From village to UK’s greatest seaside town

Matthew Whitfield (left) and Allan Brodie on the Comedy Carpet, Blackpool.
Matthew Whitfield (left) and Allan Brodie on the Comedy Carpet, Blackpool.
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To us, a row of relatively nondescript terraced properties on High Street are hardly worth a second glance.

But to Allan Brodie, they are a milestone in the history of Blackpool.

It is buildings like this which have helped Allan and his colleague Matthew Whitfield, from English Heritage, compile a fascinating new book about the architectural heritage of the resort.

Over two years, they visited the town, walked its streets, and scoured local libraries for maps and records to tell the story of how Blackpool grew from effectively a village by the shore, to Britain’s greatest seaside town.

With its population doubling every two decades at the height of its growth, development was rapid.

Allan said: “People think of 
seaside towns as seaside towns, but I think of them as historical towns.

“We think nothing about going to York to look at the architecture, but why not go to seaside towns to do the same?

“I have already written books about Margate and Weymouth, but felt Blackpool was a town that needed a book to celebrate 200 years of giving people an 
incredible amount of fun.”

The book, which is packed with colourful photographs and 
archive material, encourages people to take a fresh look at what at first glance may not seem to be a part of history.

While most historical volumes focus on the likes of The Tower and Winter Gardens, Allan and Matthew have recorded how the resort grew street by street.

In 1788, it consisted of a scatter of about 50 houses but, even then, six were used as visitor accommodation.

By 1861, it had a population of almost 4,000, increasing to 7,000 a decade later.

Allan and Matthew have uncovered clues to this growth in the buildings which started to spring up, many of which still survive despite the rapid rate of growth. For instance, 
Enfield Road, a seemingly 
ordinary street of terraces built on the north side of the railway line into Blackpool North 
station, is believed to date back to the 1880s when “simpler types of houses” were being built “for some of Blackpool’s rapidly growing residential population.”

Alan continues: “Our approach was very much to go out and get up and down the streets to look at the buildings as they are.

“It was key to look at the place 
itself because that tells you about how the town works today, and you can begin to peel back the decades.

“However, we did also use the 
archive at Central Library, and that is a fantastic collection.

“When you are looking around the streets, you are not always looking at the extraordinary, sometimes it is the ordinary.

“There are so many crumbs from the 19th century that do survive in the centre of town, such as Roberts Oyster bar from the 1850s.”

Expansion was fuelled by the 
arrival of the railway, and the building of the first pier, North Pier, was also a key step.

An unlikely source of information for the book came from 
adverts for the attractions the town offered.

Leisure Gardens at Belle Vue and Raikes Hall, both near Whitegate Drive, were among the earliest entertainment centres.

An early edition of The Gazette, dating back to 1873, 
included an advertisement for Raikes Hall, referring to “these beautiful 
gardens, 40 acres in extent, with their broad walks, drives, fountains, statuary, terrace (600 feet in length), extensive Serpentine Walks, render them the most fashionable and agreeable place of resort in Blackpool.”

Amazingly, there was a Grand Pavilion which could accommodate 10,000 people and room for 4,000 people to dance.

But, showing that not much has changed in 150 years or so, by 1874 the granting of a liquor licence “led to complaints of drunkeness and prostitution.”

By 1901, the gardens had closed and streets of housing were 
replacing the park.

Allan said: “We have very good historic maps from 1873, which you can dip into when looking for specific things.

“But another great source of information is historic 
advertising, and this, for example, gave us a fascinating insight into Raikes Hall which, by the end of the 19th century, had fairground rides and is almost a historic blueprint for the Pleasure Beach. It is like a local model, which gives you an idea that the Pleasure Beach didn’t just come from someone’s 
imagination.”

He added: “We did get a much clearer picture of what early and mid 19th century Blackpool was like as a place. There have been brilliant histories of Blackpool written, but what we were doing was looking particularly at the architecture.

“Blackpool became so popular that it had to change and 
develop all the time, at one time it was more than doubling in size every 20 years.”

That’s not to say there are not pages focusing on the better known aspects of Blackpool’s past, and plans depicting the development of the Winter Gardens from 1846 to present day are particularly interesting. They illustrate how every inch of the site, bounded by Church Street, Leopold Grove, Adelaide Street and Coronation Street was gradually filled with theatres, a ballroom, and exhibition space.

Allan and Matthew hope their book will appeal to anyone with an interest in Blackpool, and they certainly left the resort impressed by what is here.

Allan said: “I hope we have got over to people that buildings like the Winter Gardens and the Tower are among the most important buildings in Britain.

“And there is nothing else like the Pleasure Beach in the world. There are more historic rides in America than in Britain, but Blackpool has six which date to before 1939, and nowhere else has that many in one area.

“And these rides are still popular today. It’s remarkable that rides built for people in the early 20th century are still in use today.”

l Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage is written by Allan Brodie and Matthew Whitfield, who are both investigators at English Heritage. It is available to buy online now from the English Heritage Shop at £14.99: http://www.english-heritageshop.org.uk/.