiday destination. By 1920, Blackpool claimed around eight million visitors per year, three times as many as its nearest British rivals, still drawn largely from the mill towns of East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Stanley Park was laid out in 1920 and opened in 1926. The area round the park has become renowned for some of the most desirable residences in the area. In 1937, Littlewoods opened its first department store in the town.
Documents have been found to suggest that the reason Blackpool escaped heavy damage in World War II was that Adolf Hitler had earmarked the town to remain a place of leisure after his planned invasion. Despite this, on September 11, 1940, German bombs fell near Blackpool North railway station and eight people were killed in nearby houses in Seed Street. This site today is occupied by the new Town Hall offices and Sainsbury’s Supermarket. No plaque is erected to remember the injured or dead. In the same war, the Free Polish Air Force made its headquarters in exile at Blackpool in Talbot Square, after the force evacuated to Britain from France. The nearby Layton Cemetery contains the war graves of 26 Polish airmen. The famous No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron was formed in Blackpool, and became the most successful Fighter Command unit shooting down 126 German machines in only 42 days during the Battle of Britain.
Blackpool’s population boom was complete by 1951, by which time some 147,000 people were living in the town — compared to 47,000 in 1901 and a mere 14,000 in 1881. In the decade after the war, the town continued to attract more visitors, reaching a zenith of 17 million per year. However, several factors combined to make this growth untenable. The decline of the textile industry led to a de-emphasis of the traditional week-long break, known as wakes week. The rise of package holidays took many of Blackpool’s traditional visitors abroad, where the weather was more reliably warm and dry, and improved road communications, epitomized by the construction of the M55 motorway in 1975, made Blackpool more feasible as a day trip rather than an overnight stay. The economy, however, remains relatively undiversified, and firmly rooted in the tourism sector.