Blackpool Pleasure Beach - more than a century of classic fun rides

As Blackpool Pleasure Beach looks forward to its 125th anniversary next year, local historian Barry McCann looks back at the rides for which the theme park is famed...

Thursday, 25th June 2020, 3:45 pm

When William George Bean and John Outhwaite decided to open an amusement park on Blackpool’s south shore, could their vision have possibly envisaged the scale to which that modest little 1897 operation would grow?

Bean had been an amusement park engineer in America and brought a Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway Ride back with him to form the park, along with Outhwaite’s steam roundabout and Switchback roller coaster complimented by fortune telling stalls in the adjoining gypsy encampment.

But it was enough to pull in the crowds and having had the foresight to purchase a full 30 acre site the pair set about an expansion.

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Noah's Ark, 1943

Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machine was installed in 1904 and still operating to this day. It was joined by the water chute River Caves of the World in 1905, the first wooden roller coaster called The Scenic Railway in 1907 and the legendary Velvet Coaster following two years after that.

Following John Outhwaite’s death in 1911 most of the remaining business went to Bean, who further expanded the park into its present 42 acre size. He added legendary attractions such as Noah’s Ark and the first casino building originally of an oriental design but later redeveloped as the present Art-Deco building. The Big Dipper was also erected and this was Bean’s last project before he died in 1929.

Since then management of the park has passed through three the generations of Bean’s daughter and son in law, Lillian-Doris and Leonard Thompson, grandson Geoffrey and now his daughter Amanda Thompson. Among the first projects initiated by Leonard Thompson was the opening of the Ghost Train, the Fun House and Ice Drome. He also replaced the Velvet Coaster with the Rollercoaster in 1933, followed two years later by the Grand National. Today both are considered classics by rollercoaster enthusiasts who come from all over the world to ride them, while the Velvet Coaster lives on as the name of the nearby Wetherspoons. The Second World War stalled any further developments until the post war economic recovery of the mid 1950s when things began moving again. The onset of the 1960s saw the installation of the cable cars and the iconic Alice in Wonderland ride, modelled on the Ghost Train but without the spooks!

This was also the period which saw the arrival of this country’s first Log Flume. The ride ceased flowing in 2005 to be replaced by Infusion.

The Big Dipper

With Blackpool’s centenary just around the corner, the Space Tower was opened in 1975 and was presented as a companion to the town’s more famous landmark just further along the coast. However its close proximity to the nearby airport meant it could not be as tall, its rotating viewing deck ascending not more than 160 feet. It remained in place until the 1990s when it was moved to the Thompson owned Morecambe Frontierland to make way for another development.

Geoffrey Thompson took over as managing director in 1976 and with him came the country’s first 360 degree rollercoaster, the Revolution, and the tallest rollercoaster in the world when first opened in 1994, the Big One. Sadly, the 1990s also saw the loss of the Fun House when it was destroyed by fire.

Since Geoffrey’s untimely passing in 2004, Amanda Thompson OBE has continued the family’s work and brought the park well into the 21st century with a program of ambitious new rides. 2021 will be an especially big year as it celebrates its 125th anniversary.

The Social Mixer, so-called because revellers were thrown into each others arms, at The Fun House
The Water Chute, early 1900s
The Dive Bomber