Blackpool’s sideshows from fortune tellers to headless men down the decades

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Up until the late 1960s, sideshows including anatomical oddities were common attractions in the Lancashire resort

The Golden Mile's Tattooed Lady and her Headless Wonder fiancé in Blackpool, November 1969
The Golden Mile’s Tattooed Lady and her Headless Wonder fiancé in Blackpool, November 1969 (Image: Mirrorpix)

Blackpool’s historic Golden Mile is the perfect place to visit during the summer if you’re into funfairs, neon-lit amusement arcades, souvenir shops and of course, golden beaches.

The Golden Mile stretch of promenade emerged in the late 19th century after small-time amusement operators, fortune tellers, phrenologists and oyster bars set up in the front gardens of boarding houses to take advantage of passing trade.

It later received its nickname partly due to the amount of slot machines that went on to dominate the area. Historically, one of the biggest draws to Blackpool’s Golden Mile has been its myriad of sideshows.

From the late 19th century up until the late 1960s, attractions such as exhibits of anatomical oddities as well as conjoined twins, tattooed ladies and striptease acts took their place alongside the fortune tellers and spiritualists to bring in the crowds. According to Blackpool Museum, sideshow attractions were anything that “caught the imagination”.

Some other popular sideshow attractions included the human figure sculptures of Jacob Epstein, exhibited between 1939 and 1950. Another influential figure was sideshow impresario Luke Gannon.

Occupying premises on the south corner of Brunswick Street, the sideshows Gannon promoted in the 1930s included the Starving Brides: newly-married couples fasting for 30-days in a glass box (think David Blaine) to earn enough money to buy a house. These shows were seen as tacky and frowned upon by the local corporation who eventually shut them down.

Gannon also persuaded ex-rector, Harold Davidson, to display himself in a barrel on Blackpool Promenade for paying customers to view after he was defrocked following a conviction of immorality by a church court. Davidson died in 1937 died after being mauled by a lion in whose cage he was appearing in a seaside spectacular.

In the 1960s, sideshows at Blackpool Pleasure Beach began to be phased out as the park made moves to operate all of its entertainment inhouse. However, the popularity of sideshows, in particular the exploitative freakshow style attractions, had been dwindling since the early 20th century as the medicalisation of human abnormalities is said to have contributed to the end of the exhibits’ mystery and appeal.

Below, Lancs Live has delved into the archives to find images of crowds, advertisements, and some of the attractions from Blackpool’s sideshow attractions down the decades.