Memory Lane: How student mountain climbers topped Blackpool Tower

Tony Heyes (right) with Gordon HealdTony Heyes (right) with Gordon Heald
Tony Heyes (right) with Gordon Heald
In the 125th Anniversary Blackpool Tower opening, Gordon Heald looks back with some admiration on an imaginative and daring stunt which caught the public’s attention more than 50 years ago.

The Rag Stunt, as it was known, resulted in dire warnings and much hand wringing about the irresponsibility of the modern youth of the day, as represented by the perpetrators.

One of them at least, Tony Heyes, a ‘Gentleman Scientist’, is now approaching eighty years of age and is an Honorary Fellow of a world class university with two Doctorates and some life-enhancing inventions to his name. We can now compare his account with that of the Press.

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And so it was that in the winter of 1961/2 a small group of students, members of the Mountaineering Club of the Royal College of Advanced Technology, Salford, as it then was, had just successfully mounted an expedition from their camp in the snow covered Llanberis Pass to ‘do’ the Snowdon Horseshoe, a difficult enough walk in summer but a serious proposition in the winter snow requiring real climbing skill, ropes and proper equipment.

How The Gazette reported the Rag StuntHow The Gazette reported the Rag Stunt
How The Gazette reported the Rag Stunt

Flushed with success and the hospitality of Welsh pubs and feeling invincible their thoughts turned to further possible exploits, preferably something which might get some publicity for the forthcoming Manchester University Rag Week, in which the Salford College usually joined.

The solution was obvious – Blackpool Tower, the best known feature of the North West, tallest building in the country at that time, and potentially a very interesting climbing challenge, especially the overhang at the top. Serious planning began at once.

The date would be Shrove Tuesday and the group would consist of four climbers, three from RCAT Mountaineering Club and a climbing friend from Loughborough University, plus a driver/lookout.

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The climbers fully expected to have to scale the outside of the building to reach the roof and then climb the steel structure of the tower itself and they would need to be fully equipped with suitable warm clothing, slings, carabiners, ropes and modern rubber soled climbing boots.

The night in question turned out to be exceptionally cold as the temperature fell to -5.2 degrees Celsius with a sea mist leading to the formation of ice on the structure. The team arrived by car in the early hours and, having parked, began the ascent.

Under the headlines: ‘University men in death defying stunt that tops the lot’, RAG’ STUDENTS CLIMB TOWER, PLANT FLAG ON TOP’, The West Lancashire Evening Gazette reported the exploit as follows –

‘In a death-defying publicity stunt, three Manchester University students climbed 500 feet up an ice-covered Blackpool Tower structure in the early and dark hours of today and planted a ‘Rag’ flag on the Crow’s Nest.’

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As they made their perilous descent about 3.00 am. they were spotted by a Tower security guard who, after summoning the assistance of colleagues and detaining the youths, called the police. Two squad cars raced to the Tower Buildings and the students, 21 and 19 years old, were taken to the Central Police station.

There they were questioned for an hour before being released to return to Manchester by their own car, which they had parked, before embarking on this most daring of Tower exploits, near the promenade.’

The account then continued in more detail but not necessarily more accurate -

‘The students started their climb by scaling the 85ft. front of the tower building from the promenade and then crossing the roof under cover of darkness and mist to the foot of the giant steel structure which in the light of a torch glistened with 11 degrees of frost.’

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What actually happened was that having climbed on to the top of the single storey veranda around the base of the building they discovered an unsecured window through which they entered and soon found themselves in the famous Ballroom which they crossed by torchlight, their rubber soled boots leaving no mark on the polished floor. They discovered a staircase which they ascended to the roof and then found their way to the base of the Tower.

The Gazette account continued – ‘The first 200ft of the climb was up a 3ft wide staircase, a comparatively simple operation. It was at the 200ft level that the hazards began. From this point to the 480ft level, which is open to the public, they had to scale a man-wide steel perpendicular ladder which is attached to the south west leg. Once on the 480ft level they could reach the Crow’s Nest with ease and comparative safety, and they lashed their flag round the Nest, almost completely enveloping it.’

At this point Tony adds: ‘The vertical ladder was a piece of cake, we had expected to be climbing up girders. Again, incredible luck, we did not have to do the overhang. The ladder led to a tiny room from which a door led to the balcony. There were then stairs up to the Crow’s nest. Each of the four climbers then took it in turns to shin up the flagpole and lay a hand on the very top.’

A copy of the Manchester University Rag Magazine was left in the Crow’s Nest, bearing the message: ‘To the Mayor of Blackpool with the compliments of the Royal College of Advanced Technology, Salford.’

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Back to the Gazette: ‘Then began the perilous descent. It was while this was taking place that a patrolling tower security guard heard voices coming from the structure. He hesitated to make sure he had not made a mistake, then called for assistance. By the time the youths reached the tower building roof there were enough security guards to surround them and escort them into the building to await the police.

The Tower Company statement said: ’The Chief Fire and Security Officer (Mr J Bramly) quickly arrived on the scene along with other members of the security staff. They detained the students who had broken into and entered the building. The youths were taken to the Central Police Station at about 4am.’

And then in a flight of fancy it was reported that ‘One of them was wearing climbing boots, another sandals, and the third, ordinary shoes.’ (They were all actually wearing climbing boots).

According to Tony: ’On the descent we clearly allowed our exhilaration to get the better of us and we made too much noise. Torches were shone up from the roof below and shortly afterwards we saw cars arriving. On descending from the steel structure we were met by a considerable reception party. We led them to the open window where we entered the building and they were satisfied we had not forced an entry. Neither had we done any damage.

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The police were basically friendly although we were detained in the local police station for several hours. The Blackpool police had recently arrested Hanratty, the A6 murderer, and they were happy to point out that we were being questioned in the same room they had used to question him. They told us that since we had not technically broken in and had not done any damage they would not be charging us, and that it was up to the tower authorities. After a long wait we were told that they too would not be pressing charges but it was obvious that they had asked the police to give us a bit of a dressing down. We were finally shown the door with the advice not to be so silly in future.’’

The Tower Company, however, took a very serious view of the proceedings and the General Manager, Mr. Donald Gledhill, issued a stern warning in the pages of the Evening Gazette -

He complained that: ‘Whilst we are sympathetic to the high spirits of modern youth, we cannot imagine a more ill-advised and dangerous performance. The danger to these students and other people far outweighed the publicity benefit they could ever achieve. Apart from the hazards of climbing the Tower under normal conditions, it was particularly dangerous in the hours of darkness early this morning when there was a sea mist surrounding the Tower and ice conditions had formed on the structure. The Tower Company cannot look without concern on such foolish pranks and legal action will definitely be taken against any other persons attempting such a hazard.’

Following which the Deputy Chief Constable (Chief Superintendent Stanley Parr) felt bound to add: ‘It was a very stupid and irresponsible action for the youths to take, although it is only the type of thing we have come to expect from these young people.’

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Such comments may appear to be rather unsympathetic but we should remember that back in 1962 the older generation were still feeling somewhat grumpy about the new-found freedoms and attitudes of young people. One wonders if it would be the same today.

Back home the reaction was a little different. Tony’s mother heard the news on the radio in the morning and only after going upstairs and discovering an empty bed that had obviously not been slept in, guessed that he was one of the culprits.

An invitation to appear on Granada TV that night followed, conditional on the students wearing climbing gear. They agreed to appear but only in normal clothes to emphasize that they were not hooligans but clean cut sensible young fellows who had planned and carried out the climb with care and skill. The invitation was withdrawn.

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