The entertainment complex has an amazing history from playing it part in two world wars to rioting Rolling Stones fans
One of Europe’s biggest entertainment complexes opened its doors 143 years ago this week.
Blackpool’s Winter Gardens has not only put the town on the map in terms of performances but its iconic building has a long and interesting history.
The complex first opened its doors on July 11, 1878 in a grand ceremony which included not only the Lord Mayor of London but the Mayors and Mayoresses from 68 English towns.
The Winter Gardens Company originally bought the site in 1875 for £28,000 and the construction project, which involved building on the six-acre Bank Hey Estate, was one of the largest projects Blackpool had ever seen.
Contractors Thomas Mitchell were tasked with the construction and the plan was to “place on the land a concert room, promenades, conservatories and other accessories calculated to convert the estate into a pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement days.”
The entertainment venue was to have it all and the 1870s saw the exotic glass roofed Floral Hal roofed built along with the Vestibule, Ambulatory, Indoor and outdoor skating rink and Pavilion Theatre for special event.
In 1888 Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect who designed the Tower Ballroom and Circus in Blackpool, was making plans for the first Opera House.
The project lived up to Matcham’s grand reputation and on June 10 1889 ‘Her Majesty’s Opera House’ opened with Gilbert & Sullivan’s new opera ‘Yeomen of the Guard’.
At the time, the 2,500 seat opera house cost £9,098.
The Winter Gardens were set to become even more grandiose however with introduction of the Empress Ballroom, which was built in 1896, and the Indian Lounge which is now the Arena.
One of the largest ballrooms in the world, the Empress had a floor space of 12,500 sq. ft and was built by more infamous architects, Mangnall & Littlewood, who also designed Blackpool’s New Wing Imperial Hotel.
The pair also created the 220ft. gigantic Wheel on the site of the bowling green and garden area in front of the Pavilion Horseshoe.
The massive structure could hold 30 people in as many carriages.
On August 22 in 1896 the 1000 tonne wheel turned for the first time and the ride was seen as an impressive feat of Victorian engineering.
The architects were then tasked with rebuilding the Opera House in 1910 as well as the Church Street facade of the Winter Gardens which was clad in white faience in true Renaissance style.
In 1918 the Empress Ballroom was to play its part in history after the Admiralty, the military department in command of the Royal Navy requisitioned the hall to assemble gas envelopes for the .33 airship.
The following year the ballroom was handed back and some restoration work was done so it could resume back to its usual function.
Beginning the town’s love affair with the ballroom dancing, the first ever Blackpool Dance Festival took place during Easter Weekend in 1920 in the Empress Ballroom.
The Tower Company then purchased the Winter Gardens in 1928 who immediately dismantled the grounds’ big wheel.
It was thought that the structure was an inferior attraction to the infamous Blackpool Tower, the tallest manmade structure in the British Empire.
Construction of the Olympia Exhibition Hall also began this year and took less than eight months to complete.
Opening in June 1930, its interior comprised of stalls and attractions themed by Andrew Mazzei in the form of a Moorish village, The famous white villages that line Andalusia in Spain’s coastline.
The onslaught of the second World War saw the Winter Gardens repurposed once again when the UK government requisitioned it and it was used for RAF training purposes by day and for entertainment in the evenings.
In 1938 the old Opera House was demolished and the third and current Opera House replaced its predecessor in 1939 with the classic Art Deco design of the times.
The biggest stage in the country, it was designed in a modernist style with a sweepingly curved proscenium, with the intention of doubling as a super cinema.
It was opened in July 1939 and has since welcomed some of the biggest names in Showbusiness and beloved musicals.
The 1930s also saw the addition of the first Galleon Bar, Spanish Hall and Baronial Hall.
More high profile figures were also to pay a visit when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived the following year for the first Royal Variety Performance outside of London.
The 1960s saw one of the most bizarre moments of the Winter Garden’s history when Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger and his band members were banned from the town by Blackpool Council.
The band arrived to perform in July 1964 however were hindered by audience members spitting according to eye witnesses.
Guitarist Keith Richards became involved in an altercation with one gig goer at the front and some of the 7,000 strong crowd stormed the stage.
A riot ensued and the musicians were warned not to return. The council’s ban on the Rolling Stones was only lifted in 2008.
In 1970 the Empress Ballroom was turned into a nightclub for four years and was renamed The Stardust Garden. This was around the same time the Winter Gardens unique architectural heritage received a Grade II listing.
The Ballroom has seen many other lives too during the decades from serving as a conference venue for all three major political parties to hosting major acts such as The Beatles, Queen, Oasis and Radiohead.
The White Stripes even used the stunning setting for their DVD and concert aptly named ‘Under Blackpool Lights.’
A pivotal moment in the Winter Garden’s history was when the complex came into public ownership in 2010.
In a historic purchase, Blackpool Council bought both the Winter Gardens and Blackpool Tower from Trevor Hemmings’ Crown Leisure Company and an ambitious restoration project began to revamp its areas most in need.
This meant it was able to play its part as an international theatrical destination when the blockbuster musical Mama Mia returned to Blackpool in 2014.
Most recently the Winter Gardens was once again play a significant role in hard times when it became a Covid vaccination centre this year and it hit an amazing milestone of 50,000 vaccinations last month.
The legacy of the venue is set to continue into the future with its new Blackpool Conference and Exhibition Centre promising to be one of the largest venues of its kind in the north of England.
The brand-new, purpose-built events venue will feature state of the art amenities necessary for hosting modern conferences and exhibitions.
The centre will incorporate the latest audio and visual technology proving once again that the historic venue will continue to adapt to the times.