The Arc Lights

The arc lights on Central Promenade

When Blackpool was incorporated as a borough in 1876, Dr W H Cocker was elected its first mayor. He was described by a fellow Alderman as ‘…supplying the motive power to make the Municipal wheels turn with celerity’. It was Dr Cocker who in 1878 became ‘the leading spirit’ in the project for the Blackpool Electric Lights.

In November that year the council applied to Parliament to insert a clause in their Improvement Bill enabling them to employ the electric light, ‘if it ever came into practical use’. The bill was scrutinized by Lord Redesdale, Chairman of Committees, who pronounced he would allow the Corporation £5,000 to experiment with the lights; they had five years in which to do it and the loan was to be repaid in ten. Dr Cocker and the council decided they would spend £2,500 to ‘go in for’ the lights, which should be done immediately with the intention of prolonging the season. From the start it was anticipated the electric light would be a permanent feature.

By August 1879 the tender by Messrs Siemens Brothers to supply six arc lamps was accepted by the council. The lamps would be suspended from tall standards which towered above the existing gas lights; four ranged on the Promenade, with a further two situated on the piers, shining onto the sea. It was decided the inauguration of the lights would be celebrated over two days. Subscriptions were sought from public companies and hotel owners, with the Corporation promising to double whatever was collected – ‘but not above £200’ was the proviso. As torch-light processions of 1877 and 1878 had proven extremely popular, another was planned for the lights’ first night. Advertising, Carnival and Torch-light Committees were formed, with the fête planned for Thursday 18th and Friday 19th September 1879.

A wooden shed was constructed in the town’s yard at the rear of Bank Hey Street to house two traction engines required to work the dynamo. Mr Andrews of Siemens Brothers arrived to supervise the installation of the lamps, and two weeks of testing took place. Excitement mounted when the entire town was dressed in bunting and flags. Fine weather was prayed for and extra excursion trains planned. Thanks to the hard work of the Advertising Committee ‘Not a room or even a sofa was to be had in any of the hotels...’ and ‘the lodging houses too were overflowing’.

Thursday evening was dry and calm as the torch-light procession set off from the Drill Hall in Yorkshire Street. Included in the parade were donkeys and donkey men, trumpeters and heralds, Henry VIII, Dick Turpin, a group of 50 Peelers, and on horseback St George with attendant knights. There was a ‘lurry group’ with numerous other costume characters, and several marching bands. The lifeboat and the new steam fire engine were there, as was the Mayor and the Corporation. A bullock was roasted for the participants to enjoy, with other donated victuals. The lamps themselves performed without a hitch, burning brilliantly. The Blackpool Herald would state that ‘within a hundred yards of any of the lights, average-sized book print could easily be read, and not a few persons tried to do so, and succeeded admirably. The effect of the pier lights was very beautiful and striking’.

On Friday there was a ‘Carnival at Sea’ with steamers and all manner of small craft, their crews dressed in costume of different nations. All the vessels had coloured lights attached to their masts. An old hulk was set alight and there was a grand pyrotechnic display (although not it seems, as grand as intended, for a large quantity of fireworks being stored at Raikes Hall Gardens exploded just before the event). Further ‘excursionists’ came into Blackpool, with even more people expected to spend the night ‘perambulating the sands’ as there were no rooms to be had. ‘Greatly increased attractions’ continued on the Saturday at other venues - North Pier, Raikes Hall, and a Calico Ball held in the Pavilion in the Winter Gardens on the following Monday.

A report in the Blackpool Herald tells us that an estimated 100,000 people came into the town over a seven-day period spending approximately £40,000 - a staggering amount for the time.

In March 1880 Siemens Brothers requested permission for their Mr Andrews to demonstrate the Blackpool electric lights to the Chief Electrician to the Postal Telegraph Department, the Manager of the London and St Catherine’s Docks and a deputation from Hull Town Council. Siemens would ‘…send their Mr Andrews a day or two previous to introduce a few new improvements…’

Such was the success of the lights, in April the council agreed to purchase three more. These were to be sited opposite Church Street, Adelaide Place and Brunswick Street, superintended once again by Mr Andrews. This would turn out to be just the beginning.

Every evening during the season and later, on New Year’s Eve also, the Promenade arc lights were switched on. They remained in use for many years until finally superseded. The huge standards were captured in countless photographs of the Promenade, reminders of an incredibly exciting event in Blackpool’s history.

Louise Thornton

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