From the Archives: the Imperial Hotel, part I

In the first of two articles revealing the history of the grand Imperial Hotel, local heritage photographer and historian Juliette Gregson tells us the 1867 building was ahead of its time and almost faced ruin as a result.

The Imperial Hotel at North Shore cannot, like the Clifton and others, boast a tradition dating back to the 18th Century. It was established in 1867 and is a large Victorian red brick building, in what, before development, was once Claremont Park.

A syndicate, which included two directors of the North Pier, formed a company known as the Blackpool Land and Building Company. It purchased the whole of the land on the northern seafront that was lying between Carlton Terrace and the Gynn Inn and created the Claremont Park estate. The site of Regent Terrace is described as land sold to a Mr Lowe and then later the plot of the Imperial.

When taken over by the building company the estate was, to some extent, agricultural and a farm house once stood on the site. Many older residents remembered that cattle used to graze on the land between Derby and Warley Road where the now demolished Derby Baths stood. It is interesting to note that steps were taken to secure the embankments facing the property from coastal erosion during heavy gales which still, to this day, sweep along our coast.

The doors officially opened on 27th June 1867 by Clegg and Jones with the final cost of completion around £50,000. The Imperial was at first was let out on a tenancy to a Mr William Beachy Head, who would become the first hotelier landlord. The tariff for guests was three guineas a week and 4s 6d a day for servants. It’s evident that that the shareholders expected a lot of popularity but in the early days Mr Head struggled to make the hotel pay due to the lack of visitors. Blackpool was only just beginning to emerge as a destination for the masses and railway and other methods of travel were not fully developed.

Dickens described the Imperial as a “charming place of rest” when he wrote to his sister in law.

But what it lacked in numbers it made ups for in quality. On 21st April 1869, Charles Dickens spent the night at the Imperial during his tour of the north and following a triumphant tour of America. He was giving readings of his works to packed audiences.
“Blackpool has had this week the honour of receiving the distinguished visitor in the person of Charles Dickens, the great novelist, who arrived at the Imperial Hotel on Wednesday and left yesterday,” the Blackpool Herald reported on 23rd April 1869.

He had meant to be appearing in Preston the following day, but not feeling well, he summoned his doctor from London who refused to allow him to appear in the city. He then returned to London the next day for more medical consultations. He described the Imperial as a “charming place of rest” when he wrote to his sister in law.

In 1871, Mr Curwen was appointed as the manager of the Imperial, but, like William Head before him, he was unable to make a success of the business. The following year, Mr Taylor, who had managed hotels in Brighton and Jersey, was appointed to succeed him. Again, alas, the venture did not prove successful and a scheme was prepared for the foundation of a limited company to take over the hotel.

The scheme did not come to fruition until August 1873, when the hotel was sold to Mr Rothwell and others for around £32,000. The company struggled along, but made no headway in becoming profit-making.

The Imperial in the 1870s

Two years later, a resolution was passed by the board to wind up the company voluntarily for the purpose of reconstruction. It was liquidated in December that year and a new company – bearing the original name – was formed. In 1881, the company name was changed to the Imperial Hydropathic Hotel Company, Blackpool. The new company also found the hotel was no money-spinner and they got into difficulties. Eventually the directors were facing bankruptcy and the bailiffs were ready to take possession of the Imperial.

James Kirk, who had only recently joined the board, stepped in with a loan of £3,000 and his intervention appears to have marked the turning point of the hotel. With James Fish and then Charles Parker as chairman, the directors had a further seven years of hard work and worry before they were able to declare a dividend. In 1889, a four per cent dividend was paid, reaching five per cent in 1892 – and the company started to grow.

South of The Imperial, Blackpool extended rapidly along its Golden Mile. Fortunately a relaxation of the prohibition on alcohol led to the Imperial taking off as the venue of choice for important municipal events. In 1878 the opening of Blackpool’s splendid Winter Gardens was celebrated at the Imperial with the Lord Mayor of London booking out the hotel for his entourage of 63 mayors and lady mayoresses from across Britain.

In 1891 the laying of the foundations of Blackpool Tower were again celebrated with a gala dinner at the Imperial.

To further the hotel’s appeal, the Imperial embraced hydropathy – a fashionable term for a combination of treatments that involved occupational therapy, physiotherapy and water for the alleviation of pain, stiffness in the joints and gout – building, in 1901, Turkish and Russian baths and a sea water plunge bath in the basement of the south wing.

The Turkish Baths

The same year saw the addition of a ballroom which would accommodate 400 guests. Three years later, a wing was added to the north end of the hotel, incorporating a dining room for 400 guests, lounge and palm court adjoining, and additional bedrooms. Under the dining room was a banqueting room of the same size, a billiards room, cloak rooms and other amenities.

Then, in April 1918, towards the end of the First World War, the Government took over the hotel to be used as an officer’s hospital, retaining possession until May 1919.

Keep your eye out for part II of Juliette Gregson’s history of the Imperial Hotel, coming soon

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