By Wendy Stevenson
Picture the sight, 20,000 people eagerly watching the event of the year on 21st May 1863. They had arrived from far and wide, many by train into North Station, to see the opening of North Pier and to ‘promenade above the waves.’
In Victorian times walking on a pier was a real novelty. The opening procession on the headland included, as well as dignitaries and representatives from the Tradesmen of Blackpool, the fire engine, bathing huts, donkeys and the chimney sweep. Bands played the Blackpool Pier Polka. A canon blast signalled the start of the opening ceremony which was reported in detail with beautiful drawings in the Illustrated London News.
The Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch and constructed by Robert Laidlaw of Glasgow, was an immediate success, attracting 275,000 visitors in its first year and around 400,000 in 1864. The 2d admission charge was not enough to stop ‘trippers’ from using it – to the dismay of some of the pier directors, who wanted to keep the pier ‘select.’ This led to the opening in 1868 of the rival South Jetty, later the Central Pier, designed to cater for those ‘trippers.’
In 1867, a new steamer jetty proved popular with the boats travelling up and down the coast to the Isle of Man and North Wales. There are exciting stories of how the respective vessels from the North and Central piers raced each other to arrive first at the Isle of Man. The pier also experienced some damage caused by shipwrecks over the years, particularly The Sirene and Nelson’s old flagship the Foudroyant.
Band concerts, introduced in 1869 to what became known as North Pier, maintained the ‘dignity’ of the pier at the time. Over the years many famous people appeared and the opening of the magnificent Indian Pavilion in 1877 brought the opera singers and instrumentalists of the day. This beautiful theatre burnt down in 1921 but was replaced in and from 1924. Lawrence Wright launched his On With the Show there, employing top musical acts, comedians and variety acts until 1956. Bernard Delfont then took over with Showtime from 1957, again featuring the country’s stars of entertainment.
My mum, Nora Turner, was the manager of the lovely Pavilion Café in the 1950s and 1960s, with its Lloyd Loom furniture and sparkling table wear. She had many tales of the stars who visited the café and of the parties she catered for in the theatre. She particularly liked Eric Morecambe, who was ‘just the same off stage – a wonderfully funny man’ and Frankie Vaughan – ‘a real showman and gentleman.’ She remembered with fondness those happy years when crowds flocked to the pier and café for afternoon tea, and the fishermen who frequented the café in the winter months. I remember those years as the heyday of Blackpool’s popularity and many of us have our own special memories of the pier.
North Pier has seen many changes over the years and is now owned by the local Sedgwick family which has its own memories of the pier and is restoring and developing this historic pier. It is fitting that a grade II listed structure, representing a fine example of Victorian architecture is still with us, over 150 years after it was first built.