On 14 May 2019, The Blackpool Tower celebrated its 125th Anniversary! Take a look at this history of The Blackpool Tower, the towns fabulous icon!
MANY THANKS to Nick Moore and his fascinating History of Blackpool for some of the historical information used in this piece. You can read it here. (Please note, the original information is copyright to Nick Moore and this edited form to Live Blackpool).
Restoring the Ceiling
In late 2020, The Blackpool Tower Ballroom received £764,000 from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. The purpose of the fund was to help venues impacted by Covid-19. It enabled the repair and restoration of the legendary ballroom ceiling, back to its former glory. What a great opportunity to do this work, while the building had to be closed because of the pandemic. And it provided employment for local specialists.
- And there’s much more about the history of Blackpool and growth of the town, here.
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. And it’s possible that the old course was along the northern edge of Longridge Fell, reaching the sea near to where Blackpool Tower now stands. It’s not been conclusively proved. But 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 The Blackpool Tower
So we know that this iconic and much loved building is over 125 years old, but carry on reading to find out a LOT more!
Before The Blackpool Tower
In the 1860’s, William Thornber owned The Beach Hotel, later to be flattened to make space for The Tower. It stood on Hygiene Terrace next to West Hey. In 1866, it became Woodley’s Beach Hotel, but by 1874, its proprietor was Joseph Blakoe. He’d enlarged the premises which then had 52 beds, a large dining room, and a new billiard room. He also introduced what may have been Blackpool’s first Winter Tariff.
Doctor WH Cocker bought the Prince of Wales arcade on Hygiene Terrace and opened a private aquarium, menagerie, and aviary on 17 May 1875. It also ran along Bank Hey Street. The space in front of it 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.
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 Blackpool Tower Company also bought the Winter Gardens Company on 9 January 1928 and took over its operation on 12 May. The rival theatres were now owned by the same business. Solicitor Charles Hardman, the chairman of the Blackpool Winter Gardens Company, and his fellow directors, were soon to be sacked. He said “One of the most dirty, sneaking and underhand transactions that have ever taken place in this town”.
Incorporated on 23 February 1928, The Blackpool Tower Company was floated on the Manchester Stock Exchange in July. Alderman John Bickerstaffe was chairman. The company was founded in 1890, buying Mr Cocker’s Aquarium block on Central Promenade, intending to build a replica Eiffel Tower on the site. William Darker Pitt first put forward the idea of a building a tower which people would pay to ascend…
Foundations for The Blackpool Tower
Contrary to popular belief, John Bickerstaffe did NOT visit Paris and then come up with the idea of a Tower for Blackpool. He and his brother simply saw the business possibilities in the venture when explained by Darker Pitt.
John and Tom Bickerstaffe had already put up £20,000 of their own money, when the London company ran short of funds. But once the company had raised the £300,000 needed, Sir Matthew White-Ridley laid the foundation stone on September 25 1891. Newly restored, you can still see it today.
His voice was recorded on a phonograph and placed beneath the stone in a metal Time Capsule, with newspapers and other items of the period. In 1991, a search was made, in preparation for building work. Neither remote sensing equipment nor a clairvoyant could find the time capsule.
Who built The Blackpool Tower?
The Tower architects were Manchester’s James Maxwell and Charles Tuke. It was James Cardwell and Sons of Blackpool who laid the brickwork for the buildings. Unfortunately, neither Maxwell nor Tuke lived to see the tower finished.
The company of Heenan and Froude constructed the tower itself. They also made the first electric crane in the world, used on the Tower construction in 1893.
Imported from nearby Rossendale, Nori stone is used in the foundations of Blackpool Tower. It’s so hard it’s also in the foundations of the Empire State Building in New York.
John Bickerstaffe quipped that the tower had been built on bales of cotton – and that was taken literally for some years afterwards! The Tower complex contains over 5 million bricks and 2,200 tons of steel.
Sadly there was also a death during construction. Builder William Campbell was killed on 13th July 1893 when he fell from scaffolding.
Completion of the actual Tower itself was marked when the flagpole was lifted into position in December 1893. However, the buildings weren’t finished until the following year.
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The Blackpool Tower Opens!
The Blackpool Tower opened on Whit Monday, 14 May 1894.
There was no formal opening ceremony for this important milestone in the history of The Blackpool Tower. But an estimated 70,000 customers paid their 6 pence, and entered to a grand concert in the Elevator Hall. Another 6 pence got them up the Tower.
The Tallest Structure in the Land!
The Blackpool Tower stands 480 feet to the crow’s nest, and 518 feet 9 inches to the top.
Did you know? When it was built in 1894, The Tower was the tallest artificial structure in Britain.
In the 1960’s it was surpassed by various aerial masts. But it lost its slot as the UK’s highest building when the BT Tower opened in London on 8 October 1965. Several people have committed suicide by jumping from the viewing platform over the years. For a while it was the world’s tallest building too, but the Chrysler building opening in New York in 1930 lost that particular title.
The next British Pathe clip shows workmen painting The Tower in 1939. Just look how they’re doing it! Today’s Health and Safety Police would have kittens!
The height of the building in an otherwise flat area did come in handy. During World War Two it was used as a radar station.
The Lift to the Top
Two elevators, running independently of each other, take people to the top of The Tower, where visitors can see for up to 70 miles from its crow’s nest. 500 people per hour did this on that first day alone.
Each lift can hold 45 passengers, but no more than 30 make the ascent at once. The weight of the cars and passengers combined can never exceed 10 tons. But the seven steel cables attached to each car are exceptionally strong and tested to carry at least 100 tons. Another precaution is safety brakes, attached to each lift. They come into automatic operation if anything was to happen during the descent of the cars.
Originally, the lifts were operated hydraulically. Three Crossley gas engines worked them, each with two cylinders, with strokes of 9.9m. The 99-metre ascent took one minute. The next clip of the trip to the top of the Tower is from 1947, when the gas engines powered the journey. In 1952 Otis Lifts Ltd converted it to electrical operation and added a new lift house, built on the roof.
An Historically Important Building
Another important milestone is marked in the history of the Blackpool Tower on 10 October 1973 when it’s declared a Grade 1 Listed Building.
Look around the exterior of the building and you’ll see plenty of decorative terracotta and original design features. For example you can see these original Tower entrance plaques announcing the “Circus Gallery”, “Circus Pit”, and the “Tower” at Bank Hey Street.
The whole building is packed full of historical architecture and decoration. Have you noticed these amazing mosaics in the front entrance foyer?
Roll-up, roll-up for The Tower Circus
Designed to resemble a Moroccan Palace, the newly opened Tower Circus had a huge capacity! It could hold 3000 people standing and 3,500 holding on. (The current capacity is 1,200).
In 1899 the celebrated theatre architect and designer Frank Matcham fully remodelled the circus. This building work was carried out by local builders J Parkinson of Blackpool. Upon reopening on 4th of June, it’s now the Tower Aquatic and Variety Circus.
Its most famous attraction is the hydraulically-operated circus ring. It can be lowered by 4 and a half feet, and flooded with 42,000 gallons of water, for the famous aquatic finale show to be performed. The Blackpool Gazette dubbed it a dream of ‘Moorish magnificence’”.
The World’s Greatest Circus Ring!
The first “free running” cage act to appear in Britain also opened with the newly remodelled circus. Julius Seeth presented a full ring-cage featuring two German boarhounds,two ponies, and seven 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.
However, working with these animals had its dangers! William Livesey found that out to his cost in August 1905. Found mauled and partially eaten in the lion enclosure he’d been attacked and killed by Tower-bred lionesses.
You might have heard of Albert and the Lion – a poem by Stanley Holloway (1933) – said to be based on this incident. It’s set in Blackpool Tower Zoo and a plaque was unveiled there in 1978.
The first elephants and bears appeared in 1895, trained by Julius Wagner. Circus elephants were walked on Blackpool beach for many years, regularly stretching their legs and enjoying a dip in the sea. Did you ever see them?
By 1927 the animals of Vojtek Trubka was amazingly varied. They included:
- two tigers,
- 10 lions,
- four polar bears,
- two Himalayan bears,
- two brown bears,
- a puma,
- and two 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 seen several ringmasters over the years.
- The first was George Lockhart, who began his career at the Tower on 14 July 1914, his tenure 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.
- Alfred Delbosq (1948 to 1953),
- Henry Litton (1954 to 1965),
- Norman Barrett, pictured below, (1965 to 3 November 1990) who enhanced his job with his famous performing budgerigars. In 1973, he was assisted by Harold Holt, then Kate Endresz (1993) and Harvey Seager (1993 to 1999). By 1996 and 1997, he was assisted by Kevin Hewitt then Laci Endresz (2000).
- Since 2000, Mooky has been both clown and ringmaster.
In 1991, First Leisure Group’s then head, Sir Bernard Delfont, scrapped live animal acts from the Tower Circus. He succumbed to pressure from his wife who was a fierce campaigner for animal rights. The Tower Circus performed its show EVERY year since 1894. Until 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic closed live performance all over the country.
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 The Tower Bar – and stretched all the way to the North-eastern corner of the building (and much later occupied by KFC).
Above the restaurant was the Assembly Room, seating between 6,000 and 8,000 persons, used for promenade concerts or dancing. It opened in August 1894 and then became the ballroom. The Tower finally received 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
By now, the expanded collection of wildlife is one of the finest in the country. The monkey house contained a large variety of primates including chimpanzees and mandrills. The reptile enclosure housed 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 where the lions and tigers lived was transformed into the Ocean Room in 1963. Do you remember the “Dawn of Time” ride? The Ocean Room was made into it in 1992.
Blackpool Zoo on the move
In 1969, the Tower Zoo closed to the public. But Blackpool Council wanted the resort to retain its own zoological collection, so the first plans were drawn up for a prospective zoo. The menagerie was removed in 1973 and all the animals were moved to the new Blackpool Zoo on East Park Drive. In 1977, the remains of the smaller animals menagerie and the Roof Gardens (below) on level six were closed. Jungle Jim’s Adventure Playground soon opened in the space.
The Tower Lounge
In the mid 1920’s the original Tower Bar was renamed the Tower Lounge. As many others have done, it fell victim to fire and burned down on 14th December 1956. Refurbished, the corner space become the Starlight Bar and later renamed the Continental Bar. Not to be confused with the Winter Gardens’ Continental Bar.
In May 1958, the Tower Lounge reopened in the old Tower Restaurant. Having been completely rebuilt it could seat over 1,000 people – just as many people as the original restaurant could.
In 1974, a Tennessee Pancake House outlet opened on the corner, later becoming the American Pancake House and then a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
But it was a sad day for many, when on 9 November 2014 The Tower Lounge closed its doors. Later, it was replaced by a Harry Ramsden fish and chip restaurant.
The Magnificent Tower Ballroom
The Blackpool Tower’s Grand Pavilion Ballroom also opened on that first day, 14 May 1894, along with the Vault and the Café Bar.
Composer, Oliver Gaggs, had written the “Tower Waltz” especially for the occasion, with his orchestra retained to play in the ballroom for the first few years.
Did you know? Two sections of the roof of the ballroom were originally made to open during hot weather?
In August 1894, the Tower Pavilion opened. It initially featured trapeze artists, bands, comedy and musical acts, and divers plummeting into tanks of water.
Curtis and Son built and fitted out the shops on the Bank Hey Street side of the Tower. 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.
And in 1898 the ballroom was greatly altered into the form that we all enjoy today.
Strictly Come Dancing
The annual live episode of TV favourite Strictly Come Dancing is probably the most popular event to take place in this magnificent ballroom.
It’s been a firm favourite since the show was first broadcast in November 2004. You can’t buy tickets – the BBC operate a random draw for them. The show brings money-can’t-buy publicity to Blackpool.
Fires at Blackpool Tower
There have been two significant fires at the Tower.
The first was on 22 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 on 14 December 1956. Caused by a lit cigarette, this fire destroyed the Tower Ballroom and the Tower Lounge. The repairs took 18 months to complete, seeing the ballroom floor replaced with 30,602 blocks of oak, mahogany, and walnut.
Restoring the Ballroom Floor
Fast forward another 70 years or so to early 2022 the fabulous parquet floor is fully restored, back to its original glory. With layers of varnish and ballroom dancing removed to reveal the beautiful blocks of wood. Resealed and highly polished it looks just like it did all those years ago.
During the renovations following the 1956 fire, the Wurlitzer organ console is placed centre stage, on the famous slow rising lift.
Originally the console moved forward from the rear of the stage on a motorised platform. The Ballroom’s electronic organ uses that apparatus today.The new frontage of 1969 was removed in 2011 when the original carvings and canopies were restored.
Today, up to 9,000 people visit the tower every day of the year.
The Blackpool Tower in the Merlin Years
Another chapter in the history of Blackpool Tower began on 1 September 2011 after a £5m restoration. Years of work have transformed the look of this favourite Fylde Coast landmark, revealing many of the stunning features.
In 2010 Blackpool Council bought The Tower from it’s then private owner Leisure Parc’s, the business controlled by Trevor Hemmings.
They spent £38.9m on three attractions including The Tower, the Winter Gardens and the Golden Mile. Merlin is now the operator of the Tower attractions and also manage SEA LIFE and Madame Tussauds.
This magnificent building is slowly being restored. You’ll enjoy the next video, filmed in 2020, looking at the work around the outside –
The Blackpool Tower Eye
The Skywalk is complete with a floor-to-ceiling glass observational panel – launched as part of the newly named Blackpool Tower Eye. The view is amazing – of the seafront, beach, piers and Fylde coast. On a good day you can see Manchester, the Lakes, and even Scotland.
The old café became a gourmet burger restaurant.
The Blackpool Tower Aquarium closed in November 2010 after many years. There’s a new attraction there now, called “The Dungeon”, which opened on 25 August 2011. Almost all of the creatures from the aquarium moved to their new home at the new SEA LIFE Centre.
It’s a Lancashire version of the London Dungeon. Actors perform vignettes telling tales of smugglers, Pendle witches, the plague, and Vikings.
The Dungeon officially opened on 25 August 2011, and we were fortunate enough to go along. Here’s our video of the ghouls arrival!
The Blackpool Tower has also been fitted with a full set of LED lights – which were first switched on on 12 February 2013. The whole structure now has 5,508 LED lights, each containing 42 individual LEDs.
The illuminated heart in the middle overlooking the promenade contains more than 900 LED lights.
The Fifth Floor
Then in 2019 children’s favourite Jungle Jim’s closed with the space transformed into the Fifth Floor. It’s a multi purpose space and family entertainment bar, hosting free entertainment in the season.
Did You Know?
To confuse German pilots during the War, a replica Blackpool Tower was built on the hills of North Wales!
Lord Haw Haw announced that the Luftwaffe had bombed Blackpool Tower, completely destroying it. It was even said that a picture had been published in German newspapers of the Tower, lying on the beach.
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.
Lookout observers were also stationed on The Blackpool Tower, along with many of the Fylde’s windmills.
The Blackpool Tower’s Neighbours
The Alhambra and the Palace
The Alhambra was opened on the 28th of May by George Sims, with a formal opening evening on 3 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 4 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. It couldn’t compete with The Blackpool Tower next door. In 1903 it was bought by the Blackpool Tower Company, the circus removed and replaced by a ballroom, and a theatre was built.
The Palace Theatre
Renamed the Palace Theatre, it opened on 4 July 1904, with one of the world’s first moving staircases.
The Alhambra ballroom went on to become the Palace Panopticum, which then became the Palace Picture Pavilion in 1909. When Vernon’s Bioscope was installed, it had its own cinema! The cinema operated until 1911, when it was turned back into a ballroom.
An underground tunnel was built to join the Palace to the Tower in 1914. Staff used it to move between the two buildings – even sharing orchestras!
More Photos of Old Blackpool
If you’ve enjoyed this piece about the history of The Blackpool Tower, take a look at the other pages in this history section.
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