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Cover of British Archaeology 90

Issue 90

September/October 2006



Spoon tops important Anglo-Saxon finds

Unique axe handle found on Welsh shore

Timbers on Lancaster river bed may be Roman ford

Archaeologists drive double eagle on Dirleton dunes

In Brief


Blackpool? World Heritage?
You can not be serious...

Plucked in her prime
We reveal what treasure came out of the Mary Rose.

By the waters of Babylon
Iraq: must the loss of heritage continue?

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


World Heritage seaside

It might seem Britain is running out of world quality heritage, as sites such as designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow, the Lake District and now Blackpool bid for UNESCO recognition. But who is to say? John K Walton and Jason Wood argue that Blackpool as a cultural landscape and a historical witness is completely unique.

Blackpool's aspiration to become a world heritage site has already provided much entertainment, in keeping with the town's own contribution to the sum of human happiness. But it is, of course, very far from being a joke; and initial reactions of mirth and disbelief give way to serious thought when cultural programming is set aside and the brain is fully engaged.

Consider three facts. Tourism is now the world's most pervasive, dynamic and important industry, whether viewed in terms of employment, cultural change or environmental impact. The beach holiday, a particularly significant component of tourism's growth, is in its modern incarnation a British invention of the 18th century. And Blackpool has no credible challenger for the title of world's first working-class seaside resort: clearly there is, at very least, a case to answer. There is a long way to go before Blackpool can even be considered for the tentative list of national contenders. Yet the issues that the council initiative raises stretch established categories and challenge received assumptions in ways that can only be stimulating and invigorating.

One of the apparent paradoxes underlying Blackpool's world heritage site bid is that the town (motto since incorporation in 1876: Progress) has always prided itself on being innovative, anticipating and helping to create new trends in popular culture and entertainment technology. This aspect of its identity has flagged in recent years, but it is still the dominant identity of choice for the town's policy makers and economic leaders.

Between the 1960s and 80s, especially, the pursuit of modernity in a difficult economic climate allowed important pieces of tourism-related architecture to be lost: examples include the lateVictorian Palace (formerly Alhambra) entertainment complex which adjoined the tower, the majestic classical open-air bathing pool of 1923 near the South Pier, and the Derby Baths on the North Shore, which had opened just before the second world war. Changing transport flows and policies led to the loss of Central Station, the principal gateway to the town for nearly a century. The Grand Theatre of 1894 was only saved by a sustained campaign run by concerned citizens and volunteer enthusiasts, whose efforts have now been rewarded by its designation as the National Theatre of Variety.

At the turn of the millennium, with estimated annual visitors falling from over 17 million to little more than 10 million in less than two decades, Blackpool finally began to share in the widespread (though often exaggerated) problems of the British seaside. The council's initial instinct was to pursue a modernising programme, to reconfigure the resort and recover its leading status as an iconic innovator in the field of mass tourism. Hence the pursuit of gambling: visitors to proposed super-casinos would bring in funds to support remaking the promenade, revitalising the illuminations with striking new technologies, landscaping the urban approaches and redeveloping extensive areas of Victorian terraced housing, not least in the traditional accommodation districts, home of the legendary Blackpool landlady. These initiatives were outlined in an urban masterplan and are now being pursued, under the auspices of professor Sir Peter Hall, through the ReBlackpool URC (urban regeneration company). Much depends on getting the go-ahead for a supercasino on the old Central Station site.

A visiting commentator from Atlantic City, New Jersey, however, remarked at an early public discussion of the masterplan that taking the casino-fuelled development route was not all opportunity. Atlantic City's own attempt at such a regeneration programme in the mid 1970s had produced sealed-off casino complexes, doing nothing to arrest urban decay and the loss of historic distinctiveness elsewhere in the resort (it actually made them worse). Some sense of historic identity was also needed, as had also been realised at (for example) Miami Beach's art deco South Beach district. It was at this time that Blackpool began to pursue its first heritage strategy alongside the grand schemes for regeneration through innovation.

The council began to recognise that Blackpool's own history was not only unique and pioneering, but also that (despite the losses) the town possessed a remarkable array of pleasure and accommodation architecture, and a unique tradition of popular entertainment. These could be celebrated, preserved and renewed as a distinctive dimension of the contemporary holiday industry, appealing not only to nostalgia but to a more grounded appreciation of the industrial archaeology of the popular tourism industry.Here was also the basis for the world heritage site initiative.

From this perspective Blackpool's special characteristics are indeed outstanding. They seem bizarre and entertaining only because of widespread (and not just academic) condescension towards, and even hostility to, popular culture.

Blackpool was a product of the world's first industrial revolution, associated with the Lancashire cotton industry. It was already attracting plebeian sea-bathers at the August spring tides in the 18th century. Itsclaim to fame, however, lies in the way in which it responded to and created demand for its amenities and entertainments among the industrial workers – first of south Lancashire, next of a wider area of northern and midland England, then right across Britain, during the railway age between the 1840s and 1930s.

Blackpool's visitors exceeded a million per summer in the early 1880s, two million in the early 1890s, three million at the turn of the century, four million on the eve of the first world war, and probably seven million in the 1930s. These are soft statistics, but they give orders of magnitude. The numbers left all notional competitors trailing far in Blackpool's wake, as it adapted and innovated to keep its visitors happy and eager for more.

The seaside holiday, like association football and the industrial revolution itself, was a key cultural export that the British gave to the world. Blackpool pioneered the working-class incarnation of this phenomenon. The cotton manufacturing towns generated the first working-class consumer society, based on hard work, high family incomes, regular and predictable wages that allowed for saving for unpaid holidays, a healthy culture of voluntary organisations through which savings could safely be accumulated, and a system of traditional holidays that could be adapted to commercial leisure uses. The late 19th century culture included professional sport, music-hall, fast food (pies, fish and chips) and a growing diversity of retail outlets, including those of the cooperative movement. Blackpool catered for these holiday preferences, providing the entertainment and leisure dimension of industrial society, concentrated and distilled into a few miles of northern English coastline.

So Blackpool developed as an industrial town, selling health and pleasure to the workers of the first industrial society. In the late 19th century it developed a unique array of sturdily-built, enduring entertainment and accommodation complexes with no parallel elsewhere in scale, ambition and success. Only Blackpool, over 30 years between 1863 and 1893, acquired three promenade and pleasure piers. All are still operational, although the buildings on the superstructure and the content of the amusements and shows have changed with the times.

The first great pleasure palace was the Winter Gardens, a product of the late 1870s with concert hall and theatre as well as indoor promenades and (for over 30 years) a Gigantic Wheel in the grounds. An opulent modernist Opera House was constructed with remarkable optimism on the eve of the second world war.

Far more significant was the building of the Tower. This has dominated the skyline since 1894, offering the first distant sight of Blackpool to generations of holidaymakers, and becoming an icon of Blackpool and of British popular tourism, with its aquarium, zoo, circus, roof gardens, ballroom and Mighty Wurlitzer. At the turn of the century the Pleasure Beach emerged on the south promenade, gathering together among the sand dunes an amazing collection of amusement machinery, and conspicuously failing to discard older rides. One such is Sir Hiram Maxim's Captive Flying Machine of 1904, recognised as having historic significance and equipped with the company's own version of the classic commemorative blue plaque. To supply the necessary accommodation for the hordes of holidaymakers, growing numbers of whom were already staying for a week or more by the 1890s, building speculators erected street upon street of boarding-houses in fiery red brick, radiating from the railway termini and stretching inland at rightangles to the long promenade.

Blackpool was always a private/public partnership avant la lettre. The piers and pleasure palaces were the products of shareholder democracy, of a host of small investors; the streets of boarding-houses were created by legions of small investors on a patchwork of little plots of land. But they depended on the services provided or administered by the local authority. It invested heavily not only in public utilities (gas and electricity) and road maintenance, but also in the (eventually) seven mile promenade (11km) and highly necessary associated sea defences, the pioneer electric tramway (opened in 1885 and municipalised seven years later), the advertising of the town and its attractions from 1879 onwards, and from 1912 the Illuminations on which the successful autumn season was based, with increasingly elaborate tableaux and illuminated trams.

The sheer scale of this was unique. It constitutes a cultural landscape without parallel in the rest of the world. Blackpool expresses the industrial archaeology of the seaside holiday and popular entertainment industries, inextricably linked to the more conventional manufacturing and extractive industries of its expanding hinterland. It is neither the first seaside resort (that honour should probably go to Scarborough) nor the largest (probably Argentina's Mar del Plata); but it is without question the world's first working-class seaside resort, as well as being the still-beating heart of an evolving but distinctive tradition of vulgar but vital commercial popular entertainment.

Its only possible rival for this status is New York's Coney Island. This began a little later and overtook Blackpool in visitor numbers in the late 19th century, but depended on day-trippers, lacked Blackpool's accommodation infrastructure, and operated entertainments that proved to be, at best, lacking in Blackpool's durability. Atlantic City, which apparently used to advertise itself as the Blackpool of America, started later and could not match Blackpool's numbers. Both places lack the authentic survivals that remain so strongly in Blackpool.

Australia is a similar story, on a smaller scale. In England Margate in the 18th century was lower middle-class rather than working-class. Across Europe the popular seaside holiday was only beginning to emerge by the 1930s. Mar del Plata itself was not founded until the 1880s, and it was not until the 1920s and 30s that trade unions and Peronist social policies opened it out to a popular market, despite the six-hour journey from Buenos Aires.

The British seaside has never been promoted outside Britain (or even within Britain, except by the resorts themselves, and in earlier years the railway companies that served them) despite its pioneering historic status. In Britain it has increasingly been the butt of mockery alongside nostalgia for carefree childhoods. But it is genuinely important on the world historical stage, and its distinctive architecture and ambience give it an unmistakeable character, a mixture of the exotic, the kitsch, the challenging, the liminal, the traditional and the familiar.

With around 150 resorts in England and Wales alone, and a resident population of around 2.5 million at an out of season mid 20th century spring census, the seaside's importance here is obvious enough. But Britain's role in developing the world-wide spectacular and controversial beach tourism deserves even more emphasis. Blackpool has contrived to pioneer a central aspect of these developments while retaining a unique cultural landscape of its own, always in flux but always retaining a core identity and ambience. Herein lies its genuine claim to world heritage site status.

Walton and Wood are consultants to the world heritage site bid, led by Blackpool council's leisure, culture and community learning department ( They collaborated on publishing Wood's grandmother's memoirs, Bertha Wood, Fresh Air & Fun (Carnegie 2005).

I like Blackpool. The weather's great. And the town's... kinda sleazy, isn't it? Bill Clinton

Cultural landscapes, as defined by UNESCO, represent "the combined works of nature and man... illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal". World heritage sites nominated under this category are living and working places allowed to grow in response to their local environment and society as they have in the past.

Blackpool will claim inscription as "a cultural landscape... which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time".

The current plan is to map this significance on the ground through an intensive historic townscape and seascape characterisation project to ensure recognition, protection and enhancement of Blackpool's cultural and natural heritage, and help define the potential world heritage site boundary and buffer zone.

The Blackpool heritage strategy sets out an action agenda for the next five years, with heritage as a key driver in the sustainable regeneration of the town. Ambitious projects are planned exploring the overlap between tourism and heritage, to enhance Blackpool's value as a place for residents and visitors. The goal is to preserve memories, renovate outstanding buildings, safeguard a unique social history, and educate the public. The world heritage site campaign will seek to showcase Blackpool's fantastic heritage and colourful history on an international scale.

JKW and JW

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