What Became of Willow Lane? An Introduction to Whitegate Drive

Whitegate Lane, The Albert Eden Collection

The lane began its life as a clay-baked stony track. It was peppered with small farms, white thorn bushes and willow trees. It is thought the name Whitegate derived from either the Anglo Saxon withan for white thorn or whit, the ancient name for the willow. The first mention of such a name is in 1604 in the Poulton Church records when little Margaret Pearson of Whit Gate Farm was baptised; later in 1635 it records the death of John, son of Thomas Bamber of Whitegate.

As with all good roads an ale house stood at either end and during the Civil War in 1642 a troop of soldiers clattered their way down it from Preston stabling their horses at Green Farm. Once they arrived they demanded food and ale at a brew house in the vicinity of the present-day Saddle Inn. They passed a pleasant afternoon using archery butts and no doubt terrorising the villagers some time later.

At the other end of the road, where the Number 3 stands, there was also an ale house and staging post and the remains of a single-storey cobbled building from the 1780s still lies under its car park. In 1824 the landlord, Lawrence Fish, called the ale house Cronshaws. By 1852, it was named the Number 3 and the new landlord opened Strawberry Fields on the site.

By 1862 John Hodgson had relocated up the lane and purchased five acres of land building the Albert Hotel and creating the pleasure gardens, which then became the Belle Vue in the 1870s. So extensive were its grounds that it boasted a lake and willow walk, flower gardens and fountains, bowling greens and croquet lawns, two tea rooms and strawberry gardens. Its first dancing platform could hold over a thousand people and a quadrille band played from 9am to 11pm. By 1880 it had a new platform that could hold 5000 people and it boasted a Belle Vue dance band and a new music hall.

The lane was called just Whitegate in the 1841 census, then a part of Great Marton and later both Great Marton Lane and Whitegate Lane. However, a gentleman who could trace over four generations of his family living on the lane, smiled and told me “us all called it Willow Lane”. Whilst the first house, Whitegate Manor, was built in 1847 the lane remained countryside and farming land into the 1860s.

At this point it could take two days on a rattling coach and two more days to recover from the voyage. But as horses and stagecoaches gave way to carriages there was a need for better roads to get visitors into town, so plans were made to flatten the surface and provide footpaths. Work began in the 1870s and a new sewer was installed, several farms were sold and gentlemen’s residences built in their place. Each building was on the east side of the lane so that every building had a picturesque view westward.

The urbanisation of Blackpool in the final quarter of the 19th century meant that the view seaward from Whitegate Lane became spoiled. Villas were demolished as gentry left to pastures new and several houses were built where they stood. The lane was widened and all the willow trees uprooted and in the 1880s a new boulevard was born. Indeed, Whitegate Boulevard was advanced as its name and was thought to be one of the most prestigious addresses in the town. Sadly, when the lane was re-planted with trees not one willow tree was replaced.

The history of the lane almost mirrors the rise of Blackpool. As the number of visitors began to grow the gentry living around the centre began to move away from the bustle and noise and villas began to appear further down the lane: Elms, Glenroyd, Blenheim, Marlborough, Kensington and Sefton. House numbering wasn’t used until the 1880s and censuses do not list them by house name - after all everyone would be aware of who they were, wouldn’t they? It does however make it very difficult to be able to say exactly where some of them stood.

The names of the modern avenues and roads give one clue, but even the introduction of house numbering didn’t make it much easier to identify their location. In the ten years between one census and the next, another ten or twenty houses could be built on the land, which would mean that the lane would once again be renumbered. The lane has been renumbered at least three times. A man living at number 38 in 1891 could be at number 76 in 1901. I don’t know if this confused him but it certainly confused me!

There appears to only be four original buildings left on the lane:

· The largest is the Elms, which was originally built for the Powell family from Preston, owners of a well-known biscuit manufacturing company. It had extensive gardens and two cottages in the grounds, one for the coachman and his family and one for the gardener’s family. In the grounds there was also a coach house, which is said to be haunted by a stable boy who hung himself there. It later went on to become Elmslie Girls’ School until 2000 and is now residential housing.

· The second largest is Blenheim, which was built for the Firth family, a cotton manufacturer. However, Wilfred Ashley, the new MP for Blackpool, came from London in 1906 for several years and also lived in this property with his daughter, Edwina. Edwina was to become the famous Lady Mountbatten.

· The oldest and most famous building is the Saddle Inn, which has stood since the 1770s, first built as gentleman’s residence for a Marton saddler, Richard Hall. In a short time it became an ale house, coaching inn and stabling post. The Leigh family were landlords from 1892 to 1967 - surely a record in itself.

· The final building is St Paul’s Parish Church. The church dates to 1909 but earlier ones stood on the same ground from 1770s. As the population increased enlargements were made to the early building until it became essential to build a bigger and better church.

Stella Siddall

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