This spot on the flat Lancashire coast with its huge sandy beach was little more than a hamlet in the mid-18th century when it started to become fashionable to travel to the coast and bathe in the sea. A new private road built by a couple of wealthy entrepreneurs opened up stagecoach routes from Manchester and Halifax and the place was a thriving tourist town by the time the railway arrived in 1846.
It’s a sign that Blackpool itself, after years on its uppers, is going strong once again in its fourth century as Britain’s favourite resort
Seventeen years later the first pier was built, explicitly catering to an elite crowd that would feel at home in the magnificent Indian Pavilion, modelled on one of the glories of the Raj. But the transport links to the industrial towns of East Lancashire and the West Riding made Blackpool a predominantly working-class destination, famous for its fortune-tellers, variety theatres, seafront trams, donkey rides, fish-and-chip shops and saucy seaside postcards.
Its growth was fuelled by the cotton mill owners’ practice of closing factories for a week a year to service the machinery. Each town’s mills would close for a different “wakes week”, as these periods were known, which gave Blackpool a steady stream of visitors throughout the summer.
By its heyday in the first half of the 20th century it was the only resort in Britain with three piers. It boasted a half-size imitation of the Eiffel Tower (erected only five years after the Paris original) and the largest opera house in Britain outside London. There was the tram, which remains Britain’s only surviving first-generation tramway. It was also the first municipality in the world to have electric street lighting. The illuminations and accompanying pageants on the Blackpool prom became a visitor attraction in their own right.
For entertainers in the days before everyone had a television, playing to fresh crowds week after week was the perfect way to connect with a mass audience. Showbusiness greats such as Morecambe and Wise and Frankie Howerd cut their performing teeth there, while a 13-year-old John Inman made his debut on the South Pier in 1948. An aspiring puppeteer called Harry Corbett also bought a little yellow bear on a stall on the North Pier. He called it Sooty.
But in the 1970s and 1980s the rise of cheap package tourism to warmer foreign destinations hit Blackpool hard. Paradoxically the improvement of transport links in the shape of the M55 motorway made people less likely to stay a week when they could get there and back in a day or a weekend.