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The Imperial Hotel

By Juliette Gregson

Street view of a large hotel building
A view of the Imperial (Buckley Collection)

The Imperial Hotel at North Shore cannot, like the Clifton and others, boast a tradition dating back to the 18th century. It was established in 1867 and is situated in a large Victorian red brick building in what, before development, was once Claremont Park. A syndicate which included two directors of the North Pier formed a company known as the Blackpool Land and Building Company, which purchased the whole of the land on the northern sea front lying between Carlton Terrace and the Gynn Inn, and created the Claremont Park estate.

The site of Regent Terrace is described as land sold to a Mr Lowe and then later the plot of the Imperial. When taken over by the building company the estate was to some extent agricultural and a farm house once stood on the site. Many older residents remembered that cattle used to graze on the land between Derby and Warley Road, where once the municipal baths (now demolished) stood. It is interesting to note that steps were indeed taken to secure the embankments facing the property from coastal erosion during heavy gales, which to this day sweep along our coast.

The doors officially opened on 27 June 1867 by Clegg and Jones with a price quoted of around £50,000 for the final cost of completion. The Imperial was at first was let out on a tenancy to a Mr William Beachy Head; the tariff to stay was three guineas a week and 4s 6d a day for servants. It seems evident that that the shareholders expected the hotel to be popular due to its location and the temperance movement, which was very popular at the time of construction. Mr Head in the early days struggled to make the hotel pay due to the lack of visitors; Blackpool was only just beginning to emerge as a destination for the masses, and railway and other methods of travel were not yet fully developed.

Dickens, the well-known author, came to the resort on 21 April 1869 during his tour of the north. He spent the night at the Imperial and was giving readings of his works to packed audiences after a triumphant tour of America. The Blackpool Herald reported on April 23:

“Blackpool has had this week the honour of receiving the distinguished visitor in the person of Charles Dickens, the great novelist, who arrived at the Imperial Hotel on Wednesday and left yesterday.” He was meant to be appearing in Preston the following day, but not feeling well he summoned his doctor from London, who refused to allow him to appear in the town. He then returned to London the next day for more medical consultations. He described the Imperial as a “charming place of rest” when he wrote to his sister-in-law.

In 1871 Mr Curwen was appointed as manager of the Imperial but, like William Head before him, he was unable to make a success of the business. The following year Mr Taylor, who had managed hotels in Brighton and Jersey, was appointed to succeed him. Alas again the venture did not prove successful and a scheme was prepared for the foundation of a limited company to take over the hotel.

The scheme did not come to fruition until August 1873, when the hotel was sold to Mr Rothwell and others for around £32,000. The company struggled along, but made no headway as a profit-making proposition.

A close up view of a hotel entrance
The entrance to the Imperial (Albert Eden Collection)

Two years later, a resolution was passed by the board to wind up the company voluntarily for the purpose of reconstruction; the company was liquidated in December that year and a new company - bearing the original name - was formed. In 1881 the company name was changed to the Imperial Hydropathic Hotel Company, Blackpool. The new company also found the hotel was no money-spinner and it got into difficulties. Eventually the directors were facing bankruptcy and the bailiffs were ready to take possession of the hotel.

James Kirk, who had only recently joined the board, stepped in with a loan of £3000; his intervention appeared to mark the turning point for the hotel. With James Fish and then Charles Parker as chairman, the directors had a further seven years of hard work and worry before they were able to declare a dividend. In 1889 a four per cent dividend was paid, reaching five per cent in 1892 - and the company started to grow.

In 1901 Turkish and Russian baths, and a sea water plunge bath, were built in the basement of the south wing and a ballroom added, which would accommodate 400 guests. Three years later a wing was added to the north end of the hotel, which incorporated a dining room for 400 guests, with lounge and palm court adjoining, and additional bedrooms. Under the dining room was a banqueting room of the same size, a billiards room, cloak rooms and other amenities. Then in April 1918, towards the end of the First World War, the Government took over the hotel to be used as an officers’ hospital, and it retained possession until May 1919.

South of the Imperial Blackpool extended rapidly along its Golden Mile. Fortunately, a relaxation of the prohibition on alcohol led to the Imperial taking off as the venue of choice for important municipal events. In 1878 the opening of Blackpool’s splendid Winter Gardens was celebrated at the Imperial with the Lord Mayor of London booking the hotel for his entourage of 63 mayors and lady mayoresses from across Britain. In 1891 the laying of the foundations of Blackpool Tower was celebrated with a gala dinner at the Imperial. To further the hotel’s appeal, the Imperial embraced Hydropathy, a fashionable term for a combination of treatments that involved occupational therapy, physiotherapy and water for the alleviation of pain, stiffness in the joints and gout.

A large group of people posing outside a hotel entrance
A 1930s conference at the Imperial. Image courtesy of a private collection

During the Second World War the Imperial Hotel was taken over by the government, as were many of the other Blackpool hotels; when the directors regained possession 11 years later many costly improvements were required (including over 7 miles of carpeting!) These improvements were carried out at a total expenditure of over one hundred thousand pounds.

With renovation and regeneration, the Imperial re-established itself as a first-class hotel and venue for social events and conferences; every bedroom in the hotel now had its own bathroom suite, each with telephone, television, radio and fire alarm. The old banqueting hall at the north end of the basement, which was created in 1904, was transformed into a full Masonic suite with an appointed temple. In addition to the temple this suite comprised a dining room, lounge, bar and two changing rooms, and a few years later another dining room (the Rutherford Room) was added.

The unused old Turkish baths in the south wing of the basement were dealt with in two phases: in 1956 the area was cleared and equipped as a children’s play area and in 1962 it was changed into five stock rooms called the ‘Ducal rooms’ which had direct access to the car park. In 1965 two further well-furnished meeting rooms were added behind the site of the old Turkish baths. The end of 1958 saw the whole of the hotel provided with central heating, the old coal-fired boilers in the basement being replaced by modern oil-fired boilers. Another added bonus was the installation of a new modern passenger lift for the guests.

More changes happened quite rapidly within the walls of the Imperial - 1958 ladies powder room, 1961 new cocktail bar, 1963 the old billiards room and bar known as the Old Snug were amalgamated to form a new bar called the Oregon.

With the passage of time more and more visitors were arriving by motor car and the more than 200 parking spaces were ideal; in former days this land had been used for lawn tennis, croquet and bowls.

It is worth recalling that the Imperial in its early days as a hotel often found its guests and visitors coming to stay for a month, or even 7-8 weeks. These early holidaymakers would often would arrive with a large entourage of staff, including ladies’ maids, nurses for the children, coachmen, carriages and horses. They were often people of great wealth and the private nature of Claremont Park where the hotel was situated provided a distinctive charm for them. Those who wished to visit Claremont Park found toll gates by Carlton Terrace and by the Gynn, with a charge made to pass through. The toll houses were abolished under the Blackpool Improvement Act of 1899.

In 1961 the first meeting of the George Formby Society was held at the Imperial with just 56 members, moving later to the Winter Gardens and then going back to the Imperial in 1990; the meetings are still held today and are very popular.

By the 1970s the Imperial had its own night club called Trader Jacks (the author remembers this vaguely!) It ran until the mid-1980s and even boasted Polynesian theme nights and early 2am breakfasts. I seem to recall this taking place around a swimming pool and worrying that if people got drunk they might fall in. In 1977 AC/DC played at the Ballroom on 20 February as part of their High Voltage tour of the United Kingdom, some say their first proper tour.

In 1987 the Imperial underwent one of her biggest face-lifts, with a £700,000 clean-up involving re-pointing brickwork, windows and guttering replaced, and 14 new bedrooms created in old staff quarters on the top floor. A £5m revamp took place in the early 90s, including a new health and fitness club.

Around 10 years ago work was carried out on the hotel to restore it to its former glory, including work on the front façade, the stunning carved ceiling in the Washington Suite, and the oak panelling and fireplace discovered in the Churchill Suite.

Over the years there have been a whole host of famous faces staying at the Imperial. They have included various politicians and prime ministers – Harold Wilson, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, and John Major. Royalty such as the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne stayed here; not to mention film and pop stars including actress Gracie Fields at Christmas 1955, Fred Astaire, the Beatles, and singer Harry Belafonte.

Two men sat at a fully laid table drinking from tea cups
Harry Belafonte at the Imperial. Image courtesy of a private collection

In 2015 Blackpool Civic trust volunteers started work to uncover the hidden tiling in the former Turkish Baths. The ornate ceramics have been revealed, which in their heyday were a magnet for well-to-do Victorian holidaymakers wanting to partake of the benefits of Blackpool seawater. Today tours can include a visit to this area of the hotel to give visitors a glance at what guests would have enjoyed.

The Imperial hotel is a true reminder of Blackpool’s Victorian heyday, combining 19th century opulence and glamour with contemporary style and modern facilities, popular restaurant, health club and conference facilities. This historic hotel has done much to put Blackpool on the map.