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The People Behind the Winter Gardens

By Barry Band

Street view of pedestrians and cars with the Winter Gardens in the background
The Winter Gardens (Planning Department Collection)

In the early 1870s rail trippers were arriving in Blackpool in ever-increasing numbers. But the town centre retailers and caterers were not happy. Trippers came out of Central Station, where Coral Island now stands, and piled onto the beach and the piers. From North Station, many trippers were tempted inland to the Raikes Hall Gardens' amusements. And they were staying all day!

By 1875, when rail trippers passed the million mark, the resort's business community saw the need for a superior attraction in the town centre. Somewhere to go when it rained?

Across Britain, glass-covered "winter gardens" and shopping centres were opening. Schemes such as these had been made possible by the law of limited liability, which allowed people to invest safely in projects that previously needed the backing of rich men or banks.

And such a scheme was in the minds of the promoters of the Blackpool Winter Gardens and Pavilion Company Limited. They were not bankers or people of great private means. They were shopkeepers and publicans who had a dream of prosperity and position. It was a bold plan and it revealed the ambition of a young resort to place itself firmly on the map.

There will be much talk and celebration this year of the 140th anniversary of the opening of the Winter Gardens Pavilion on July 11, 1878. The story of the commissioning of the project and the lavish opening event has been written many times and we'll leave it for another day. This article is about the forgotten men who created the great enterprise that is the home of the Opera House and the Empress Ballroom - and soon a new conference centre.

Only the name of William Henry Cocker, on whose land it was built and who became chairman from 1880 to 1888, has survived from its early history.

When I was writing my book The Main Stage, in 2005, I discovered the names of the Winter Gardens pioneers in an article that appeared in the Blackpool Gazette on May 31, 1878, a few weeks before the grand opening.

Illustrated programme cover for the 1901 Blackpool Music Festival
John L. Smith founded the Blackpool Music Festival

These were the original promoters:

· John Eccleston was a jeweller with premises in Church Street opposite today's Marks and Spencers. He was the first chairman of the company but died two weeks after the 1878 opening of the Pavilion.

· John L. Smith came to Blackpool in 1852, aged 19, and owned a boot and shoe store in Market Street. He was a councillor from 1898 to 1903 and was a founder of the Blackpool Musical Festival.

· William Birch came from East Lancashire in 1851 and became the tenant of the Clifton Arms Hotel, Talbot Square. He was an original director of the North Pier. He was elected to the new borough council in 1876 and became an alderman in 1881.

· Ernest Gill was a director of Hallmark and Gill, one of the town's hardware stores and furnishers, with premises in Church Street.

· Ralph W. Braithwaite was a builder and valuer, a director of several local companies and briefly a councillor.

· Alexander Moore was in business as a draper in Bank Hey Street.

· John W. Mycock came to Blackpool in 1868 and was the licensee of the Albion Hotel on the north corner of Church Street and the Promenade.

· Edward Gregson had a fruit and vegetable shop in Lytham Street (later renamed Corporation Street). He was vice chairman of the Winter Gardens from 1882 until his death in 1889.

· Thomas Nickson signed the registration documents and was a shareholder.

· William Charnley, of Preston and Blackpool, was appointed company solicitor at the earliest meeting.

· Thomas Blane was clerk to the company.

Street view of a large hotel building with a promenade in the foreground.
The Clifton Arms Hotel, where William Birch became a tenant

The company was registered on August 7, 1875, with capital of £50,000 in 10,000 shares of £5, although loans totalling £50,000 were needed to complete the project.

The object was stated as the acquisition of land and property for the building of a Winter Gardens and Pavilion, skating rinks and recreation grounds. But at that time the promoters were not sure where their Winter Gardens would be built. There were a number of options. It could have been located on the Promenade, as related in the Gazette article of May 31, 1878. However, Claremont Park at North Shore, and a site just north of the Foxhall Hotel, were turned down as being too far from the town centre. Queen's Square was also considered but it was hemmed in by premises ‘of a kind not desirable.’ There was support for the Promenade site between Church Street and Victoria Street but it was too expensive.

A few days after the registration of the company an agreement was made with Dr William Henry Cocker for his Bank Hey House and estate between Church Street and Adelaide Street. He was paid £23,000 and when the first board of directors was named on August 19 Dr Cocker was included, along with Eccleston (chairman), Birch, Smith, Moore, Gill, Braithwaite and Mycock. The following year Dr Cocker began a three-year period as Mayor of the newly formed Blackpool Borough Council

At the first general meeting of shareholders on December 11, 1875, the board was reconstituted as Messrs Eccleston, Birch, Smith, Cocker, Moore, and new investor Thomas Pickard, of Halifax. Mr Pickard was apparently Mr Eccleston's accountant and succeeded him as chairman.

Contrary to popular belief in the past, Dr Cocker would not become chairman until 1880.