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Illustration of large slide with boats gliding down into ornamental lakesurrounded by pavilions and spectator seating

Earls Court by the Sea

Speculation and Spectacle...

Within the collections of Heritage Blackpool is a share prospectus. It was produced in January 1894 to raise £40,000 for The Olympia (Blackpool) Ltd and launched an ambitious project to bring the pleasure gardens of London's Earls Court to Blackpool. It was planned as an open air visitor attraction and exhibition space, complete with artificial lake and water chute, which could draw in over 400,000 visitors a year.

In the 1880s and 1890s Blackpool was still growing as a resort, particularly as it moved away from its early origins which focused on upper class visitors to the health resort and embraced popular entertainments. As the Olympia prospectus states:

a shares prospectus with the details of the Olympia company.
The Olympia (Blackpool) Company Ltd prospectus, 16th January 1894

"The following may serve to illustrate to what extent various undertakings in Blackpool have been patronised in 1893.

North Pier ... 1,500,000

Central Pier ... 700,000

Victoria Pier ... 500,000

Winter Gardens ... 750,000

Raikes Hall Gardens ... 570,000

Prince of Wales Baths ... 300,000"

We know little about the operating directors of the new project except for Benjamin Sykes. Sykes was born in Skippool, Poulton le Fylde on 5 October, 1839 and apprenticed to civil engineering practice Park, Son & Garlick as soon as he finished school. He successfully learned his trade on regional engineering projects and went on to supervise Blackpool's sea defences from South Shore to Claremont Park and contributed to building the tram road to Fleetwood. By 1879 he was a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and in 1884 became the partner in the firm of Garlick and Sykes. From the prospectus it is clear that Benjamin Sykes was the driving force behind the project. Not only was it his name that appeared on all the agreements and contracts in place, but it was his firm of Garlick and Sykes who produced the conceptual design. He would be a persistent figure in the story as it unfolds.

The Olympia and Earls Court

The original Olympia was an exhibition hall located in West Kensington, London, designed in 1886.

Nearby, The Earls Court started life in 1887 as a showground owned by entrepreneur John Robinson Whitely. Whitely took a scrap of wasteland isolated by the construction of the railways and transformed it into a pleasure ground of pavilions and gardens where people could be informed by cultural exhibitions and entertained by rides and sideshows. The opening season saw 'Buffalo Bills Roughriders and Redskins Show' entertain the masses with its 'exact reproduction of daily scenes of frontier life.' The show was a huge success, drawing a crowd of 28,000 on the first day alone, and had a huge influence on British fairgrounds for decades to come. Its also established the Earls court as an important entertainment venue.

It was the Hungarian burlesque and theatre producer Imre Kiralfy (1845-1919) who connects the Olympia to Earls Court. Alongside his brother Bolossy, Imre had begun his career as a dancer in the circus, but became fascinated with the technicalities of staging theatre spectaculars in Paris. This led to a career as producers and directors of theatre and outdoor shows. In partnership 'The Kiralfy Brothers' created spectaculars combining dance, music and technical innovations to astound audiences across Europe and the United States. In 1887, however, the brothers had a falling out and broke up the company. Imre Kiralfy chose to continue under his own name and focused on shows which pushed the boundaries of technology and innovation. This brought him to the Olympia in 1891, where he converted the indoor arena into a reproduction of Venice, complete with canals and 100 gondolas and gondoliers imported from Italy. "Venice, the Bride of the Sea" was a resounding success which drew 4,893,980 visitors in its first year.

In 1893 Kiralfy was back in London as director general of Earls Court, overseeing the rebuilding of the pleasure grounds in the style of Mughal India, ready for the 'Empire and India Exhibition'. In 1895 a boating lake, gigantic wheel, amusement park, landscaped gardens and palatial exhibition halls were added. Most exciting of all though was the addition of Captain Boyton's Water Show, and Britain's first water chute.

Captain Paul Boyton was, among other things, a founding member of the United States Life-saving service, the precursor to the United States Coastguard, and became involved in developing rubber wetsuits as a form of lifesaving device. Whilst testing his wetsuits Boyton became involved in ever more adventurous expeditions and publicity stunts, including swimming the English Channel in 1875. As his notoriety grew Boyton was drawn into the circus world and in 1887 became part of PT Barnum's Aquatic Circus. In 1888 he settled in Chicago, setting up his own water show, which would eventually become 'Paul Boyton's Water Chutes' and form the basis for Coney Island Amusement Park in 1895.

In 1893-4 Boyton brought is water show to Earls Court during Imre Kiralfy's renovations of the pleasure grounds. It is his contribution to Earls Court in this year that becomes part of the proposed offer in Blackpool.

The Olympia In Blackpool

How Boyton came into contact with the directors of the Olympia (Blackpool) Ltd. is unknown, however on the 23rd November 1893, an agreement was reached between T.W Potts the man who had superintended the construction of the Water Show, Boyton and Benjamin Sykes on behalf of the company to acquire:

"the sole and exclusive rights for Blackpool, and within a 30 mile radius thereof, in various inventions of which Mr Thomas Potts and Captain Paul Boyton have applied for patents, including those relevant to 'chutes', rubber suits, pneumatic walking shoes and the like, and in all other copyrighted and protected properties as used in the Water Show, Earls Court, London; together with the right to use Captain Boyton's name in connection with any water show in Blackpool, Southport, Morecambe etc."

Sykes also secured the services of Potts to supervise the construction of the Water Show and manage it for three years.

It is clear from the design held within the prospectus however that it was not just Boyton's work that inspired the Blackpool Olympia. The illustration and description produced by Garlick and Sykes demonstrates a blending of Imre Kiralfy's Venetian spectacular at the London Olympia with the opulent Indian style of his Earls Court refurbishment; and a little of Buffalo Bills Wild West thrown in for good measure.

Map of central Blackpool with marked location for proposed site of Olympia.
Prospectus map of central Blackpool with marked location for the proposed site of the Olympia
A drawing of pleasure gardens and a lake with water chute.
Prospectus concept drawing of the Olympia, by Garlick & Sykes

"At the north end of the lake will be formed an island of considerable extent, encircled with a Grand Canal spanned by Ornamental Bridges; the island will be arranged and fitted as pleasure grounds and tea gardens, to present a miniature Venice by the Sea. It is also proposed to establish a North American Indian Village, with wigwams and teepees, inhabited by real Canadian Indians from the North- West."

Sykes and his associates surveyed a plot of land located on Tydlesley Road for the Olympia, alongside a site on Blundell Street to house their offices. On 13th January 1894 reached an agreement to buy these plots from the current owner, a William Ashcroft. Then, following an advertising campaign in both local, regional and London newspapers, they launched the prospectus and shares went on sale from Saturday 20th-24th January. On the 25th January the Gazette and Herald carried a notice that the company had officially been registered and named some prominent subscribers from the Lancashire business community.

It is clear that this was sufficient to secure both the purchase of the land and the services of T.W. Potts. An advert appeared in the theatrical section of newspaper The Era on the 24th May:

"OLYMPIA SUMMER FAIR, BLACKPOOL

To showmen, roundabout, menagerie, circus, ghost and variety show proprietors, owners of steam swings, shooting galleries, and novelty shows of all kinds, automatic machines, &c. - a splendid PITCH TO LET in the centre of the town of Blackpool, close to the heath. Over 200,000 visitors last summer. Much greater number expected during the coming season. Open Whit Week. Rent Moderate. For full particulars apply, T.W. Potts, 33 Barnaby Street Chelsea."

Unfortunately there is no evidence this fair ever took place. In fact, from this point on there is only one future reference to the Olympia (Blackpool) Ltd to be found. On the 16th September 1896 The Liverpool Mercury announced that as of the 11th September the registrar at Somerset House declared that the company had been dissolved.

We may never know the exact circumstances that led to the collapse of the business, however it seems likely that the company struggled to raise sufficient funds to begin construction and the project petered out. However that is not quite the end of the story.

Raikes Hall Gardens

Drawing of pleasure gardens with a lake and hall.
Raikes Hall Gardens

Raikes Hall started out as a 40 acre private seaside retreat for businessman William Bucher in 1750. After passing through the hands of several private owners the estate was purchased by a syndicate of developers in 1870, who formed The Raikes Hall Park, Gardens and Aquarium Company. This company wished to profit from the Victorians desire to be amused and entertained by creating pleasure gardens complete with sports facilities and a lake. Initially the park was a huge success, drawing in 40,000 people over the four day Whitsun holiday alone. Raikes Hall came to dominate the holiday crowds for some years with ever-more elaborate entertainments and spectacles. However this could not last.

The construction of the Winter Gardens in 1878 severely ate into Raikes Hall profits. Not only did the new venue offer indoor entertainments, vital in the British weather, but it was also closer to the sea front and railway stations. Further competition came in 1894 with the opening of the Blackpool Tower. It was in 1894 that Raikes Hall made it's first loss, leading the directors to put the company up for sale the following year. In 1896 the estate was purchased by a syndicate led by John "Mr Blackpool" Bickerstaffe, chairman of the Blackpool Tower Company, who proceeded to wind the pleasure gardens down. Many speculate that this was to reduce competition for visitors in the town. In 1897 the estate failed to make its asking price when Bickerstaffe's syndicate attempted to sell off the estate for housing development, so the gardens limped on in a reduced state.

Interestingly this is where the Earls Court and the name of Kiralfy comes back into the story. In August 1898 the Gazette and Herald announced that Blackpool:

"... is now, if you please, going to have an Earls Court of its own. Mr Charles Imre Kiralfy, son of the eminent exhibitioner, has devised a scheme for turning the Raikes Hall Gardens into something which will eclipse the London show completely. Thirty acres of ground will be covered with gardens, terraces, lakes, panoramas, villages and bazaars of all the nations of the word. Modern Venice will find a home there, and the world will be searched for side shows of the highest order."

Despite initial approvals for these plans from the council eventually the scheme was rejected. Again, conspiracy theorists pointed the finger at Bickerstaffe and the other entertainment impresarios of the town, many of whom also held positions of authority within the council.

While that is the end of the story for Olympia, the spirit of the project endured when, in 1901 Raikes Hall was finally sold as plots for housing development and its many structures auctioned off, providing Benjamin Sykes with an opportunity to create his own entertainment venue at long last.

The Colosseum

classical two storey building with large round wooden pavilion behind
The Niagara, Raikes Hall Gardens, 1894

Despite the collapse of the Olympia (Blackpool) Ltd in 1896, Benjamin Sykes held on to the land. In early 1901 Sykes applied for planning permission to build a new permanent entertainment venue on the site, which was declined. However, in December he was granted permission to erect a temporary structure. This temporary structure was the Niagara, a hall Sykes was to purchase from the Raikes Hall auction in November 1901.

Built in 1894, the Niagara was an octagonal timber structure specifically designed to house a 360 degree painting of the Niagara falls by French artist Phillipotaeux.

After moving the Niagara to Tyldesley Road and renaming it the Colosseum, Sykes new venue played host to a number of changing entertainments:

In May 1902 the Colosseum opened with a show which was advertised as a reproduction of an Ashanti Village, complete with real tribesmen, similar to programmes at Earls Court and Raikes Hall.

In 1903 the Colosseum played host to the Royal Italian Circus, managed by Horace Livermore and an animal trainer known as Signor Volpi. The Circus had previously performed for the Sultan of Turkey, and would go on to make a Royal Performance at Buckingham Palace for Edward VII on 23rd June 1904, before taking over the London Palladium in 1905.

In 1904 the Colosseum became a palace of varieties with a broad range of performers including Caban and his trained ponies, dogs and donkey and Madame Louie 'Monarch of the second site'

In 1905 the venue attracted a major travelling circus, Bostocks Animal Exhibition. Having grown up in the family trade Frank was an accomplished animal trainer and moved to America in 1893 to set up his own menagerie. From 1894-1903 he successfully operated out of Coney Island Amusement Park but brought his show back to England in 1904. For the sake of the performances the Colosseum was fitted out with cages for over100 animals and Bostock would show off his performing menagerie and his collection of oddities, including a hairless bull tattooed with tiger stripes and a lamb that lived with a lion. Elephants, camels and ponies were also available for rides free of charge. Unusually Bostock would also deliver lectures before each performance about the animals and how their training was accomplished.

In 1906 Benjamin Sykes offered the site to the council for the purposes of building a market place, but the offer was declined. Sykes died the following year and under the new management of lessee Alfred D.N Brady the Colosseum filled its programmes with a mixture of Music Hall acts and primitive forms of cinema such as the 'bioscope' a travelling picture show and fairground organ accompaniment, the Blackpool Gazette noted that these shows were "not looked on with the best of favour by the visitors of Blackpool."

In 1908 a new manager, Percy E. Penny, took over and gained rave reviews for the excellent programmes he produced, especially the performances of Elroy the Armless Wonder, who performed 'marvelous feats' with his feet.

However, the biggest draw was the introduction of the Gaumont Chronophone, a form of cinema that matched moving images to a soundtrack played on a disc phonograph. Such shows as 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Nero and the Burning of Rome' and 'the Life of Christ' had been exhibited to Royalty, and certainly proved popular with the Blackpool crowds.

Despite the success of the Chronophone, the Colosseum was transformed again in 1909, this time to capitalise on the resurgence of a craze which had once swept Victorian Britain - roller skating.

smooth indoor roller-skating rink with strings of bunting hanging from ceiling
Postcard of the interior of the Colosseum skating rink (1909)

Unfortunately the rinking boom proved short lived. The Colosseum managed to remain open until the summer of 1911, when it was converted back into a cinema.

The Colosseum Picturedrome, which had its grand opening on 1st August 1911, boasted "the latest machine, best pictures, up to date." Although the cinema was well received by the Gazette it only lasted four months. The company was then liquidated and it was converted back to a roller rink under the management of the Pleasure Beach Company.

After the failure of the cinematic and roller skating businesses a new purpose had to be found for the building. On the 28th June 1912 the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) Exhibition opened for a three month run at the Colosseum. Or should that be Coliseum, for it seems to be CWS who were responsible for the strange misspelling that began appearing on adverts for the building.

The purpose of the exhibition at the Coliseum was not just to show off CWS range of goods produced by its 30 factories, but also to demonstrate their production methods. The exhibition was evidently a success, for on 3rd June 1913 CWS bought the Coliseum for £5000 for use as an exhibition hall. Apart from a period where it served as a headquarters for the purchase of army stores by Major F.F. Lansdale, Purchasing officer for Lancashire during the First World War, the Coliseum served this function until 1929. Notable exhibits included a General Trades exhibition in November 1921 which showed off the latest in electrical homewares; and The Blackpool Times Health, Home and Fashion Exhibition in February 1927.

By 1929 the Exhibition hall had closed down and all that remained was the Coliseum Café and garage. Although planning permission was lodged and granted by the Council to a Mr G. Wilson to replace the building with an ice skating rink, the plans evidently fell through and the building remained a garage until 1936, when the Coliseum was demolished to accommodate a new coach station.

On the 4th September 1936 Blackpool Omnibus Stations Ltd opened the Coliseum
Bus and Coach Station with the capacity for 70 vehicles and 2000 passengers. This bus
station was replaced in 1973 with a new uncovered station, which lasted until the
1980s. Since then the site has been occupied by various supermarkets, including a
Kwik Save and Somerfield. As of 2008 the site has been a Home Bargains retail outlet.

a double decker bus in a bus station.
Coliseum bus station, Tyldesley Road and Lytham Road