Blackpool’s built environment through a diverse lens

A group of learning-disabled photographers has brought to light the work of an important but previously little-known architect whose work remains important to civic life and design in Blackpool.

The New Langdale Photographers, a diverse group with disabilities, has been exploring the work of John Charles Robinson, who worked as borough architect for the town from 1920 to 1944.

Robinson was responsible for at least 30 civic buildings in Blackpool, including libraries, schools, health and leisure facilities and transport infrastructure. While two of his most important structures have been lost – the art deco Darby Baths and South Shore’s open-air swimming pool – most, including The Solaris Centre on South Promenade and North Promenade’s colonnades and famous tram lift remain.

Samantha Bragg - Stanley Park Cricket Club
Samantha Bragg – Stanley Park Cricket Club

Structures including several libraries and schools and Blackpool School of Arts continue to serve communities. At the same time, design gems such as Stanley Park’s art deco cafe and the arts and crafts-inspired Stanley Park Golf Club make Robinson as significant to architectural design in Blackpool as Charles Rennie Mackintosh was in Glasgow, says Lee Ivett of the Grenfell Baines Institute of Architecture.

“A sense of care, craft, consistency, permanence and significance is inherent in all the work of JC Robinson regardless of scale. These characteristics can be found in tram stops, libraries, swimming baths and schools,” says Ivett.

Neil Froggett, who manages the New Langdale daytime activity service for adults with learning disabilities in Blackpool, was the first to realise Robinson’s significance to the service when he noticed a plaque honouring the architect on the former Hawes Side library, which the group utilises today. Soon he discovered the New Langdales used several other Robinsons buildings, including Bispham Library, the Carleton Chapel and the art deco cafe which the existing group would use on a Monday when exploring wildlife photography at the park.

“I got to meet the photography group through their walks in the park,” says photographer Elizabeth Gomm, who volunteered with the New Langdales for three years before coming on board for the Robinson project. She is one of three Blackpool photographers who work alongside the New Langdale photography group. “I got involved with doing exhibitions with them – we did two at Stanley Park visitors centre and then Neil talked to me about having seen this plaque at Hawes Side Library.

Stanley Park exhibiton detail

“It made us think about how Blackpool forged ahead in the pre-war years. When Europe was clouded with the threat of conflict, Blackpool stayed true to its motto of Progress. So I said, why don’t we just photograph these buildings? And the whole thing has unfolded from there.”

Fellow photographers Claire Walmsley Griffiths and Donna Hannigan came on board, with Walmsley Griffiths putting together a successful Arts Council funding application to work on the project with the 10-strong group of New Langdale photographers for seven months.

For the New Langdale group, the social experience of coming together and seeing each other to share space seems so important.

The socially engaged pilot project would explore civic pride and the representation of Blackpool now and during the 1920s when Robinson was prolific. It would create an opportunity for intergenerational audiences to share social stories and discuss what our built environment means to communities in a place known for socio-economic issues. By framing these questions through a diverse lens, the New Langdale Photographers set out to create a long-term legacy and enhance Blackpool’s cultural landscape.

Little Bispham Tram Stop Jacqui Cheng

A huge body of work has been built around Robinson’s significance to the group and the town as a result. An exhibition at the Grundy Art Gallery, a film, and an archive of interviews – with people for whom Robinson’s buildings have been significant to – are outcomes alongside the many photographs the group has taken of Robinson’s architecture and its connected themes.

Bradley Bulmer – site of Rock Gardens South

“I met the lady who used to be the head of Highfield School. She was a nice lady and told me about

the school as it used to be,” says Tony Holmes, a New Langdale photographer who enjoyed the opportunity to interview the former head of the Robinson-built school, Carolyn Mercer, among others.

“The environment is very important to education and at Highfield, it was a warm feeling,” Mercer told Holmes. “You felt protected because of the solidity of the building.”

When asked how it felt to have his work displayed in the Grundy, Holmes responds: “Alright”.

“They’re very relaxed about displaying in the Grundy,” laughs Walmsley Griffiths. “Tony’s an accomplished artist who’s displayed work in there four or five times already so it’s nothing new to him.

“For the New Langdale group, the social experience of coming together and seeing each other to share space seems so important.

“The New Langdales challenged the perception for us as photographers of having fantastic award-winning photography as an outcome. It was more about an experience of moving around a place.”

It’s been a liberating experience for the practitioners, Walmsley Griffiths adds.
“They’ve given us something. They’ve shown us the joy of just moving around and taking a photograph of something that catches your eye. We’re not giving them anything, other than an idea to work with, and that’s secondary to their social experience – moving around the town, meeting new people, perhaps having a conversation with a random punk.”

That experience, while out photographing the municipal Stanley Buildings that Robinson built, sticks out in Samantha Bragg’s memory.

“We went to a record shop and met a man with amazing spiky hair,” she says, beaming. “He wasn’t from town. He was from Italy. I chat to everybody, I like talking.”

Another chance meeting with a man in Stanley Park was a memorable one for her.

“He had a motorbike and he let me sit on it and put his helmet on,” she says. “It was amazing!”

Sam photographed by Elizabeth Gomm in the park

Bragg, who says she’s a “very talented artist” and a “really brilliant chef” – she also works at the New Langdale’s Nibble Cafe in Carleton, near the Robinson-designed chapel – is also amazed that she’s being paid for her work on the project. Like all the New Langdale photographers, she’s being compensated for displaying her work thanks to the Arts Council funding and Walmsley Griffiths’s commitment to paying artists for their work.

“I can’t believe we’ll get money,” says Bragg. “I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I think I’ll save it. My dad and my family are so proud of me.”

For the New Langdale Photographers, Griffiths feels the camera can be a powerful and accessible tool to tell their own stories, as well as Robinson’s.

“It’s a way of exploring your own everyday personal experience and in Blackpool we need more people to be able to tell their own complex and diverse stories. You see that handing them a camera, just the very fact of holding it, makes them feel powerful.”

And the project has been largely led by the New Langdale group, who have helped decide how they would like to explore Robinson’s architecture themselves.

If you have a camera in your hand you’re a time traveller. You’re an explorer. And it’s something that gives you purpose.

“We’ve been influenced by some of their other interests like their relationship to Stanley Park,” says Walmsley Griffiths. “So we went there and made origami boats, which were related to JC Robinson’s theme of transport. We made them in response to a group member’s suggestion and it has been important within the project to push and explore what else a photograph can do.

“That form of wellbeing and exploration with a camera can make you brave. If you have a camera in your hand you’re a time traveller. You’re an explorer. And it’s something that gives you purpose.”

Dave Southern and Niomie Atack are both progression workers with the New Langdale group, working to “bring the best out of them” but equally learning from the group themselves, they say.

“They’ve got so much out of this project,” says Southern, who helped form the photography group 11 years ago. “Some have had to learn but some it comes very naturally to. One of our group, Dawn Ward, has such an incredible eye for detail and her shots are completely different to everyone else’s. She will pick out some details that nobody else has seen.

Dawn Wards Photographic Sculpture JC Robinson

“Everyone has their special talents and interests.”

Atack joined the group during the Robinson project and discovered her love of photography in the process.

“I’m creative. I used to do makeup but I’d never done any photography. I was a bit overwhelmed at first but I’ll put my mind to anything with these guys. I absolutely loved it from the first session to the point where my partner bought me a camera for my birthday.

“I find it’s really good therapy and it helps me get headspace. The group blows my mind with how creative they are. It’s really cool to see how they view the world. They’re just incredible.”

As well as the wellbeing and physical benefits that the group has gained from getting out and about around Blackpool, the project has also made the group more visible.

“The brilliant thing about this is it’s raised the awareness of the talents of a diverse group of photographers. People have been really moved by the work that they’ve done and we’ve brought back so many memories for people,” says Gomm pointing out that the profile of the New Langdale Photographers is set to be raised a lot higher when Robinson’s art deco Stanley Buildings undergo their £7.5m restoration into a modern business hub.

“Their work is likely going to be displayed on the hoardings around the building. They’ll be up for about a year and that will raise their profile tremendously.”

Much of the other regeneration work currently happening in Blackpool, Walmsley Griffiths points out, is focussed on tourism. The new Showtown Museum, the Talbot Road tramline, new hotels and the Blackpool Central development, mark a wave of construction for Blackpool as it attempts to become a success story for the government’s Levelling Up agenda. This current wave of redevelopment sits in contrast to Robinson’s work which largely served people who lived in the town.

Stanley Park Cricket Club Robert Serventi

“He built libraries with health centres in them and schools and those spaces were for residents. We found out that the art deco cafe was going to be multi-levelled with a community centre above it but that it ran out of money,” she says. “The leisure and transport facilities – like Derby Baths and Bispham tram stop, undoubtedly served tourists too, but they enhanced the lives of the people who live here and there is not enough focus on that now. So for me, the project was more about how the community can take up space and move around the town.”

Stanley Buildings – Tony Holmes

Ivett echoes these sentiments.

“When it comes to JC Robinson I think it’s important to recognise not only the architecture that he designed and created but also the significance of his role as a municipal architect and how rare that now is in contemporary society,” he says. “The value of such a role is very much illustrated and made real by the work of JC Robinson in Blackpool – the architect as a public servant making the communal and civic infrastructure for the public that they serve.

“The role that facilitated this architecture is now sadly much diminished. This new examination of his work offers both an opportunity to celebrate what remains but also reflect on a mode of practice that has been lost and reconsider how we might better create new civic and community infrastructure and architecture.”

Watch The New Langdale Film here. 

New Langdale Website

email: [email protected] to join their celebration day on the 30th May 2024

Header Image: Donna Hannigan. New Langdale Photography group photographing outside Solaris Centre, Blackpool on site of “They Shoot Horses” – Glitter Ball, Michael Trainor.

The New Langdale Photographers are: Bradley Bulmer, Dawn Ward, Tony Holmes, Robert Serventi, Samantha Bragg, Ila Thornley, Michael Conway, Yazmin West, Chloe McFarlane and Jacqui Cheng,

The series was supported by funds from Arts Council England, The Grundy Art Gallery and Open Eye Gallery Liverpool.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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