Memories of 160 years of North Pier

Today marks 160 years of the pier designed by Eugenius Birch for Blackpool’s “better classes”. Local historian and writer Juliette Gregson walks us down the decking to tell a history worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster

Just like the famous Tower, North Pier is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Blackpool. The endearing, Victorian structure attracts visitors and residents alike and is as much a vital element of Blackpool as the famous trams and Tower. Today it celebrates its 160th birthday.

The North Pier has changed immensely during that time, but has always retained its unique qualities of being a quieter more reflective place compared to Blackpool’s other two piers. Whilst to a stranger, on first glance, the North Pier is just one of three piers in the town, for many, it’s a rich wonderful place, with a history worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster – with fire, shipwrecks, entertainers and politicians along with memories of so many enjoyed holidays and day trips.

The HMS Foudroyant shipwrecked off North Pier in 1897. Photo: Albert Eden, Blackpool Council Heritage Service

In 1861, a group of the town’s most prominent movers and shakers had gathered in the Clifton Arms Hotel to discuss the idea of building a pier where the most ‘in vogue’ Victorians could exercise in the pastime of promenading in the open air.

Eugenius Birch was most acclaimed for his seaside pier constructions. During his life he was responsible for no fewer than 14 of them, including some of the best known such as Brighton West and of course Blackpool North. Most piers of the era were made using cast iron. Birch thought that if wrought iron was to be used it would take a lot of repairing if the pier were to be damaged. Sadly, today, due to disregardance of heritage, very little remains of his pioneering work.

The opening ceremony was on May 21st 1863. Dignitaries among the 20,000 who attended included the voluntary artillery, deputations of freemasons and oddfellows, the trades of Blackpool, ancient order of druids (with two high priests in full costume and a bard mounted on an ass) bathing vans, hackney carriages and a chimney sweep!

As sanctioned by parliamentary order, a landing jetty was allowed to be built at the end of North Pier by additional stages between 1864 and 1867. The Blackpool Pier Company used the jetty to operate pleasure steamers and boats that made various trips to the surrounding areas. On the 20th of June 1877 North Pier’s extensions – the Indian Pavilion and the two wings – were officially opened. The Pavilion became renowned for elegant and refined concerts.

In October 1892 the Sirene had been sailing from the port of Fleetwood and was captured by the gales of the Fylde coast. Due to the atrocious weather, the 667 ton vessel smashed and destroyed some of the North Pier decking near to the sea wall. The force of the boat crash also wrecked shops and the arcade. Amazingly the eleven crew members managed to climb onto the pier and walk to the promenade and safety.

In less than an hour the Pavilion itself had dropped into the sea, watched by the ever-increasing crowds that had come to view the dreadful spectacle.

Blackpool has many historic buildings that celebrate the best examples of Victorian architecture. They are celebrated with blue plaques around the town and, to the right of North Pier, looking towards the Irish Sea, is one example. It gives a potted history of the Foudroyant, a former flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson that became shipwrecked opposite the Metropole hotel five years after the Sirene on 16th ‘June 1897. True to Blackpool form, the salvage company involved was to receive money if the vessel could be refloated, if not they could buy the wreck. This was not to be the so the company got back some of the initial outlay by making souvenirs from the timber and copper and selling them on to the general public. Some of the items included furniture, medallions and coins.

Shipwrecks weren’t the only dramatic tales where the North Pier has been the site of the action. Fire swept through the Indian Pavilion on September 11th 1921, causing an extensive amount of damage to the structure. The fire was so fierce that all the instruments of the Pier orchestra were destroyed in the blaze as well. The Pavilion at the time before the devastation could hold up to 2,500 people when full. The Fire Brigade attempted to ‘cut off’ the Pavilion theatre and had to remove the wooden decking. If they hadn’t, the danger of the flames would have destroyed all of the North Pier. The afternoon visitors had only just left after the show had finished so were very lucky not to be caught inside, the total damage caused was thought to run past £40,000. In less than an hour the Pavilion itself had dropped into the sea, watched by the ever-increasing crowds that had come to view the dreadful spectacle that a fire can cause. In 1938 tragedy struck again as the second version of the Pavilion set on fire in June, thus the venue closed again, but only for a year this time, the second fire was thought to have started in a dressing room.

North Pier is jewel in our entertainment heritage and many famous performers have walked its decks over the past 160 years. Lawrence Wright (1888-1964) was a songwriter, composer and music producer who came to Blackpool in the 1920s. Wright had a great love of the theatrics of the town – so much that he lived in a house that looked like a castle, which had been built for a Mr Arthur T Knowles. Later this was bought by Wright (real name Horatio Nicholls) who ran On With The Show for over 30 years – bringing many famous bands and performers to the resort as well as a lot of love, laughter and variety to the North Pier.

Teresa Mary ‘Tessie’ O Shea was incredibly popular in Blackpool during the 1930’s very much known for her versatility, she played on her ‘weight’ and was known by her song, Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee. My father ( David W Gregson ) was a stage hand in his youth at the Opera House, Blackpool, and was lucky enough to work with her.

Chiefs in charge of Blackpool’s regeneration may have seen adverts describing the town as Britain’s Playground. As such it attracted people from far and wide – not all of them welcome. In 2009 many national newspapers reported the contentious claim that Hitler had spared the resort and made orders not to bomb or destroy the Tower or any of the three piers as he had intended on making Blackpool his headquarters once he conquered Britain.

Frank Randle (born Arthur McEvoy) was what we would class today as an alternative comedian. He appealed to the common masses and if history is to be believed he would at times refuse to appear in shows due to being intoxicated. The paying fans would forgive him, happily accepting a refund and waiting until he appeared again. In July 2012 I was lucky enough to be invited to an event for the Frank Randle Appreciation Society. Every year they hold an event to celebrate Randle’s life and liver – music, film and Fun organised by the Cuthbert Club. A plaque to honour Randle was officially opened on the 7th of July 2007, and is situated on North Pier where Frank performed in many shows opposite the Carousel Bar – quite fitting if you believe how much he could drink!

Sooty was found in a joke shop by Harry Corbett on North Pier. Now he has his own blue plaque there.

Sooty is now owned by the brilliant Richard Cadell, who bought the rights on Sooty’s 60th anniversary from the Corbett family. We all know the history of how Harry Corbett discovered Sooty on North Pier, and how his son Matthew carried on the tradition. I wanted to recreate Sooty on the North Pier so took him down for the day (helped by my good friend Paul Rodgers) and had immense fun just wandering up to people and tapping on the shoulder and waving! I had the fantastic chance to have a phone conversation with Matthew Corbett about his father Harry, Blackpool and his memories of the Pier and shows. Matthew reminisced about the summer seasons in Blackpool and the stars that appeared in the resort, such as Shirley Bassey, Tommy Steele and Ronnie Ronalde. He remembered staying at the Welbeck Hotel, and, whilst on holiday with his parents and brother, being invited by Cliff Richard backstage as he wanted to chat to Harry. Matthew was delighted that Cliff was such a fan and how kind he was about his dad.

In 2004 Blackpool North Pier was graced with an exhibition of George Formby items that would have marked his 100th birthday. A firm favourite with all, the event was opened by Formby’s younger brother, Ted, who was 87 at the time and was delighted that Blackpool and the North Pier had been able to host the event that showcased many never seen before photographs and assorted items of memorabilia.

The first official Miss Blackpool beauty contest was won by Elaine Smith (not the Civic Trust’s Elaine!) and was originally held at South Shore Baths, then later at North Pier. The town went on to host the finals of the Miss United Kingdom from 1958. Sporadic beauty contests for a Miss Blackpool crown had been held during the ‘20s and ‘30s.

The North Pier has been awarded by English Heritage status as a Grade II listed building, due to it being the oldest surviving pier created by Eugenius Birch. A little known fact is that included in the corporation tramway by-laws, is the rule that tram queues at North Pier must not block ingress and egress from the Pier.

The ghost tours are worth a visit, to see what really goes on when the cast and audience leave, the lights are switched off and the doors locked!

In 1991 North Pier installed its own tramway, the engineers responsible for this delight were Harry Steer Engineering of Breaston. Able to hold up to 56 passengers, this provided a welcome addition to the pier facilities, especially as Blackpool’s weather at times can be quite unpredictable. North Pier had to having the decking reinforced to support the weight of the train and the tram ran from 1991 to 2004. It was later removed to be sold as scrap. Whilst doing research for my North Pier book and speaking to owners, Peter and Sue Sedgwick, I was informed that there are future plans for the train to be reintroduced as part of their regenerations plans for the pier.

Around the end of the 1930’s, the earlier bandstand was removed and the sun lounge was erected in its place. It’s still there if you look in the Victorian style wrought iron canopy. Walk through the Carousel Bar towards the sun lounge outside, ponder a moment and look at the windows around you. Embossed in frosted glass are the horses from the Venetian Carousel in red white and blue decal.

The current capacity for today’s theatre at a full house is 1,500. In more recent years, Stephen Mercer has been running Ghost Tours there. They’re worth a visit, to see what really goes on when the cast and audience leave, the lights are switched off and the doors locked! Mercer takes ghost hunters into the haunted dressing room, tells them of the Victorian lady, and they can sit in the haunted seat in the theatre’s auditorium and investigate the spooky storeroom.

Only in 2011 was the toll abolished for the general public. The new owners, Peter and Sue Sedgwick, wanted to bring back its Victorian heritage and therefore removed the admission price. They have since been updating the pier whilst retaining the heritage of the pier. The vision they share is for restoration and redecoration to bring back out the Victoriana.

Over the years we have seen the North Pier grow in size, and have many different designs to the structures added to it. When I look now at the current entrance to the arcade, and compare it with the original design, I can see how much has changed in the 160 years of North Pier’s life. On the very day, exactly 150 years after North Pier was opened, I was lucky enough to be invited to the party and had a most excellent time. Many local fans and civic dignitaries also enjoyed the free showcase and specially made North Pier sweets for the event.

Today marks 160 years since that opening and visitors can attend the all-day celebrations, enjoy live music and take their own trip down memory lane.

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