An event that has brought joy to families for well over 100 years now faces an uncertain future due to dwindling numbers and the threat of an ‘impossible’ set-up fee.
Organisers of the Bispham Gala fear the bell may be about to toll for the historic annual celebration, which first began in 1893.
Dwindling numbers and new council charges mean this could be the final year for the historic tradition.
The event once packed the streets with thousands of eager spectators for its grand procession to Bispham Gala field, and welcomed morris dancers from far and wide to take part in a day-long dance competition on the green.
But Christine Bradshaw, 71, pageant mistress who has been on the gala committee for 47 years, said numbers had fallen in recent years, and that Blackpool Council intends to introduce charges for using the Gala field adding up to £4,700.
Now, as Nick Hamilton, the gala’s chairman of more than 20 years, steps down due to poor health, she warned that the end may be near for the annual celebration, which takes place this year on July 20.
She said: “I don’t know whether we can go on with it. Maybe it’s the end of galas. Maybe I should hang it all up and say that’s that. Maybe I’m hanging on where I shouldn’t be.
“Children now do so much more. When I was a child, this was the highlight of the year, but now children have a bigger social life than most adults.
“Since about 20 years ago, the numbers have gone down and down. Schools are very busy and cutbacks mean they don’t have the money to do a float.
“If (Blackpool Council) are going to charge us, this year’s procession will be the last one, because we don’t have money like that.”
The committee, she said, has been informed by the council that next year they must pay £500 a day for the funfair, which usually sets up on the Gala field off All Saints Road several days in advance of the weekend gala.
They must then pay £2,400 for the funfair to run on the Friday and Saturday.
On top of that, they face an £800 legal fee – adding up to a total of £4,700.
The council tried to charge the committee the £800 fee this year - but the cost was dropped after Coun Maxine Callow intervened on their behalf.
Christine said: “They’re now saying if we have donkey rides on the field the children need to wear helmets. Where did that come from?
“People aren’t going to want their children wearing helmets that other children have just taken off. I think it’s ridiculous.
“This gala is run by and for the people of Bispham. Blackpool Council don’t do anything for us. But they say they are going to start charging us.
“We don’t make any money. The collections at the procession are nowhere near where they used to be and some people don’t put in anyway, but any money we do raise we give to Brian House Children’s Hospice.
“We always keep a little bit on the side in case we have a wash-out, but we still have to pay people to clean up afterwards. There’s no way we can afford a bill like this.”
The Bispham Gala Committee is made up of just six permanent members, who organise the event each year.
It is funded by the committee using proceeds from the previous year’s gala and donations from members of the public.
Norbreck councillor Maxine Callow, whose husband Peter is on the Bispham Gala Committee, said: “I received a phone call last week about a committee meeting on Monday, where it had come to light that the council suddenly wanted £800 for this year’s gala at very short notice – and that next year it would be £4,700.
“I went straight to the town hall and within a couple of hours it was dealt with. There is nothing to worry about this year.
“Next year there must be early meetings with the council to sort it out.
“There is no problem at all with this year’s gala. Of course, some of the committee are quite rightly concerned about next year.
“I’m hoping that common sense will prevail and the council will forget all about these fees. Otherwise this will be the end of the gala. (The committee) simply do not have the money.
“This came out of the blue. We had absolutely no idea until the committee meeting last week.
“To suddenly ask for £800 is absolutely appalling because they just didn’t have money like that. We have ward funding and we may have been able to give a couple of hundred, but that money has got to last until next April and we have other projects in the pipeline.
“I got quite brutal with the council and said can you imagine this year having little children in tears because the gala they were supposed to be in was cancelled? What sort of PR is that for Blackpool Council? To ask for money in the first place is disgraceful, but at least it’s been resolved and is going ahead this year.”
A Blackpool Council spokesman said: “We have advised the organisers of the Bispham Gala of our current published fees and charges for the use of council land for events.
“The council has supported this event in previous years, and have waived these fees and charges in support of the community. Whilst we have made the Bispham Gala organisers aware of any potential costs that could be applied in the future, we would review these fees and charges on a case by case basis, and may waive these for future years due to the community benefit that these events provide.”
A picture from the gala in 1913
Pictures from the gala over the years
Gala first run by four churches of Bispham
The Bispham with Norbreck Gala first took place in 1893.
It was originally run by the four churches of Bispham, including the United Reform Church and All Hallows Church. A gala committee was set up in 1972 to help with the event, and is now the main organiser.
This year’s gala will take place on Saturday, July 20, and will be the 123rd to take place in Bispham to account for a three-year break during the Second World War.
Everyone who wants to take part in the procession should gather on the gala field off All Saints Road in their finest fancy dress at noon.
The parade, which includes Brownies, Cubs, sea cadets and dancers, starts at 1pm and will travel around Bispham and arrive back at the field at 2.45pm.
At 3.30pm the Gala Queen, 10-year-old Amelia Kirkpatrick, and her ‘Prince Charming’ Gabriella Valentine, also 10, will be crowned.
Christine said: “We always look forward to Gala Day. It would be nice to have a few more helpers as we don’t want people to think it’s not as good as it used to be.
“We really wanted to try and get people to come and take part in the procession as much as anything, and support us by buying a programme.”
Can you help Bispham Gala flourish? Call Christine on (01253) 355501 or Janet Pendlebury on (01253) 351319.