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Blackpool Tower

Seaside Fun

Blackpool is sometimes called the Las Vegas of Europe – and with good reason. For more than a century, thrill-seekers have travelled from all over the world to indulge in its gritty vulgarity and variety of pleasures.

The resort is a living, breathing historical monument to its own past, as so much of it is still in evidence today.

As with most seaside towns in England, it was the growth of the railways that made such a huge impact on the number of visitors to Blackpool – it became more easily in reach of more people and the first real attraction to greet them was a rather ramshackle wooden building called Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was built in the late 1850s on the North Shore.

It housed shooting galleries, a theatre, a dance hall with nightly minstrel shows, and a long bar in the style of a western saloon. The influx grew, and during the 1870s, whole cotton town communities would descend on the resort during Wakes Weeks, when factories would shut down to give workers a break.

Victoria Pier
Victoria Pier, South Promenade, Blackpool
Pier pressure

Blackpool's North Pier opened in the mid-1860s, and was considered to be for the exclusive use of the middle classes. It had a 2d entrance and was a huge success, but according to the operators, attracted the wrong sort of people – i.e. from the lower classes. Because of this, a second pier, the South Jetty, was opened in 1868 for the plebs.

However, it was the 1890s that really marked the beginning of Blackpool providing entertainment on a massive scale.

In this period the Blackpool Tower was built, a gigantic wheel was opened in 1896, the pleasure palace Alhambra opened next to the Tower, and the Pleasure Beach at the South Prom end began to develop from sand dunes and fortune tellers to being home to such thrilling rides as the Sir Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machine.

Big Wheel
Blackpool Big Wheel, 1903
©Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

The first official illuminations opened in 1912, attracting more than 100,000 people. With the exception of the two world wars, they have gone from strength to strength with over six miles of lights, now costing in the region of £3 million each year!

Saucy postcards

During the period before and after the second world war, Blackpool was becoming renowned for being bawdy and a little saucy.

Donald McGill was a graphic artist (and respectable Victorian gentleman) who created the smutty postcards sold mainly in small shops in British seaside towns. In 1939, one million were sold by one Blackpool shop alone!

All kinds of people featured in the postcards – hen-pecked husbands, honeymoon couples, mothers-in-law and flirtatious women with ample cleavages. McGill was hailed by Punch magazine as “the most popular, hence most eminent English painter of the century”, and writer George Orwell spoke in 1941 of being sorry to see the saucy postcard vanish.

Donald McGill caused a lot of controversy and censorship committees often tried to ban his racy brand of humour.

Something for the weekend..?

As well as being the home of the smutty postcard, Blackpool is well known as a destination for “dirty weekends”. These were most popular in the first half of the 20th century and entailed going with one's lover to a resort, checking into a hotel under false names (usually Mr and Mrs Smith) and then denying the whole thing ever happened!

In honour of Blackpool's image as the best place to go for a dirty weekend, a monument was built by Chris Knight on the town’s South Shore in 2001. Called Desire, it is meant to express the underlying tension involved in a secret romance, and consists of (not very romantic) steel slabs with steel spikes.

Lynn Fade, the council's arts officer, said, “It is very much how Blackpool is perceived. People do come here for a dirty weekend.” Just to warn people that it could all end in tears, when the sun is low, Desire casts the shadow of a broken heart on the ground!

Blackpool beach
Young women enjoy the sunshine on Blackpool beach, April 1939
There has been a long tradition of women being in charge of boarding and lodging houses in the town. Since the 1890s, these Blackpool landladies have been a figure of fun, being mocked in some of the earliest comic postcards. More recently, they were immortalised by the late comedian Les Dawson as being big bosomed gossips with rollers in their hair and slippers on their feet, arms folded in disapproval.

They were often very good at organising their visitors' time, and would tell guests exactly what time they had to wake up, wash, leave each morning, return to eat and go to bed! Even so, they have become an national institution themselves.

The future’s bright

Today Blackpool is Britain's most popular holiday destination, and a favourite location for hen and stag weekends. More than 17 million visitors per year are enticed by the array of seaside treats on offer, including arcades, kiss me quick hats, striped deckchairs, garish beach huts, Blackpool rock, nightclubs and the largest Pleasure Beach in Europe.

The town’s image could be changed dramatically, however, by the proposed building of huge hotels and casino complexes. The gambling industry has been buying up property along the Golden Mile promenade for years, and growth in this area could see Blackpool rivalling Las Vegas as casino capital of the world!