South aka Victoria Pier, 1894
Why did Blackpool become so important in late Victorian times? After all the town only had a permanent population of 35,000 by the 1890s, although in each summer season it attracted 250,000 holidaymakers from all over the north.
Like all the bigger resorts, and especially those which catered for the growing working-class holiday market of late Victorian Britain, Blackpool required so-called pleasure palaces. The palaces combined music-hall, variety and dancing with an interesting mix of programmes that included zoos, opera houses, theatres, aquaria, Venetian canals, winter gardens and exhibitions. Blackpool needed this extraordinary mixture of indoor-outdoor entertainment to be dressy but not too highbrow, profitable but not so expensive that working families could not afford a fortnight of fun each summer.
Winter Gardens ballroom
A new book that was first published in 2009 is well worth reading. Winter Gardens Blackpool: The Most Magnificent Palace of Amusement in the World, by Vanessa Toulmin, examined the architectural styles of this amazing building. She described, right down to the tiles, gilding and chandeliers, the ballroom, the opera house and the incredible Spanish Hall, made entirely from plaster.
Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and the two young men he helped to train in architecture were responsible for 200+ of the theatres and variety palaces that popped up all over Britain between 1890 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914. My favourites were His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, the King's Theatre in Glasgow, the Grand Opera House in Belfast, the London Palladium and Royal Hall Kursaal in Harrogate. But none was quite as famous and as elaborate as the Blackpool tower ballroom, as we shall see.
The Tower Ballroom was also designed by Frank Matcham. Built from 1897 and opened in 1899, it had been commissioned by the Tower company in response to the very successful Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. This seemed extremely risky. Blackpool was clearly a firm holiday favourite for sea bathing and for amusements, but how many grand ballrooms could this rather small north-western city accommodate?