On 14 May 2019, Blackpool Tower celebrates its 125th Anniversary! Take a look at this history of Blackpool Tower.
Many thanks to local historian Nick Moore who has allowed us to reproduce his work. There’s much more fascinating information online in his full work “Progress – The Chronological History of Blackpool, Fylde and South Wyre“. (Please note, the original information is copyright to Nick Moore and this edited form to Live Blackpool).
Find out more about the history of Blackpool and growth of the town.
History of Blackpool Tower – in the beginning…
Did you know that the River Ribble probably once flowed out to sea where the Tower now stands?
It’s clear that it previously flowed along a different route from its current course. It’s possible that its old course took it along the northern edge of Longridge Fell to reach the sea near where Blackpool Tower now stands. (Although this has not been conclusively proved). The fact that Diamict (boulder clay or till) is found at depths in excess of 20 metres beneath the Tower supports the theory.
The history of Blackpool Tower starts with William Henry Cocker
On the 9th of December 1836, a baby boy was born on Hygiene Terrace, in a house that his father had built. The boy grew up to be perhaps the most influential man in the growth of the town of Blackpool. His father John Cocker had already built what was the first purpose-built place of entertainment, when he had the Victoria Promenade constructed. Also, soon after marrying the daughter of another prominent landowner, Henry Banks, he bought Bank Hey House at the top of Victoria Street in 1851.
Banks was fondly known as the “Father of Blackpool”. William inherited all this valuable land and buildings, and after becoming a general practitioner, he lived in a bungalow on Bond Street, before moving to his own bungalow “Bloomfield” in 1888, on Spen Gap lane. In 1928, the road was renamed Bloomfield Road after it. He finally moved to Whitegate Drive. In 1875, he offered Bank Hey and its adjoining land for the building of the Winter Gardens – part of Bank Hey House still stands inside today (in the Mazzei Cafe).
He also opened his aquarium at West Hey on the Promenade and, after selling his property company to the Blackpool Tower Company, this was later to house the Tower. In 1876, William became Blackpool’s first mayor and in 1896, its first Freeman. He died on the 14th of April 1911, being buried on the 18th of April in the churchyard of St John’s Church. The Cocker Tower in Stanley Park was erected in 1926 in his honour.
Making space for Blackpool Tower
The Central Property Company Ltd demolished a hotel from 10th of October 1893 to make room for Blackpool Tower.
The Beach Hotel which they flattened was constructed on Hygiene Terrace next to West Hey. During the 1860s, it was owned by William Thornber.
In 1866, it became Woodley’s Beach Hotel, but by 1874, its proprietor was Joseph Blakoe. He had just enlarged the premises, which now had 52 beds, a large dining room, and a new billiard room. He had also just introduced what may have been Blackpool’s first Winter Tariff.
Doctor WH Cocker bought the Prince of Wales arcade on Hygiene Terrace and turned it into a private aquarium, menagerie, and aviary. The Aquarium opened in West Hey on the 17th of May 1875. It also ran along Bank Hey Street. The space in front was an amusement park with a large seal pond. This building was the real start of the Blackpool Tower complex. Cocker had bought the building to sell to the Council as municipal offices, but they turned him down. He carried on regardless, and built the complex for his own amusement.
Evolution of The Blackpool Tower Company
In 1880, the aquarium became a Company under the title of Blackpool Central Property Company. In 1889, the Standard Debenture Corporation Limited acquired it, forming the Blackpool Tower Company in 1891.
The Cocker Aquarium (complete with its cave-like interior of Matlock stone) was incorporated into the South Wing of the Tower when it was built in 1894. It had been retained from Doctor Cocker’s own Aquarium building.
The Blackpool Tower Aquarium closed in November 2010, to be replaced by a new attraction called “The Dungeon”, which opened on the 1st of September 2011. Almost all of the creatures were moved to the SEALIFE Centre.
The Blackpool Tower Company bought the Winter Gardens Company on the 9th of January 1928 and took over on the 12th of May. Now, both rival theatres were owned by the same entity. Solicitor Charles Hardman, the chairman of the Blackpool Winter Gardens Company, said, as he and his fellow directors were soon to be sacked “One of the most dirty, sneaking and underhand transactions that have ever taken place in this town”.
1891 The Start of Blackpool Tower
The Blackpool Tower Company was incorporated on the 23rd of February, and floated on the Manchester Stock Exchange in July. Alderman John Bickerstaffe was chairman. The company had been founded by the Standard Contract and Debenture Corporation in 1890, when it bought Mr Cocker’s Aquarium block on Central Promenade with the intention of building a replica Eiffel Tower on the site. The idea of a building a tower which people would pay to ascend, was first put forward by William Darker Pitt.
John and Tom Bickerstaffe had put up £20,000 of their own money, when the London company ran short of funds. After the company had raised the £300,000 needed, Sir Matthew White-Ridley laid the foundation stone on September the 25th. His voice was recorded on a phonograph and placed beneath the stone in a metal Time Capsule, along with newspapers and other items of the period. In 1991, a search was made, in preparation for building work, but neither remote sensing equipment nor a clairvoyant could find the time capsule.
Who built The Blackpool Tower?
James Cardwell and Sons of Blackpool laid the brickwork for the buildings, and the architects were Manchester’s James Maxwell and Charles Tuke. Unfortunately, neither Maxwell nor Tuke lived to see the tower finished. The company of Heenan and Froude constructed the tower itself, and in 1893, an electric crane, made by them, was used on the Tower construction – the first of its type in the world.
Contrary to popular belief, John Bickerstaffe did NOT visit Paris and then come up with the idea of one for Blackpool. He and his brother simply saw the business possibilities in such a venture when they were explained by Darker Pitt.
The Tower itself was completed when the flagpole was lifted into position in December 1893, but the completion of the buildings was delayed until next year. On the 13th of July 1893, builder William Campbell was killed when he fell from scaffolding on the Tower. Nori stone, from nearby Rossendale, was used in the foundations of Blackpool Tower. It’s so hard it was also used in the foundations of the Empire State Building in New York.
Blackpool Tower Opens!
Blackpool Tower opened on Whit Monday, May the 14th 1894.
There was no formal opening ceremony. An estimated 70,000 customers were allowed admission after paying their 6 pence, and entered to a grand concert in the Elevator Hall. Another 6 pence got them up the tower, and 500 people per hour did this on that first day.
The two elevators, which run independently of each other, are each capable of holding 45 passengers, but no more than 30 are taken up at one time. The weight of the cars and passengers combined can never exceed 10 tons, and against this the seven steel cables attached to each car have been tested to carry at least 100 tons. As a further precaution, safety brakes, which would come into automatic operation if anything was to happen to the descent of the cars, are attached to each lift.
Originally, the lifts were operated hydraulically by three Crossley gas engines with two cylinders, with strokes of 9.9m. The 99-metre ascent took one minute. In 1952, the machinery was changed to electrical operation by Otis Lifts Ltd, and a new lift house was built on the roof. This work was finally finished in 1957, without ANY working time being lost. On that first day, 500 people an hour went to the top in the lifts. Visitors could see for up to 70 miles from its crow’s nest.
John Bickerstaffe quipped that the tower had been built on bales of cotton – an assertion taken literally for some years afterwards. The tower complex contains over 5 million bricks and 2,200 tons of steel. The first General Manager of the Tower was George Harrop.
Roll-up, roll-up for The Tower Circus
The newly opened Tower Circus could hold 3000 people standing and 3,500 holding on and was decorated to resemble a Moroccan Palace. The current capacity is 1,200.
The circus was fully remodelled by Frank Matcham in 1899. The building work then was carried out by J Parkinson of Blackpool. Reopening on the 4th of June, it was called the Tower Aquatic and Variety Circus. Its most famous attraction is its hydraulically-operated ring, which can be lowered by 4 and a half feet, and flooded with 42,000 gallons of water, to allow the famous aquatic show to be performed. “The Blackpool Gazette dubbed it a dream of ‘Moorish magnificence’”.
The World’s Greatest Circus Ring!
When the circus re-opened for the season in June, the first “free running” cage act to appear in Britain opened with it. Julius Seeth presented a full ring cage featuring 2 German boarhounds, 2 ponies, and 7 lions. By 1901, Seeth was showing 25 lions.
By 1906, the Tower Circus was officially the world’s greatest circus ring. Along with all the other attractions, there were 40 performing polar bears.
In August 1905, William Livesey was found mauled and partially eaten in the lion enclosure. He had been attacked and killed by Tower-bred lionesses. The first elephants and bears appeared in 1895, trained by Julius Wagner. Elephants from the circus were walked on Blackpool beach!
By 1927 the animals of Vojtek Trubka was amazingly varied. They included 2 tigers, 10 lions, 4 polar bears, 2 Himalayan bears, 2 brown bears, a puma, and 2 dogs.
In 1942, Bobby Roberts, his brother Tommy, and their wives, started out as a bareback riding troupe “the Ottawas” at the Tower Circus. They went on to form Roberts Brothers Circus.
Ringmasters at the Tower Circus
The Tower Circus has used several ringmasters in its time. The first was George Lockhart, who began his career at the Tower on the 14th of July 1914. His tenure was interrupted when he did military service in World War 1, but he returned to Blackpool, and continued to work there until 1946. Lockhart was the first ringmaster to use the now-famous “hunter” tails and a top hat.
He was followed by: Alfred Delbosq (1948 to 1953), Henry Litton (1954 to 1965), Norman Barrett (1965 to the 3rd of November 1990) enhanced his job with his famous performing budgerigars. In 1973, he was assisted by Harold Holt, Kate Endresz (1993), Harvey Seager (1993 to 1999). By 1996 and 1997, he was assisted by Kevin Hewitt, Laci Endresz (2000), and, since 2000, Mooky has been both clown and ringmaster.
In 1991, First Leisure Group’s head, Sir Bernard Delfont, succumbed to pressure from his wife, who was a fierce campaigner for animal rights, and scrapped live animal acts from the Tower Circus. The Tower Circus has performed its show EVERY year since 1894.
Cafe’s, Bars and …. a Zoo!
On the ground floor of the Tower’s North Wing was a café restaurant, capable of accommodating 1,000 people. It had a fountain in the centre, and a balcony surrounding the entire room. It was soon renamed as the Tower Bar and stretched all the way to the North-eastern corner of the building.
Above the restaurant was the Assembly Room, seating between 6,000 and 8,000 persons, which was available for promenade concerts or dancing. This opened in August 1894 and became the ballroom. The Tower was finally granted a liquor licence in August. There was a Monkey House and Menagerie on the second floor, and an Aviary on the third floor, containing the livestock from Doctor Cockers complex.
Blackpool Tower Menagerie
This expanded collection of wildlife was considered one of the finest in the country. The monkey house contained a large variety of primates including chimpanzees and mandrills, and a reptile enclosure with crocodiles and turtles. There were also several cages with bears, cheetahs, hyenas, leopards, lions, a black panther, porcupines, sloths, and tigers.
The main menagerie hall (lions, tigers, etc.) was transformed into the Ocean Room in 1963, and then into the “Dawn of Time” ride in 1992. In 1969, the Tower Zoo closed to the public, but the council decided that the resort should retain its own zoological collection, and the first plans were drawn up for a prospective zoo on East Park Drive. When the menagerie was removed in 1973, all stock was transferred to the new Blackpool Zoo. In 1977, the remains of the menagerie (smaller animals) were done away with, and Jungle Jim’s Adventure Playground soon opened in the space.
Sumptuous Roof Gardens on level six were also closed in 1977.
The Tower Lounge
The original Tower Bar was renamed as the Tower Lounge in about the mid-1920s. It burned down on the 14th of December 1956, but in May 1958, the Tower Lounge re-opened in the old Tower Restaurant. It had been completely rebuilt and could then seat over 1,000 – the same as the original restaurant.
The lounge closed on the 9th of November 2014, to be replaced by a Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip restaurant.
After the 1956 fire, the corner space that had originally been filled by the Tower Bar was re-furbished and became the Tower’s Starlight Bar, and then the Continental Bar (not to be confused with the Winter Gardens’ Continental Bar).
In 1974, a Tennessee Pancake House outlet opened on the corner, later becoming the American Pancake House and then a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
The Magnificent Tower Ballroom
The Tower’s Grand Pavilion Ballroom also opened on the first day, along with the Vault and the Café Bar. Composer, Oliver Gaggs, had written the “Tower Waltz” especially for the occasion. His own orchestra was retained to play in the ballroom for the first few years. Two sections of the ballroom roof were originally made to open during hot weather.
In the August, the Tower Pavilion opened. It initially featured trapeze artists, bands, comedy and musical acts, and divers plummeting into tanks of water. The shops on the Bank Hey Street side of the Tower were built and fitted out by Curtis and Son. Finally, in 1896, they were occupied by two milliners, a ship’s dealer, a cutler, two confectioners, a tobacconist, a hosier, a hairdresser, and a bootmaker.
In 1898, the ballroom was greatly altered into today’s form.
The original Tower entrances, with their carved plaques announcing the “Circus Gallery”, “Circus Pit”, and the “Tower” can still be seen on Bank Hey Street.
Strictly Come Dancing
Perhaps one of the most popular events in The Tower Ballroom calendar is the live edition of Strictly Come Dancing. It’s been a firm favourite since the first show was broadcast in November 2004. The BBC operate a random draw for tickets, and it brings money-can’t-buy publicity to Blackpool.
Fires at Blackpool Tower
There have been two fires at the Tower. The first was on the 22nd of July 1897, when “all the wooden erections and framework on the arrival and two higher platforms were totally destroyed”. Also, the “cables holding the Tower lift burned through, and the strands of wire rope attached to the car and weight, with the result that the latter, weighing eleven tons, fell from the level of the arrival platforms to the basement of the tower, burying itself in the foundations close to the foot of the north-east leg. At its fall, it smashed a considerable portion of the iron framework, and plunged through two concrete floors into one of the private boxes in the circus, and so down to the ground”.
The second fire was in 1956, when a fire, caused by a lit cigarette, destroyed the Tower Ballroom and the Tower Lounge on the 14th of December. After 18 months of repairs, the ballroom floor was replaced with 30,602 blocks of oak, mahogany, and walnut.
Also, the Wurlitzer organ console was placed on a slow rising lift in the centre of the stage. Originally the console moved forward from the rear of the stage on a motorised platform, but that apparatus is now used for the Ballroom’s electronic organ.
The Tower was given a new frontage in 1969. This was removed in 2011, when the original carvings and canopies were restored. In 2007, the Hornpipe Gallery (built in 1992) in the Tower became Restaurant 1894. It was later converted into the Blackpool Eye 4D Cinema.
Today, up to 9,000 people visit the tower every day of the year.
Blackpool Tower’s Next Door Neighbours
The Alhambra and the Palace
The Alhambra was opened on the 28th of May by George Sims, with its formal opening evening on the 3rd of July. It boasted a 3,000-seat Palace Theatre of Varieties, Waxworks, a 1,200 seat, three-tier circus, a 3,000-capacity ballroom, restaurants, a billiard room, and a winter garden. The foundation stone had been laid by George Sims on the 4th of December 1897 and covered a secret stash of contemporary artefacts. Blackpool builders Whitbreads constructed the building.
It replaced the old Prince of Wales Theatre and Baths. Later the elliptically shaped circus, in the old ballroom, was transformed into the “Ideal Skating Rink”.
The first two clowns appeared at the Alhambra Circus. They were called “August” (real name Harold Wade) and “September” (real name John Griffith).
The Alhambra went into liquidation in 1902, after being run at a loss as it could not compete with the Tower next door. It was bought by the Blackpool Tower Company in 1903, the circus was removed and replaced by a ballroom, and a theatre was built.
The Palace Theatre
It was renamed the Palace Theatre, and opened on the 4th of July 1904, with one of the world’s first moving staircases. The Alhambra ballroom was then changed into the Palace Panopticum. That then became the Palace Picture Pavilion – its own cinema – in 1909, when Vernon’s Bioscope was installed.
This operated as a cinema until 1911, when it was turned back into a ballroom. The old circus became the 1,972-seater Palace Picture Pavilion, with its own café. The theatre itself had been increased in size to seat 4,000 in 1910.
An underground tunnel was built to join the Palace to the Tower in 1914.
The Tallest Structure in the Land
The Tower stands 480 feet to the crow’s nest, and 518 feet 9 inches to the top. At the time it was built in 1894, the tower was the tallest artificial structure in Britain.
It was surpassed in the 1960’s by various aerial masts, and in 1968, by the BT Tower in London. Several people have committed suicide by jumping from the viewing platform over the years.
Blackpool Tower’s position as the World’s tallest building was taken when the Chrysler building opened in New York in 1930. The Post Office Tower opened in London on 8 October 1965, replacing Blackpool Tower as the UK’s highest building.
Refurbishment of Blackpool Tower
The building reopened for the current phase in the history of Blackpool Tower on 1st of September 2011, after a year-long £5m restoration.
The old café became a gourmet burger restaurant. The Skywalk, complete with floor-to-ceiling glass observational panel, was launched as part of the newly named Blackpool Tower Eye. The view is amazing – of the piers and the Fylde coast. On a good day you can see Manchester, the Lakes, and even Scotland.
The aquarium on ground level was turned into the Blackpool Dungeon. It’s a Lancashire version of the London Dungeon. Actors perform vignettes telling tales of smugglers, Pendle witches, the plague, and Vikings. The Dungeon was officially opened on the 24th of August 2011.
Blackpool Tower was fitted with a full new set of lights which were switched on the 12th of February 2013. An illuminated heart in the middle of the Tower contains more than 900 LED lights. The whole structure now had 5,508 LED lights, each containing 42 individual LEDs.
Other interesting things in the History of Blackpool Tower
During the war, a replica of Blackpool Tower was built on the hills of North Wales. It was put there to confuse the German pilots!
Lord Haw Haw announced that the Luftwaffe had bombed Blackpool Tower, completely destroying it. It was even said that a picture of the tower lying on the beach had been published in German newspapers. To no one’s surprise the tower was seen next morning in its usual place. One wit remarked that our engineers must have been extremely busy during the night getting it back into position.
Observers were stationed in many of the Fylde’s windmills as well as on Blackpool Tower.
Blackpool Tower was declared a Grade 1 Listed Building on October the 10th 1973
You might have heard of Albert and the Lion – by Stanley Holloway (1933). This is set in Blackpool Tower Zoo and a plaque was unveiled in 1978. It’s actually based on a real-life incident at London Zoo.
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