Remarkable community stalwart celebrates age milestone

Elaine Smith at Winter Gardens
Elaine Smith at Winter Gardens
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Having recently celebrated her 80th birthday with a Winter Gardens party attended by almost 200 people, you’d be tempted to think it was time for Elaine Smith MBE to start slowing down.

Instead she revels in her “Mrs Blackpool” nickname, is a member of so many boards, committees and groups that her social diary is worked out with military precision and claims “80 is the new 50.”

Surprisingly “Mrs Blackpool” was born in a Derbyshire village, arriving in the resort with her mum, dad, aunty and uncle when they bought a guest house in 1945 just as the war was finishing.

“I was 10, I’d come from a village and landed in Blackpool,” she says. “I thought I’d landed in fairyland. I fell in love with it instantly and I’ve loved it ever since, warts and all.

“People say how can I still love it but I’m on so many committees and things, I know all the problems, I know far more problems than most people know and I also know far more about the work that is being done to try and get these things put right again. I know that people aren’t just sat back with the warts and not doing anything about, they are trying to work at it.”

She has always, she says, been “a doer.”

“I’ve never sat back doing nothing, I’ve always been busy, I had my son Mark in 1960 and I didn’t last very long before I needed a job, I wasn’t cut out for staying at home. I didn’t mind the motherhood bit but not the staying at home.”

Along came Tupperware. From going to their popular front room parties she became a dealer and “in no time at all” was manager for the whole of Blackpool.

“So a lot of people knew me, I’ve always had a lot of people know me and remember me so it’s come in useful.”

Then came Family Fashions based in Poulton which employed agents throughout Lancashire, expanded into a shop including The Lads’ Pad (“Remember Birmingham Bags? We made a fortune out of them, couldn’t get them in the shop fast enough.”)

She and her husband Jim then bought The Seaview Hotel on Lytham Road, got on so well with their neighbours Doreen and Alf Parry “we knocked a hole in the wall and made it one big hotel,” before pooling resources to buy the Old Coach House on Dean Street, eventually handing over their reins to son Mark and his wife Claire – once a 14 year old chambermaid, now president of Stay Blackpool and co-owner of two boutique hotels.

She and Jim “retired” in the late 1990s but still helped out. And then came the Civic Trust.

“Once a year Doreen and I had a day off, we’d say goodbye to the lads and go off about 8.15 in the morning on a trip the Civic Trust used to advertise in The Gazette,” she says. “It was a heritage tour round the Fylde.”

After a few trips they signed up properly for the Trust and after “retiring” decided to go to the meetings. Before long she was “collared” and asked if she’d become its secretary.

“Jim said ‘you’re going to be bored to tears when we leave the hotel why don’t you do it?’ and I was secretary for six years.”

Tragically Jim died from cancer in 2000 and Elaine admits she then threw herself into the Civic Trust with a passion.

“I think that saved me really because we’d always worked together - it was like splitting me down the middle.”

She became chairman – a post she held for nine years and which set her on the “Mrs Blackpool” route.

“Through being chairman I used to go to different things, I was still secretary when they started the Friends of Stanley Park, I went and became secretary of that as well. I didn’t sit on my hands quick enough when they wanted me to do things, I’d say yes then get home and wonder what did I do that for?”

Then there’s the Winter Gardens Trust of which she is membership secretary.

“The Winter Gardens was where Jim and I met, it’s always been a special place for me, I think it was taken for granted that I was going to apply for the board.”

So which is her favourite?

“It’s very difficult to say, I worked very hard with the Civic Trust – built it to a higher standard than most civic societies in the country, it got very well known. When I retired I retired but I didn’t run fast enough and they made me president.”

So Stanley Park or the Winter Gardens?

“I’ve been chairman of the Friends of Stanley Park a long time so I suppose that one really, though the Winter Gardens is as much work.”

But then she’s also on the boards of the Volunteer Centre at the park, the Blackpool Environmental Action Team Ltd, Blackpool Heritage Forum, and also runs Blackpool In Bloom which she’s done for “four or five years.”

“l love it but I find it very hard work, it’s only two and a half months but everything else has to go by the board when I do that, it’s very intensive.”

So does she ever wish she just gardened or played bridge?

“No, that wouldn’t be me would it? Though occasionally I wish that I could have a week off – or even couple of days! If I looked in my diary now I bet there is never a day for about a fortnight where there’s nothing.

“I do have holidays, in my life I’ve been all over but I don’t think I could be bothered with the airport hassle these days, all that hanging around. “I started recently going on coach trips which I always thought was an old person’s thing but I suppose I was 80 last month. I’ll leave the worry to someone else.”

She loved her birthday celebration – “complete humiliation of course” - and the “Mrs Blackpool” title: “I could be called a lot worse couldn’t I?”

Some would say probably not.

“I love it. Even the stag and hen parties. They bring lots of money into the town and goodness do we need money. I’ve never been frightened of walking in Blackpool. A lot of my friends say they never go into town at night. I can’t understand it, I mean you wouldn’t walk on Central Drive or Dickson Road at night would you? But the town centre never bothers me. I go to the Grand and don’t think twice.”

So why all the negatives about the place?

“I always feel like saying if you don’t like Blackpool there are two ways out,” she says. “Love it or leave it, you don’t have to be here. When you go somewhere else come back and tell me if that’s so brilliant. I’ve stayed in towns and cities where when you hear them talk you think, wow we’re not so bad after all.”

And her favourite part of the town?

“Stanley Park, it’s lovely and it never ceases to amaze me how many visitors don’t know about it, I just wish we had more good publicity about it. We get the bad publicity yet thousands come to the concerts in the bandstand on Sundays and thoroughly enjoy themselves.”

But the vandalism irks.

“If they lob the plant heads off I’d like to lob their heads off. I’d kill them if I got hands on some of them, slap them with a restraining order, put electricity round the plants and electrocute the vandals.

“Sometimes you wonder ‘why are we doing this’ when we know it’s going to be vandalised but you’ve still got to do it otherwise they’ve won and you’ve lost before you’ve started, so we still have to do it.

“I just can’t understand the mentality of them, some of the things they do you wonder what possesses them.”

There’s a high-tech corner in her bungalow but she says: “I can do what I can do, e-mails and word things and pictures and power points but forget me after that. When they start talking about Facebook, no, social media, not me. I read my newspapers from cover to cover, I couldn’t do without them.”

She was sad to see the demise of the former ABC.

If everyone who kicked up about it had joined the Civic Trust she said there would have had a £40,000 fighting fund. Nobody joined and now even The Syndicate has gone.

“I hope the future is going to be brighter than a bunch of Travelodges, I hope we won’t let them get away with that. And car parks.”

So is Blackpool still special?

“Of course it is. There’s nowhere like it. At the Visitors Centre we get people who come in say they love it, all ages.

“I’d never leave it. What would I do? Sun myself in Spain? No. We had an apartment in Spain but never went because we were always too busy here.”

Perhaps being a councillor appeals?

“No. Definitely not. I can do more good as I am now than I could on the council where you have to jump through too many hoops. I don’t always get my own way but most people say yes to me eventually.

“My main job in life is raising funding, it’s all I seem to do – for Macmillan, the Winter Gardens Trust Christmas Tree Festival, then it’s onto Stanley Park Christmas Fair.

“I put in for funding anywhere and everywhere, I must have raised about £150,000 over the years for different things.”

So will she ever stop?

“When they take me out in a box. Everybody says I should slow down, I’m sick of hearing it, I don’t know what parts I could give up.

“When I stop enjoying it that’s when I’ll stop, which I had a bit with the Civic Trust, I’d got as far as I could with that.

“I like to get things as far as I can, I still love a challenge and getting funding for Stanley Park and the Winter Gardens are both big ones.”

So the novelty hasn’t worn off yet? “Blackpool is magic. It was fairyland when I came here as a 10-year old and I’m still in fairlyland after all these years.”