George Harrop General Manager of the Tower
Born in Oldham, George Henry Harrop lived at 77 Reads Road in 1911, with his wife and three adult children, one of who, George, was acting manager of the Grand Theatre at the time. He was general manager of the Tower from its inception in 1894 to his retirement in 1926. Before the opening of the Tower, he was secretary to the Blackpool Tower Company. He died at his home in 1938 aged 83. The stars he booked included names such as Music Hall artiste Vesta Tilley, and renowned opera singers, Clara Butt and Adelina Patti. He is attributed as the man much responsible for creating Blackpool as a classy entertainment resort.
In the days when the licensing laws were much stricter and the Temperance movement stronger, he successfully applied for the bars to remain open on Wednesday afternoons (the former tradesman’s half day holiday), Saturdays during the winter, and extended hours for the Christmas period. Both music and dancing licenses were also necessary to apply for and he successfully saw these through, creating a venue where the sexes could deliberate to meet and socialise without necessarily having to go to a hotel or other drinking place. He also successfully applied for licenses for the performances of stage plays in respect of the Tower Pavilion and Circus.
In 1908 the entrance fee to the Tower was a tanner, or sixpence (6d), (less than 3p- when, a little later, the wages for a soldier in WW1 were 7d a day). It was a time when the advice from those from the deep industrial areas of the North who had experienced a visit was, ‘Tha’ll get t’best tanner’s-worth in t’world at t’Tower’.
His first job was to do battle with the licensing authorities to grant alcoholic drinks licences for the Tower facilities when completed. The Aquarium and the Beach Hotel were already on the site of the proposed Tower construction and had renewable drinks licenses in place. In 1893 as secretary to the Blackpool Tower Co, he argued the case for drinks licenses on the premises being transferred to the Tower from these establishments when it had been completed. A place to be used purely for entertainment was normally considered unsuitable for a drinks licence as these were only usually granted for hotels and those places which offered accommodation. George Harrop had to argue his case against this opposition. There were only six other places in Blackpool which had licenses and which at the same time didn’t offer accommodation. Drunkenness in the town was on the increase and 331 people (320 on the streets and 11 in licensed premises out of which, 276 males and 46 females had been convicted), so he had to convince the authorities that alcohol at the Tower would not lead to an increase in these figures.
In 1908 a reporter from the Era, the showbiz publication, was given a tour around the building, and was informed by the manager, that the most popular comment expressed by those entering the Tower was the great variety of entertainment provided for the paltry sum of sixpence.
The structure was lit up by 16,000 lights and 130 large arc lamps and a spotlight at the summit. Much of the gas that the Tower needed to drive its machinery was produced on site, but it was also the largest consumer of town gas in the town as electricity was still in its infancy. (At the time the town’s gas was produced at the gas works on Rigby Road).
The reporter was then taken up from the basement to the circus itself, with a capacity of 3,500 and was already of some renown in its young age. A variety of entertainment was on offer which included the clowns, Bob Kellino and little Pim-Pim, who appeared to be great favourites especially with the young, and there were also the musical clowns, the Brothers Webb. To the background of the orchestra, there were acrobats and skilled cyclists, horse riding, animal training, mules, monkeys and dogs, all trained to entertain with humour and skill. George Harrop is claimed to be the first person to bring the celebrated lion tamer Herr Seeth to Britain in 1894 where his acts with his lions and other beasts were performed within a cage which rose up into circus arena for the performance.
Herr Julian Seeth was Swedish and, somehow, was a friend of the king of Abyssinia and from whom he had received some of his lions. He had a strong and imposing physique and had trained over 300 lions during his time. He was renowned throughout Europe and so it was quite some coup for George Harrop to get him to Blackpool before anywhere else in Britain. There is always an element of cruelty involved in moulding wild animals to the whims of humans and in 1905 Herr Seeth was fined £2 and costs at Nottingham for cruelty to a pony which had been turning the merry-go-round upon which there were several lions. It is not recorded whether the lions were enjoying themselves or not, but one of them had had enough and leapt off to maul the pony enough to have to put the poor equine down.
It wasn’t the only accident as, in Blackpool itself, while after-season alterations were being carried out at the Tower circus in September of 1898, a joiner involved with the work was mauled by one of the lions, all of which had been allowed a free run within a railed off area. The joiner had had the misfortune to lean on the railings and the lion from within grabbed him by the arm and then the neck and face. Fortunately there were folk about to help and, by ripping off his jacket, they were able to release him.
But the more sedate entertainments continued in their variance and included a swimming tank, where the swimmers exhibiting this season of 1908 were the Finneys. Swimming exhibitions were a popular form of entertainment and were not to be denied the progressive entertainment of the popular seaside resort. They were an excuse for the men to ogle at the scantily clad females in their somewhat tight fitting costumes, and later on, to collect the cigarette cards to hide in the pockets. Less obvious than a telescope on the foreshore. And they were also an opportunity for the women to outwardly demurely, but no doubt with inner keenness, admire the Linford Christies on show, which was a delight denied in the usual cover-up of ordinary Edwardian day costume.
Further upstairs, the reporter was taken next to the Aquarium in which he marvelled at the world-wide variety of fish represented there. Climbing more stairs from there, they passed the silver model of the Tower presented by the shareholders to John Bickerstaffe, the chairman. Further along were cages of exotic birds. Anathema to today’s public, but spectacular in their relevance to the times, the Cape and Abyssinian lions, cheetahs and the monkeys were confined in their cages. Up more stairs and the reporter enters the roof gardens. In one of the ‘cosiest and prettiest retreats imaginable’, there is a profusion of exotic plants. At one end of this is a café where, while eating, musical entertainments and comedy could be enjoyed.
In another part of the building was the Old English Village, (which had a drinks licence) but the reporter was more interested in the fact that it was to be pulled down during the winter and replaced with a Chinese Town to be designed by Frank Matcham at a cost of £10,000. George Harrop and the reporter then took a trip in the lift to the Tower top and marvelled at the extensive view to be had and then their itinerary took them to the Pavilion and ballroom.
Here the more exquisite entertainment was on offer, for which a higher fee was paid for entry. 1/- and more for the upper balconies. He was entirely responsible for bringing, Clara Butt and Vesta Tilley, household names of worldwide fame, to Blackpool and both contributed to recruitment and the Red Cross during WW1. Vesta Tilley would take to the town to heart and eventually marry Walter de Frece, the theatrical impresario, and later, by her encouragement, MP for the town.
George Harrop retired in 1926 and Harry Hall, who had been manager of the Grand Theatre, took over the managership. George died at home on 14th February 1938. He was 83 years old.
All information above is directly from newspapers and from the census returns. Newspaper images © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Accessed via findmypast.