John Bickerstaffe

Sir John Bickerstaffe died of a sudden heart attack at his home, Highlawn, on Hornby Rd on August 5th 1930. He was 82 years old and had been ill for a while, but had seemingly recovered and had recently been able to drive his car and visit the Tower offices. Only a week earlier he had been at the town’s aerodrome to welcome the King’s Cup winner, Mrs Winifred Brown. By fortunate coincidence both his only son Robert, normally resident in Liverpool, and daughter Mrs Fleetwood Parkinson over from Capetown to visit, were present at the time of his death.

The funeral took place on Saturday 9th August and the cortege left Sir John’s home at 10.30am with its ultimate destination of St John’s Church where the service was conducted by Rev Little, a close friend of his. Between his house and the church, the cortege first proceeded to the Promenade where it paused outside both the Tower and the Palace Hotel with which he had been intimately involved. At these venues as well as at the Clifton Hotel, there were tributes to the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Blackpool or just ‘Mr Blackpool’ and outside the Tower, the whole of the staff gathered to salute his passing.

Every local authority was present at the funeral as well as every public organisation and there were over 200 floral wreaths, and that representing the Tower from the officials and employees of the Tower Company being six foot high. In a deferent tone, the wreath from his chauffeur, Dixon, was inscribed with his regular nightly words to his employer descriptive of the domestic scene of the times, ‘The fire’s dying out, the water is nice and hot, the windows and doors are bolted, the mouse traps are set, and there are no mice, goodnight Sir John.’

The funeral had taken place on the same day as the Blackpool Victoria Hospital Flower day and, in the days before the NHS, it was one event of many to attract funding to the Hospital. An anonymous gift of £1,000 (£66,843.93 today) was given reportedly by a friend of the deceased on behalf of the deceased because John had always given generously to the hospital.

LDP August 11 1930. Outside St John’s Church

His story is as one of the pioneers of Blackpool, being born, along with his brother Tom, in a tiny whitewashed cottage in Caunce Square, in the area that is now Hounds Hill in on January 20th 1848 when Blackpool was only a collection of a few houses and cottages and wasn’t yet a civic authority.

Both his father and grandfather made a living from the sea and John and his brother first made their money by taking visiting ‘gentlemen’ out on boat trips. With the first expressions of an entrepreneurial spirit, he bought some land fronting the shore to build a boatyard to increase his business as the railways were bringing holidaymakers to Blackpool in their droves. He was however encouraged into making a living out of Blackpool as a holiday town, as it became evident to those with entrepreneurial spirit and capability, and in the place of the boatyard he built the Wellington Hotel in 1851.

His cousin Robert was the coxswain of the Blackpool lifeboat, the Robert William, and John was ever present to assist as a member of the crew going out on many a daring rescue and was present on at least four notable incidents. The first of these incidents being that of the brig St Michaels in the September of 1864, the lifeboat’s first call, when John would have been only 18 years old. The French barque had lost its direction and had dangerously anchored by the Crusader bank and would have been wrecked at the turn of the tide but, with the help of the lifeboat and a couple of sailing vessels from Fleetwood, the ship was escorted to Fleetwood, its ultimate destination. At the time 10,000 folk cheered out the lifeboat and cheered its way back in after three hours of strenuous work by the crew. Later on in 1886, John nearly lost his cousin, when Robert was washed overboard from the lifeboat during the unsuccessful journey to locate the missing and ill-fated St Anne’s lifeboat which had gone out to respond to the distress of the Mexico off Southport.

Regarding the creation of Blackpool Tower, the popular story of John Bickerstaffe’s epiphany at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is somewhat apocryphal, it is understood. It is more understood that he was invited to join an enterprise to create a Tower in Blackpool to reflect that of the one in Paris and John agreed, putting his energies and his money into it, and history reveals its ultimate success which hadn’t been achieved without his own, determined vision and personal financial risk.

He had married Eliza, daughter of James Gerrard an innkeeper of Glasson Dock, in 1876 at Christ Church Glasson Dock and he first entered public life in 1880 at the age of 32 when he represented Brunswick Ward as Councillor until made alderman in 1887 and he served two years as mayor from 1889 after which he was embroiled in keeping the ownership of the Blackpool Tower Company in Blackpool and out of the hands of a London consortium. He was Conservative and Imperialist by conviction which suited his capitalist proclivities and which lent a hand to his ultimate success though not without a dogged determination. As a Conservative he was leader of the party and its chairman, and chairman off the Wainwright Conservative Club which he saw built. During his mayoralty he inaugurated the foundation of the Victoria Hospital, a necessity brought about by the town’s inability to respond with medical care to a disastrous railway smash at Poulton, and was on the Board of Management. By 1897 he had also established the Fylde Water Board, being a member until his death. He was chairman of the Parliamentary committee, arguing through and presenting several Town Improvement Bills. He was also chairman of the Advertising Committee and from 1907 he was the Blackpool representative of the Territorial Association for West Lancashire. As a young man he had been one of the first members of the Blackpool Artillery Volunteers and had won prizes for shooting.

His private, business activities included at one time or another, chairman of the Clifton Hotel Company, the Crystal Mineral Water Company, the Blackpool Passenger Steamboat Company (which included a steamboat called the Bickerstaffe), the Raikes Hall Estate Company and the Blackpool Electric Tramway Company, a first for a town in England. During WW1 he was chairman of the Recruiting Committee and of the Voluntary Aid Committee, and representative of the Military Service and National Service and West Lancashire Territorial Force Association and on the Local Advisory Committee for the post war resettlement of Labour. He was also honorary vice president of Blackpool Football Club.

Fleetwood Chronicle October 20th 1930

He appears to have been a man who was able to confidently stand his ground in argument and often contended the views of the vicar of St John’s (Rev Balmer at the time). John was in the hotel trade as a licenced victualler through which he made much of his money, and arguments against licensing the sale of alcohol from an abstentionist viewpoint did not hold much purchase in his enterprise. For his arguments with the vicar in the pulpit, he was colloquially referred to as ‘the Rev’ but there was no bitterness in the rivalry, just a difference of interests. His public generosity included a gift of £1,000 (£120,458.33 today) to Victoria hospital on the coronation of King George in 1911 and previously £1,500 (£201,697.67) to the England Victorian schools which commemorated the Queen’s jubilee and he had also donated land for the recently opened Stanley Park.

In 1905 he had been made a magistrate and later a County JP and in 1912 was granted the title of Freeman of the Borough and he received a knighthood in 1926. He was a man that liked to mix in public and regularly walked around the town in his daily routine to and from the office, and shopkeepers would set their watches to the minute by his unchanging regularity. By the time of his death, he had been a member of the Town Council for nearly fifty years and a director of the Tower Company since its inception in 1891.

After his death, the current mayor, Councillor Gath, was appointed to alderman to fill the position vacated by the death of John Bickerstaffe. John’s brother Tom, already chairman of the Winter Gardens Company as the Tower Company had taken it over, was appointed chairman of the Blackpool Tower Company, having been on the Board of Directors since 1911. John’s son Robert Gerrard Bickerstaffe was appointed to fill the contemporary vacancy on the Tower Company’s board.

Mr Robert Bickerstaffe, Ald T. Bickerstaffe
Fleetwood Chronicle 20th August 1930

His estate gross was £108,424 (£7,247,486.34) another newspaper report has it as £178,834. The executors are his only son Robert in Liverpool and two sons in law, John Winder and Thomas Harrop. He had requested that the solid silver replica of the Blackpool Tower, which is still on display at the Tower today and presented to him by the Blackpool Tower Company Ltd., should go to his son with the understanding that it should remain in its position in the Tower, or a similar position within the building. His son would also receive the silver engraving containing the Freedom of the Borough along with the illuminated scroll presented to him by the Borough.

He seemed to have been showered with silver gifts during his years as ‘Mr Blackpool’ and in his will he left them in equal shares variously to family members which included his children, Mrs Elisabeth Constance Winder in St Annes, Mrs Edith Mary Harrop in Blackpool, Mrs Lindsay Robinson in Lytham and Mrs Fleetwood Parkinson resident in South Africa, and unmarried daughters, still living at home and also his grandchildren, the family solicitors being Ascroft Whiteside of Birley Street.

Many streets are named after local folk, usually men, who have had an influence in the town and the Bickerstaffe name is now represented in the modern development containing the Council offices in Bickerstaffe Square.

All images are copyright British Library Board and the account is almost exclusively from the British Library newspaper archive via findmypast. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

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