Custom survived: Blackpool illuminations

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Last year I discussed the lesser known but nevertheless picturesque Matlock illuminations, this month it’s time to talk about the grandfather of illuminations: Blackpool. In 2012, the town celebrated 100 years of lighting up and so I felt it was fitting to return back.

Walking on artificial sunshine

Blackpool is the queen of all seaside resorts, a well established resort long before the illuminations begun. In 1879, the local council decided to invest £5000 into converting the gas lights to Dr Siemen’s 8 dynamo-electric street lighting, the first electric street lights in the world. This new scheme attracted near on 100,000 visitors to see the promenade lit up with 48,000 candles worth of ‘artificial sunlight’!

Like Matlock, royalty was again the influence and the regular lighting up was established after the first Royal visit, by Princess Louise, to the town and the renamed Princess Parade in May 1912 with its ‘novel fashion of garland lamps’.

So impressive were the 10,000 bulb display that it was they were set up again in September and large crowds assembled. So successful was the scheme that local businesses persuaded the council to repeat it in 1913 and despite the inevitable stoppage for the First World War, their revival soon cemented their fame and became an established tourist attraction and in 1932 animated tableaux was added. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the area covered by lights extended six miles from Squires Gate to Red Bank Road. Indeed, although a preview was made on the 31st August which ironically included a searchlight on top of the Tower, the blackout soon enveloped the town and it was not until 1949 that the brightness returned.

Many hands make light work

The switch on has been a big thing, from the big attraction of Lord Derby in 1934 to more recently Gary Barlow, a lesser attraction. In 1949, actress Anna Neagle pressed the switch, and this established the pattern from then on. Celebrities have become associated with this switch on are a barometer for then current fads and celebrity custom. From great Lancastrians such as George Formby, Gracie Fields and Ken Dodd to oddballs such as the Canberra Bomber and Red Rum, the horse!! Who could forget Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward in 1982 sandwiched between the Muppets and Cannon and Ball? One of the most memorable, being the 1975 Doctor Who switch one advertising the town’s long running Who exhibit. In the 00s we may remember The Stig from Top Gear, Keith Lemon and Steps, but come a hundred years on, they’ll be as well known as Jacob Malick and John H. Whitney! Who…? Look them up. Indeed the switch up has become an event in itself, yet with tickets at £34 and massive losses running into the £100,000s (is there a connection?) this may be in danger.

Strike a light

Despite the rain and the wind, which can make a visit at this time of year so bracing, somehow the bright lights raise the spirits. Walking from the guest house towards the Tower I awaited the allotted time when the lights were switched on. There was no countdown and I almost missed it only realising it was happening when I could hear the cries of the assembled people as we watched the lights go up, down and up, flash and a large heart light up.

Of course the other great illumination features is the one which could inflict injury: the trams, although these are surely during the illuminations safest they could be, being lit up like fireworks and resembling something Santa would dream up to transport himself. Catching them is another matter, for everything I managed to get to their depo, I’d just missed one!

Then 66 nights latter, it’s all switched off, taken down and put into storage for another year as this jewel of seaside towns beds down for the winter.  The crowds disappear, ready to return next year for these bright garish lights are still a great attraction even over a 100 years later and long may they blaze on.

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