Winter Gardens – Olympia

By Phil Gould

Work started on building Olympia in 1929 on the site of the former Ferris Wheel, which was never really a great success. Olympia became part of the Winter Gardens complex and first opened its doors to the public in June 1930. Inside were stalls and sideshows. It had been designed by film set designer Andrew Mazzei, who was also responsible for the quirky Spanish Hall in the same complex, to resemble a Moorish village. Sideshows included the Cow with Five Legs, described as ‘The Sight Of A Lifetime!’, and The Headless Woman, Fire Eating Arabs and a replica of the Crown Jewels. There were also palmists, slot machines, games of chance and children’s rides. At this time the emphasis was on games and shows but Olympia developed into more of a traditional funfair in its later years.

When I first visited as a child in the 1960s three large rides dominated the main hall. These were a set of Dodgems, an Ark Speedway and a Panoramic Wheel. The latter was similar to the wheel which for many years could be found at Southport’s Pleasureland. The cars were best described as flying saucers and the wheel not only rotated vertically but turned horizontally on its base. It seemed to rise right up into the arched ceiling of the building. As there were examples of these rides in Blackpool and Southport I always used to think they were commonplace. It was only when I got older that I came to realise that Panoramic Wheels were quite a rarity. I have never seen a photograph of this particular ride inside Olympia.

On the ground floor there was also a Ghost Train and Crazy Mirrors show along with children’s rides and side stalls. By this time there was none of the original Moorish facades left in place above the stalls. A balcony ran along one side of the main hall which meant you could look down on the funfair below. It was here that you could find a children’s track ride which was unique. It was called the Illuminated tram ride and operated by showmen Tom Catlow and Laurence Silcock. This had originally been a children’s motor car track ride. But the enterprising showmen had replaced the original cars with miniature versions of the illuminated trams which used to travel up and down the promenade when the town’s famous lights were switched on each year. These consisted of a rocket, gondola, showboat and hovercraft. The miniature versions travelled around replicas of the seafront windmill and fairy tale characters. There was a painted backdrop behind the ride which featured the Winter Gardens and the Tower. I have no idea what fate befell this truly original ride.

Dodgems at Olympia late 70s/early 80s

The Panoramic Wheel disappeared in the early 70s and the Ark Speedway was sold and replaced by a Waltzer, which I think is owned today by Lancashire showmen Stanley John Cubbins. No matter how hard it tried to compete the Olympia funfair was never as popular as the amusements that could be found along the seafront. This could be down to its location as it always seemed to be hidden away. I remember that sometimes I went on family trips to Blackpool and we would not visit the attraction.

Ground floor of Olympia in 1981

In the 80s the fair came to an end and it was replaced with a children’s adventure playground Professor Peabody’s Play Place.

These days Olympia houses temporary exhibitions. For the past three years when the Showzam festival has been held in Blackpool sideshows have returned to the building so you can once more wonder at Mademoiselle Yvette the Headless Lady and  Cleo the girl in the goldfish bowl, supplied by preservationist Jon Marshall, and in 2009 you could even take a trip on Carnesky’s Ghost Train – an attraction which is a cross between a funfair ride and performance art.

When I was in Blackpool a couple of years ago I spotted on the outer wall of the building at the turret entrance the faded remains of a poster advertising attractions at Olympia’s funfair including Dodgems and Ghost Train.