John Charles Robinson: The Man Who Designed Blackpool

John Charles Robinson, image courtesy of Ted Lightbown

As the Twentieth Century recedes into memory, it is possible to look at it as a whole. The first half can be characterised by the two World Wars and the second by consumerism, computers, congested roads, motorways, jet travel, pop music, etc.

It can be seen that in certain respects particular parts of the century have special significance.

The period comprising the two decades separating the World Wars may be regarded as special for many reasons; it saw, for example, the rise of Fascism, radio, a revolution in women’s dress and the spread of modern design, which transformed the appearance of our towns, everyday objects and many homes.

At a local level, too, the inter-war period was special; there was an unprecedented number of civic schemes in Blackpool and, despite the depression, throughout the 1930s civic pride and confidence seem to have known no bounds. By the end of the period, Blackpool no longer promoted itself through its Victorian pavilions but by neo-classical concrete colonnades and streamlined faience façades.

The town’s civic schemes were carried out by the Borough Surveyor’s department and the three holders of the post during the period, Francis Wood, Henry Banks and James Drakeare credited with seeing them through. However, under the Borough Surveyor was the post of Chief Architectural Assistant, later known as Borough Architect. Throughout the period, one man occupied that post and, because of the enormous amount of municipal building work carried out in Blackpool between the wars, he was in a unique position to make his mark on the resort – for the good or the bad.

Blackpool was fortunate in having a particularly gifted Borough Architect at this time in John Charles Robinson, who occupied the post from 1920 until 1944. Many of his buildings survive, but they were once so omnipresent that they can be said to have characterised the resort’s mid-century appearance.

Robinson was born in Shropshire in 1879 and began his career in an accountant’s office, but studied art and architecture in his spare time. He entered the office of the Charles E. Ponting, FSA, Diocesan Surveyor for Wiltshire & Dorset, and Surveyor to Marlborough College. He remained in Marlborough for about eleven years, gaining extensive experience

in domestic, municipal and ecclesiastical architecture.

For three years before the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, Robinson was the managing assistant to Sir Banister Fletcher. In September 1914, he joined the Artists’ Rifles and went out to France as a private, before being transferred to the Royal Engineers with a commission and serving in Mesopotamia and India. Following demobilisation, he served in HM Office of Works before being appointed Chief Architectural Assistant to Blackpool in 1920, within the Borough Surveyor’s office. The same year he became a Fellow of the RIBA, of which he had been an Associate since 1912.

The North Shore Cabin lift, Image produced by Alan Murray Rust under Creative Commons license

In Blackpool, Robinson designed many of the features of the Promenade, including the open-air baths at South Shore, the lift tower on the cliffs, colonnades and shelters. He also designed Stanley Park Café, Derby Baths, the Technical College, Municipal Offices, St. John’s Market, Talbot Road Bus Station, the Collegiate School for Girls, the Crematorium Chapel and many other schools, clinics, shops, houses and shelters. In the 1920s he had designed a house for himself on Beaufort Avenue (no. 28) but, during the 1930s, he built another, 50 Newton Drive, where he continued to live after his retirement in 1944.

His buildings of the 1920s and early 1930s were often neo-classical in style, the main exceptions being Claremont and Marton libraries and Stanley Park Golf Clubhouse, for which he reverted to the Arts & Crafts tradition of the early 20th century. Like other local architects, from the mid-1930s he was under the spell of modernism, although elements of neo-classicism were still to be found in his work in the style.

In his buildings, JCR, as he was known to his colleagues, paid particular attention to decorative details and specified good quality fittings. When budget restraints precluded the latter, it was not unknown for him to buy them out of his own pocket.

Robinson's Derby Baths, image produced by Robert Linsdell under Creative Commons license

From 1938 he was engaged in Blackpool’s most ambitious civic scheme. This involved the removal of Central Station to Chapel Street and the demolition of the terraced housing on the Bonny Estate, all to be replaced by a new civic centre. There was to be a boulevard with fountains, a new town hall, shops and theatre. The War intervened and the scheme was not revived afterwards. Instead, we now have Coral Island and car parks there.

Robinson was at various times president of Blackpool & Fylde Art Society and the now defunct Blackpool Literary & Scientific Society. But, in the late 1940s, his eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly and for the last three years of his life he was totally blind. He died 4th March 1954 aged 75.

Ted Lightbown

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