Professor Vanessa Toulmin became the famous wild child of heritage Blackpool never knew it had more by a process of osmosis than adoption.
When she first leapt upon the resort’s stage (and it was Frank Matcham’s Grand Theatre) in the company of fellow eccentric academic, social historian Prof John Walton, those watching the film show of archive material presented knew they had a new Blackpool champion. Vanessa’s home town Morecambe, from whence she came from travelling show folk, was not so much forgotten as sidelined.
Certainly our Winter Gardens gained the most from her involvement – from highlighting the threat to heritage at risk to supporting the council’s ambitious plans to take ownership of the complex before it was too late.
“I do feel, if I’ve made a difference to Blackpool it has been to the Winter Gardens,” she admits.
Prof Vanessa’s third Blackpool Heritage series book, commissioned by Blackpool Council, has just been published, she’s on with the fourth, on the Illuminations to mark the centenary next year, and would rather like a fifth, a personal labour of love rather than council-financed, on the lost theatres of Blackpool, such as the Palace, to round it off nicely. And all between putting the burlesque into Blackpool with next year’s Showzam festival and getting on with the day job back at Sheffield University.
Just how the curator of the National Fairground Archive housed there came to adopt Blackpool has passed into history, but Prof Vanessa is now leading locals into pastures both familiar and new – The Tower getting the treatment.
We’re able to see how this structure has not only dominated the local landscape, but helped shape the resort.
Many of the images featured have been under wraps for decades. All of them evoke the spirit of Blackpool, old and new.
Vanessa admits The Tower has been the toughest book to write.
“I did it at a really crucial time, management had changed, the council had taken over, restoration was happening, I was having to write about a building where basically 75 per cent of the interiors were going.
“You acknowledge the heritage of all those things in the past, and make the book a museum piece, or reflect the constantly changing aspects?
“So I offer five sections, chronologically. I destroy a few myths along the way. It wasn’t built on cotton, and nor did John Bickerstaffe go to the Eiffel. That’s completely untrue.
“He went to Paris but the idea had come from a group of investors, the 19th century is full of them, who set up an investment, published shares, and never built most of what they promoted.
“Bickerstaffe took over the idea and got it built. The Standard London and Debenture Company had sold shares in a series of observation towers, but Blackpool’s got built, investors in Wembley got conned, it reached 80ft, and the Isle of Man’s didn’t get past foundation stone stage.
“I’m sick of the myths. I’ve been asked by Wikipedia to edit the Blackpool entries with local historians Ted Lightbown – who is my absolutely meticulous editor and mentor – along with Blackpool Council’s own Tony Sharkey. They do it all for the love of Blackpool. I get the glory, they get the acknowledgement, and my help in kind.
“I’m not sure whether people will be happy with my Tower book because it debunks a few myths. The other big one is that it was rebuilt in the 1920s. It wasn’t. Basically in 1914 a report showed The Tower was crumbling, erosion was greater on one side, the sea side, because they had used inferior steel in that part of the construction. In the 20s they basically riveted two bolts either side, and reclad it. It’s why it’s really important the paintwork is done properly, as erosion can be quite intense. It has to sandblasted back to the original steel, and specialist paint put on.”
Prof Vanessa also identifies lost features like China Town and the Menagerie. Her great revelation is of the discovery of lost Matcham features, found intact during the refurbishment.
“Matcham is identified with The Grand but his greatest achievements are The Tower Circus and Ballroom. We found 28 pieces behind glass from his oriental arcade, long boarded-up.
“He didn’t design The Tower, the original glass windows are 1894 but he was brought in by the Tower Company in 1898 and effectively stayed 20 years.
“The story of Blackpool is the story of competition between three great venues, The Tower, Winter Gardens, and the Palace Theatre, with Blackpool’s progress down to very independent hard-nosed businessmen who believed in their town. We had Bickerstaffe at The Tower, Cocker at the Winter Gardens, and Mr Bean at the Pleasure Beach.
“The Palace was run by a consortium and that’s why it didn’t work, it was bought by The Tower in 1903. I’d love to do a book on the lost theatres of Blackpool after finishing the Illuminations book next.
“Matcham spent 20 years of his working life in Blackpool and should be regarded as Blackpool’s architect – rather than London’s.
His last building was the Palace before he died in 1920. I’d give anything to have seen the Palace, it was a mix of the best of the Winter Gardens and Tower. It must have been amazing.”
As for the future of Blackpool? “I’m certainly happier about the future than I was five years ago when I first sat in the Winter Gardens,” Vanessa admits. “I now see it from the inside out...”
l Blackpool Tower, Wonderland of the World, by Professor Vanessa Toulmin (Blackpool Heritage series/ Boco Publishing, www.boco.org.uk) £25