Luke Gannon was king of the Golden Mile.
The Golden Mile is a character in itself. A visitor say a mill-worker Oldham in the 30s wanders among Starving Brides, Fortune Tellers, models depicting the evils of masturbation, religious and mystical symbolism from Egypt, China, India, auctions where items are sold for tiny prices, the Biggest Rat in the World, the Bearded Lady, the Ugliest Woman in the World (you can get £1000 by marrying her) and you can see for two pennies the Rector of Stiffkey, or Colonel Barker or you can climb on the Girl Pat… it’s a trawler. And there are girls appearing in shows directly from Monmartre… nude girls.
Luke Gannon was an entrepreneur from a poor background in Burnley. He knew what people want mostly sex, death and religion… a display in Tussauds pulled off the triple… religion, sex and death. It displayed a Belgian mystic, Louise Lateau, who manifested the wounds of Christ. For no reason she was naked.
Luke Gannon was a sometimes criminal with a chilling indifference to others. And a businessman.
Normal for Blackpool…
There are gaps in our knowledge. Considering he was a showman he gave little away. The poor photograph at the end of this article is the only one I could find.
Luke Gannon was born in Burnley in1878 … he was then called Hugh Gilgannon. We first come across our boy stealing pipes, tobacco and money from a shop in Burnley. This is in 1891 and Luke is about 13.
But the next time he appears in Blackpool we get a sense of the man. It is 1899, Luke Gannon is working as a barman at the Palatine Hotel , his older brother Martin works at the Tower in the summer.
A gentleman called Lawrence Hacking, 61, lives at 208 Lytham Road. He is in the habit of taking walks in the evening and he sets off towards the promenade and the sandhills when he meets another chap and together they walk towards the sandhills which extended further North than they do now. They go along Gypsy Lane which I am guessing was an extension of Watson Road. No sooner have they got to the sandhills when Lawrence’s new friend suggests they sit down. Lawrence is not keen and his friend grabs his pocket watch and runs off.
As luck would have it a man appears, a detective, Lawrence explains about his stolen watch but the detective says he is afraid he has seen the two “committing an act of indecency” and he will have to inform his superiors. Lawrence pleads: “I have a son and a daughter,” And gives the detective a guinea.
The “detective” is Luke Gannon. After various shenanigans Lawrence has handed over another £20 and been introduced to the detective’s superior who is actually Martin Gannon. And he has agreed to pay a further £80 and made an appointment to hand over the money.
But come the time the police arrest Martin Gannon. Lawrence and a friend are taking a stroll and they see Luke Gannon and seize him and call the police.
So Luke and Martin appear in court… charged with what exactly? Lawrence is represented by a canny solicitor called Challis… but Luke and Martin are represented by a solicitor who asks Lawrence questions such as:
“Why did your wife leave you?”
And asks if the man who Lawrence went to the sandhills with… the one who stole the watch… had previously met Lawrence in the urinals in Euston Street. There were more “pointed questions” that the paper may have found unprintable. Lawrence’s behaviour was a scandal to his neighbours.
The case is sent for trial at Preston and after that I can’t find the case reported. In the 1901 census Luke Gannon is in Portland Prison serving four years for conspiracy to defraud. In 1910 Luke marries a girl called Hannah and we hear no more about her.
24 August 1929 Luke writes a letter to the local paper. The letter concerns an appearance in court. Luke Gannon is charged with breach of the peace and obstruction. It is a minor case. Luke Gannon does not bother to hire legal representation. But here is what the Chief Constable has to say: ” This man is one of the worst possible types that come to Blackpool. ” And “There is a gang of them that come into Blackpool in the summer and create nothing but discord and friction.” The Chief Constable refers to Luke’s “four years penal servitude.” Luke’s record is “terribly bad.” He is a friend of “notorious pugilist” Peter Bannon and just to clarify: “We don’t want your class here.”
Bit strong? Luke has been charged with breach of the peace and obstruction and the fine is trivial.
Luke replies in a letter to the local paper. He says that the events for which he was imprisoned were 22 years ago. He says that he was a “lad of 18.” (I make him 22 or 23 at the time but still…) He says he served in the Army for 3 years. If Blackpool doesn’t want him the Army did in spite of his record. (I doubt Luke came clean about his prison time.) But his military character was excellent and he was a sergeant major, an exceptional achievement. Finally Luke says he is a respectable businessman… amongst other things an auctioneer.
Luke Gannon had appeared in court charged with disrupting an auction in Bank Hey Street. He had shouted: “You are a swindler and a rogue.” Rival? Fake auctions were a feature of Blackpool life for more than a century. Maybe they still are. Basically a good spieler would whip an audience into a state of excitement by offering goods at very low prices. The actual goods were either sold to accomplices or not really sold at all. The audience convinced that everything for sale was an outstanding bargain would be sold overpriced tat. Running a fake auction was a skill and a “notorious pugilist” might be handy. Chief Constable Derham thought that Luke was part of a gang. Chief Constable Derham knew what he was talking about… could Luke Gannon be involved with an extortion gang. The stalls on the Golden Mile were vulnerable. Luke Gannon.s run in with the Chief Constable and authority in general is the theme of his life.
LUKE’S DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS
A piece of gossip recorded by Mass Observers says that Luke had two wives but that may be an underestimate. First of all there was his wife Hannah who is never heard of again. Then he had a long standing relationship with Madame Kusharney a fortune teller… one of the best known in Blackpool. The Mass Observers call her his wife. And finally in the last year of his life a child is born called Luke Gannon. The mother’s maiden name is Flanagan. According to the census Luke shares his home with Kate Bague, John Bague and an unpaid domestic servant. Could Kate be Luke Gannon Junior’s mother?
I don’t know.
Kate is the main beneficiary of Luke’s will along with Luke’s brother Michael. And what happened to Madame Kusharney unless she is Kate? Luke’s life is not straightforward.
A girl who worked with Luke and the Rector of Stiffkey said that the Rector was a real gentleman but Luke…
There is a story that Luke’s sister got in trouble for running a disorderly house but I have not been able to confirm that.
LUKE GANNON INTERNATIONAL STATESMAN
Luke had taken promoting shows on the Golden Mile. His staple was the Starving Bride.A volunteer would agree not to eat for a certain time and receive cash. Holidaymakers would pay to see her. The “fast” was not genuine. A Manchester holidaymaker said pertinently that you can see plenty of starving brides and bridegrooms in Manchester. A photograph of the time shows an unemployed millworker and she is starving although incongruously she looks cheerful…
Luke proposes a massive Peace Festival in 1935. The council turns him down.
The Empress of Abyssinia goes on a fast following the invasion by Italy.
Luke Gannon helpfully writes to her asking if she wants to conduct her fast on the promenade. In India Gandhi goes on a hunger strike and Luke telegraphs him offering his facilities.
Luke’s international diplomacy is interrupted by court appearances. He causes a riot with the Rector of Stiffkey.
LUKE AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
The years 1934-1937 see Luke at his cleverest and most inventive. The Rector of Stiffkey is followed by Colonel Barker and then by the Girl Pat. The Rector of Stiffkey was defrocked by the Church for entertaining prostitutes. Rather like Blackpool Council and Luke Gannon the Bishop of Norwich set out to get rid of the troublesome Rector. Amusingly the Bishop of Norwich hoped to silence a scandal. The Rector of Stiffkey became the best known Church of England Vicar, well ever… The Rector’s efforts in Blackpool were aimed at financing an appeal.
The Rector of Stiffkey
After his Blackpool adventures the Rector was killed by a lion in Skegness. Luke in his unsentimental way exploited his death to promote his next project… Colonel Barker.
Colonel Barker at the Pleasure beach. The figure in the shroud is a reference to the recently deceased Rector of Stiffkey.
Colonel Barker was a woman who successfully posed as a man and became a News of the World scandal. She had a fascinating career and I will write about her separately.
The Girl Pat was a trawler that left its usual waters to cross the Atlantic and eventually ended up in the Bahamas. It was navigated using a school atlas and a compass. It was major news at the time. The crew became popular heroes especially when it was claimed that the crew were about to lose their jobs. The leader was imprisoned. The idea of a worker’s rebellion rang bells with a depressed Northern working class. Luke made use of innuendo, visitors were invited to climb on The Girl Pat.” The trawler was anchored off Blackpool and visitors would be taken out to it.
The Council were out to get Luke. The Council largely represented builders, brewers and large leisure projects. The notion that these huge expensive projects were being rivalled by a cheapjack stall displaying a bearded lady…. well you can imagine. Councillors felt that the Golden Mile lowered the tone. Naked girls were appearing in shows on the Golden Mile. Still its a handy thing when your ethical concerns coincide with your commercial interests.
Luke threatened to stand for the Council in Foxhall.
The Rector of Stiffkey was arrested for attempting to commit suicide. This was groundless and clearly a Council initiative. The case was put by Trevor Jones the Town Clerk who actually did commit suicide when corruption at the council was being investigated. Blackpool had to pay the Rector £382 for “false imprisonment.”
And then Luke moved and his next project was displaying a mummifed whale… Moby Dick it was called… in Cleveleys. The Council in Blackpool was increasing its control of the Golden Mile. A giant building programme was planned and deferred because of the War. Luke was ill and nearing the end of his life but in his final months he managed a couple legal wrangles, one a dispute over “Moby Dick” and another claiming he should not have to pay the full rates for his display area in Cleveleys.
Reading the papers for the September and October 1939 is surreal. Poisonous reptiles were killed at Blackpool Zoo in case they escaped during bombing. Paper coffins were stockpiled in Church Street. A vicar in Fleetwood said that “England needed a Hitler.” A seventeen year old lad in Birmingham donned a Swastika Armband and took his copy of Mein Kampf and committed suicide. Inevitably he was a “brilliant student.” A Fleetwood trawler was sunk by a U-boat who then rescued the crew and entertained them generously. The local paper announce that Polish Cavalry were driving back German tanks. The compere at the music Festival denounced music by “savages” and pronounced that jazz was not created by black people. He’d lived among them and he knew they were savages.
And Luke died. He was 61. According to his wishes no words were said at his cremation… usually there was some kind of religious service… was this Luke taking on God?….Chopin’s Funeral March was played and in the evening his ashes were scattered in the rose garden at Carlton Crematorium.
How to sum Luke Gannon up? The man had been in prison for four years, he employed the most scandalous and intriguing people… The Rector of Stiffkey and Colonel Barker, he most probably saw action in the First World War… He corresponded with the Empress of Abbysinia and Gandhi. He packed a lot into his 61 years. Although he was a relentless businessman his choices of exhibit… Colonel Barker and the Rector of Stiffkey… he identified with the outsider and the rebel.
Let Luke have the last word. Talking to a mass observer in his Chiltern Avenue home that he shared with Madame Kusharney he said: “I always say that you can divide the pulic like this-50% certifiable, 30% on the brink, and the other 20% living on the others.”