WW1 Blackpool

Blackpool in WW1



The reputation of Blackpool as a holiday town needed little introduction at the outbreak of War in August 1914. It was a nationally renowned ‘watering place‘ and was the natural, and annual destination of the tens of thousands of hard working manual workers who had been flocking to the seaside from their factories in Lancashire, the North West of England and Yorkshire for the decades since the early Victorian arrival of the direct railway line.

And, even before that, the more ‘refined’ classes had stayed at the seafront hotels, ridden or ‘taken the air’ while strolling the long miles of foreshore of sand, sand hills, fields and lanes, and the boulder-clay cliffs to the north of the town. Or they merely stepped out of their hotels into a carriage to travel the short mile to the north, to indulge in the entertainment on offer at ‘a flourishing public house and dancing saloon, rejoicing in the name of Uncle Tom’s Cabin near Blackpool. ’

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in the days before the natural fury of the sea invaded the land it and took a good part of it for its own, including much of the Cabin,( to be rebuilt a little further inland) was, in the latter part of the C19th, owned by absentee owners, John Ainsworth the Liberal MP, and his brother. The son of John Ainsworth, also named John Ainsworth, was to die, killed in action, in the early part of the War, the 13th October 1914.

Blackpool was also, as a small town of about 65,000 inhabitants, no stranger to military exercises. Its inland fields and littoral stretches of sands and sand hills had previously been used by the militia and volunteers. Though the threat of invasion was still popularly envisaged as coming from the sea, the well-attended air pageants of 1909 and 1910, displayed from the financially struggling racecourse at Squires Gate, Blackpool, had entered the imagination and placed there the possibility of the new threat from the air. Indeed, later on in the war, that popular ‘watering place’ of Blackpool was advertised as the place to go if relaxation and entertainment were required, for it lay ‘far away from the noise and the dangers of the Zeppelins’, (as the language of the promotional pages of contemporary, regional newspapers was used to lure the holidaymaker).

Today however, there are no sand hills in Blackpool due to the long established and highly successful construction of coastal defences, but occasionally a bit of one spills over from the border of the municipal township of St Annes, though there is always plenty of sand and space when the tide is out.

The fact that Blackpool provided great open spaces which could be used for military exercises was not the only factor which increased the town’s profile in the War. Combined with the space was the wealth of accommodation to billet a large amount of military personnel and a natural part of that was the workplace skills of the town’s inhabitants who were well used to running those establishments. This most popular ‘watering place’, which we now call a ‘holiday resort’, of Blackpool, was well suited to cope with the influx of large numbers of people. Apart from the regular, seasonal holidaymakers most of this influx from early August 1914 was military, especially in the winter, and they were largely, but not always, welcomed by the hotel owners, or the ‘company house keepers’. Though the eventual billeting of soldiers both increased and guaranteed the winter takings, it did clash with the more advantageous summer profitability of higher rents. In the beginning though, when the rival town of Southport, further to the south and closer to the metropolis of Liverpool, was filling with soldiers before Blackpool was, there was consternation among the hoteliers and the Town’s leaders that they might be losing out on a lucrative slice of the action.

But it was an unjustified fear for the ‘company houses’, as both the hotel and boarding house were known, ranging from the top hotels with their spas and swimming pools, tennis courts and billiard rooms for the officers, to the more basic landlady’s fare of utility bed, multi-occupancy rooms, good but basic food, and shared facilities for the ordinary soldier. The Imperial Hydropathic Hotel in Claremont Park North Shore boasted 350 rooms, a magnificent lounge, King Louis XV1 dining room, separate tables and Turkish, Russian and sea-water baths. The Hotel Metropole, with the recently constructed esplanade around it and eventual home to the cenotaph, was advertised as ‘one of the most luxurious and comfortable hotels in the world.’

And in the Blackpool Improvement Bill put before a Parliamentary Committee in May 1917, the town had a reputation for riches. It could, of course, afford to bring Bispham-with-Norbreck (the parent parish of Blackpool) within the municipal boundaries, by a land acquisition which only needed a Parliamentary decision rather than an invading army. The success of Blackpool’s existing sea defences was self-evident as ‘only the best would do’, and these were to be continued northwards with the agreement of all concerned.

The land to the south however, was only protected, albeit sufficiently enough, by sandhills, and it was here, across the border of St Annes, that a tented camp was set up at Squires Gate as the townships also became a centre for medical training via the RAMC. This Corps had moved some of its depots up from Aldershot, and to which the US field hospitals would make a first bee-line, immediately on their arrival on British soil in May 1917 to gain first-hand knowledge of the British experience of the War.

The war had soon taken its toll on the British Expeditionary Force which first went to France in early August 1914, expecting to return home victorious by Christmas, and the Army Medical Services were under great pressure and even came close to collapse. It was when the Services, as of necessity were overhauled, that Blackpool was chosen as one of only six Convalescent centres to be built around the country and the profile of the town increased as a rehabilitation centre with beds for initially at least 2,500 patients was hastily constructed. Along with out-patients (who were usually officers) there was a host of workers and auxiliary workers, mostly volunteers, filling the town.

It wasn’t long before the town took on a military appearance – nearly a third of the population were soldiers at one time. But much of the civilian population geared itself to an ancillary military role, and it wasn’t just about men going ‘over the top’ but also about women rallying to the cry of human society and taking the opportunity, denied them in the recent structure of society, of rolling themselves over on to the top. It wasn’t just about the men who were injured, maimed mutilated both physically and psychologically, but it was also about those at home who suffered the pain of loss, whose dreams were shattered and could never be put back together again. It was about the medicine, largely focussed on Blackpool via the presence of the RAMC in town and which, in an attempt to counterbalance the destruction of the human body by repairing it, made great progress in that direction and influenced the political decisions of medicine in later years.

In Blackpool, it was a population thrown together, its 65,000 residents added to by another 20,000 with the arrival of the military and ancillaries of soldiers and medical facilities. Amidst that there was joy, entertainment, and there was assault, murder, sex and alcohol, careless accidents, suicides, drownings, fights, drunkenness, deprivation, recycling, scrimping and saving. There was sock knitting, cigarette and egg collections, and other comforts collected for the soldiers at the various fronts or prison camps. Trades Union Congresses, miners’ congresses, religious meetings on the sands, anti-war protests, objections via conscience, moral boosting celebrity visits and Lloyd George in 1918 when he was presented with the freedom of the Borough, coloured the town’s experience. There were devastating losses to families, mutilated young men whose patriotic soldiery had left them blind, limbless, psychologically shattered, debilitated, and the true heroism of the volunteers who, akin with every town in Britain, broke their backs for the war effort and were as much a feature of the War as were the battles that have left their name upon it.

To the background of the Christian societies bravely upholding a standard morality, and being in the forefront of the wellbeing of the physically and spiritually injured, at home or in the war zones, there was also, underneath this, the natural proclivity of the human being to find solace from the horrors and the inevitable by an immersion into sexuality, whether it be lined upon a darkened beach, the sand hills, under the piers, in a farmers field or, at a greater expense in a ‘house of ill repute’. Soldiers, and female workers who had taken over the work of the men who had gone to war, now with more money and status than they could ever have dreamed of just a year or so earlier, were thrown together in a fever of attraction in a new age where such licentiousness could be excused, if life was going to be so necessarily cut short and expire at an unnaturally young age.

Sources ad acknowledgements.-



British Library newspaper archive via findmypast