Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Even before the Flanders guns had fallen silent the people of Blackpool honoured their heroes in the sunken gardens, on the first Remembrance Day over a hundred years ago.
By the fourth anniversary of Britain’s entry into the Great War, families desperately needed a place to commemorate their lost loved ones. The Lord Mayor of London suggested that there should be a Day of Remembrance throughout the Empire and this idea was supported by the government. Remembrance services were opportunities for recruitment in a war which seemed without end. Sunday August 4th 1918 would be Remembrance Day.
Blackpool Corporation decided an evening remembrance service would be held in the sunken gardens in front of the Hotel Metropole. Two large wooden crosses bearing the mottos ‘Honour to Our Fallen Heroes’ were erected at each end of the gardens, which became temporary war shrines. The Mayor, Sir Lindsay Parkinson, gave notice in local newspapers that relatives could lay simple posies which would later be distributed amongst Blackpool’s hospitals.
During the afternoon of 4th August ‘Amid the noisy bustle of holiday life at full flood….’ bereaved families began laying their flowers. By 8.15pm the area was covered with floral tributes and an estimated 10,000 people waited for the service to begin. The band of the King’s Lancashire Military Convalescent Hospital accompanied hymn singing and the Bishop of Manchester delivered an address. At the conclusion of the service he requested that people bow their heads in silence.
Following Remembrance Day calls were made for a permanent memorial, becoming more urgent once war ended. In September 1919 a temporary cenotaph was constructed in the sunken gardens for planned three-day Peace Celebrations. Painted white with the words ‘The Blood of Heroes is the Seed of Freedom’ emblazoned on it, the structure was designed by the Borough Surveyor Mr Francis Wood. Blackpool Council’s arrangements were thwarted however by a nationwide rail strike, forcing it to cancel the Peace Celebrations. Instead, a memorial service took place on Sunday 5th October in the Palace Theatre followed by a march past the new cenotaph.
Just over a month later, the Armistice service was held there. At the sound of a maroon fired from Central Pier ‘All life stood still…. machinery was stopped, trams and buses paused on their journeys.’ People listened to the service through a new Magnavox amplifier close to the cenotaph, with the ‘sound horn’ placed on the roof of a tram shelter opposite North Pier. Blackpool Gazette & News reported that the crowd were ‘unsettled at first by the strangeness of the sound.’
Still, the subject of a permanent memorial continued to be raised until in 1920 the council announced that the design of a monument would be decided by a competition. The Town Clerk was instructed to invite submissions for a memorial costing no more than £15,000. The response was such that the caretaker of Central Library was paid extra to deal with the number of architects’ entries.
In June 1920 a War Memorial Sub Committee was formed. They were instructed to co-opt other members and they, along with a Special Sub Committee, consulted experts, scrutinized the entries, and examined the tenders. They continued the compilation of names to be memorialized which had been started in April 1918.
The design chosen was by the architect Ernest Prestwich of Leigh, whose 100ft obelisk would be constructed in Cornish grey granite. The north and south sides of the base would hold large bronze relief panels sculpted by Gilbert Ledward, cast by Messrs Singer & Son of Frome.
The building contract went to H A Clegg & Sons of Chester, who were experienced in the construction of war memorials. Stonemasons Messrs Kirkpatrick of Manchester would carry out the carving and lettering. There would be two 12ft long War Stones bearing the bronze tablets inscribed with the Roll of Honour.
After prolonged debate the siting of the memorial in the sunken gardens was finally confirmed and in July 1922 a scale model of the monument was put on display in the Central Library. Following the Armistice Day commemorations the temporary monument was demolished and building began. Construction would take almost a year.
Blackpool Corporation decided the inauguration of the War Memorial would be the day before Armistice Day on 10th November 1923. According to the Blackpool Herald an estimated 15,000 people assembled at the cenotaph that afternoon to watch a procession from Central Pier which included prominent citizens, ex-service men and the Blackpool Troop of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry. Hymn singing was accompanied by the Life Boat Band. Once more the Magnavox was utilized and as had become custom the event was filmed, to be shown for the first time three days later at the King Edward Picture House. At the end of the service relatives were invited to come forward and lay their flowers.
Gilbert Ledward’s figures on the east and west corners of the cenotaph were of service personnel. Unusually, the large bronze friezes included a number of women and children, along with a cat and a dead German soldier. Additionally, there were bronze flower troughs executed by the renowned Bromsgrove Guild of Fine Arts.
The bronze tablets were inscribed with the names of 868 men and one woman: Staff Nurse Mary Clough of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing service. Heading the list were Blackpool’s two VC recipients; Lieutenant A Victor Smith and Lieutenant Stanley H P Boughey, whose mothers unveiled the War Stones honouring the sacrifice of their sons.
The long-awaited unveiling of the cenotaph was carried out by Brigadier General T E Topping, a local solicitor who was one of Blackpool’s most distinguished soldiers. His words would be reproduced many times, so powerful were they in their simplicity:
‘In our own town, amongst our own friends, we have dedicated this memorial to our own dead….
‘Their names are engraven on stone, and even though sadly, it is only in name, we have brought them back today to their native town.’