Blackpool in mourning for charismatic former mayor Henry Mitchell

Blackpool councillors enjoyed a school lunch at Layton Primary School in 2001. Henry Mitchell is served sausage and mash by Helen Watson,
Blackpool councillors enjoyed a school lunch at Layton Primary School in 2001. Henry Mitchell is served sausage and mash by Helen Watson,
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Former mayor Henry Mitchell died in hospital today after a long illness. Here Shelagh Parkinson looks back at his life and times fighting for what he believed in, for his beloved Blackpool

Blackpool is today mourning the death of a former councillor who arrived in the resort as an evacuee, but rose to become Mayor of the town he loved.

Henry Mitchell, who represented Anchorsholme and Bispham for the Conservatives, died on Tuesday in Blackpool Victoria Hospital after a long illness, aged 87.

He once famously drank bathing water to prove the sea was clean enough to swim in, and made children’s puppet Sooty ‘mayor for the day’ during his civic year of office in 1998.

But his roles at the town hall also saw him tackle tough decisions to control everything from pub licensing to lap-dancing clubs.

Henry’s son Andy, News Editor at Radio Wave, said: “He loved Blackpool and what was particularly notable is that everyone loved Henry, no matter what their political persuasion.

“He counted as many friends on the other side of the chamber as he did on his own.”

Henry was born in Manchester but was evacuated to Blackpool on the eve of war in 1939, aged eight, where he became part of and was later adopted by the Mitchell family.

He worked in the family shop on Whitegate Drive before completing his national service and then returning to the retail trade working for Booths.

In his spare time he enjoyed ballroom dancing and spent many Saturday nights in the Empress Ballroom at the Winter Gardens with his partner Joyce who he went on to marry.

The pair had two children – Andy and Jillian – but divorced in 1983. He also leaves a grandson Alex.

Henry, who later ran a newsagent’s, was first elected to Blackpool Council in 1979, representing Anchorsholme until 1991. His second stint at the town hall was from the mid-nineties until he stood down ahead of the 2015 local elections.

It was during his time as chairman of environmental health that his exploits with drinking bathing water took place.

Andy said: “At the time North West Water was under fire for the state of the sea water and the whole 1983 season hinged on whether the water was clean or not.

“He came up with this plan to drink some sea water on Granada TV and went up to the camera and said ‘cheers’.

“I’m not sure whether he actually drank it or not – that’s a secret he has taken with him.”

But the action summed up Henry’s flamboyant character which supported Blackpool through thick and thin.

He also served as chairman of licensing during which time he addressed serious issues including the impact of cheap booze and the introduction of the smoking ban.

He campaigned for more warning signs about the dangers of the sea, for a park and ride scheme and for cleaner public toilets.

His mayoral year of 1998/99 was historic because it was Blackpool’s first year as a unitary authority in charge of all its own services.

Henry, whose daughter Jillian was his mayoress, described it as “a tremendous honour”.

He helped celebrate Sooty’s 50th birthday on North Pier (during which time the puppet became a ‘mayor for the day’), welcomed then Prime Minister Tony Blair to Blackpool for the Labour party conference, rode the Big One at the Pleasure Beach and raised more than £12,000 for charity.

When Henry stepped down from the council, he was one of six councillors who were made honourary aldermen of the borough.

Andy said: “He will be missed by countless people. Everybody has a story about Henry.

“He was universally loved and nobody had a bad word for him, which is rare.

“You mention Henry Mitchell and everybody smiles and that’s a lovely thing to remember him by.”

Funeral details will be announced in due course. Leave your tributes at www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk.