ALL eyes are on St John’s Square this weekend as Blackpool’s latest attraction – an eye-catching Big Wheel – takes shape.
The crowds were out in force on this same spot 100 years ago for a more sombre occasion, the funeral, with civic and military honours, of Dr William Henry Cocker, described in his obituary as “the maker of modern Blackpool”.
He was also referred to as “the father of Blackpool”, although the tribute acknowledged “it would be equally true to say he was the son of Blackpool, as no person living today so embodies the spirit of Blackpool as did Dr Cocker.”
The man who was Blackpool’s first mayor and first freeman died on Good Friday, April 14, 1911, and was buried on April 18. Local historian Ted Lightbown points to an article following Cocker’s funeral which claimed “he was not, perhaps, intimately known to the present generation of Blackpolitans”.
Ted says: “The tribute remarked, however, that his public work and character had left such an impression on the town’s life, and his activities of a former day had been so closely bound up with Blackpool’s development, that his name and fame were familiar, even to those who had little knowledge of his interesting personality and remarkable career.
“Exactly 100 years after Cocker’s death, his personality is all but lost to us, and his buying and selling of land and property would now possibly arouse a degree of cynicism.
“But it was his entrepreneurial spirit that had helped Blackpool’s rise to being the country’s leading resort within his lifetime.
“This he combined with public service and, on Blackpool’s Incorporation in 1876, Cocker had become the town’s first mayor, a position he held for much of the 1870s and 1880s.
“His philosophy was that money was there to be used, and he spent much on entertaining – most famously when he picked up the tab for the lavish banquet held for the Lord Mayor of London and the mayors of 68 towns at the opening of the Winter Gardens in 1878.
But as Ted points out: “Having once lived in large bungalows on Bond Street and at Bloomfield, now the site of a Lidl store, he ended up in relative poverty in a modest house on Whitegate Drive.
“The only relatives of Cocker at his large civic funeral were a few members of his deceased wife’s family, the Pillings, and Robert Banks, a cousin on his mother’s side.
“Significantly, apart from the corpse, there were no Cockers at the funeral.”
William was born on December 9, 1836 in a house built by his father at Hygiene Terrace, almost opposite where the new wedding chapel is taking shape.
In 1858, he married Betsey Pilling of Rochdale, who died in 1908. Their marriage was childless, as was that of his only brother, John Edward Banks Cocker, who died in 1891.
Ted says: “William’s father was Dr John Cocker, who had come to Blackpool from Tockholes, near Darwen, in 1828.
“He too had been a Blackpool pioneer, erecting the resort’s first public entertainment hall, the Victoria Promenade, in 1837.
“It survived at the corner of Victoria Street and Bank Hey Street until thoughtlessly demolished just 11 years ago.
“John married Jane, the younger daughter of Henry Banks, whose estate stretched up Church Street in the early years of the 19th century.
“In 1851, Dr John Cocker bought Bank Hey House at the top of Victoria Street.
“In 1875, three years after John’s death, William was able to offer his late father’s house and other former Banks’ land for the site of the Winter Gardens and, indeed, part of this 1846 house survives inside the Winter Gardens today.”
1875 was also the year that Dr Cocker gave up his practise as a surgeon and opened a menagerie and aquarium to the public in what had been the Prince of Wales Arcade and previously the mansion West Hey.
It became the site of the Tower and the aquarium was incorporated into the Tower Buildings, an area which survived until Merlin’s current work of turning it into a dungeon attraction.
Ted says: “Dr Cocker had no children but, instead, he passed down many features of the Blackpool we know and his memorial is Stanley Park’s splendid Clock Tower, opened and named after him in a ceremony in June 1927, 16 years after his funeral.”
Last word goes to the Gazette News tribute on April 18, 1911: “Vigorously healthy, bluff and breezy as the winds that come from over the sea, free and independent, and with his full beard and somewhat long hair, one could well liken him unto Neptune himself.”