If you’ve ever been to watch a concert in Blackpool, there’s a fair chance you saw it at Blackpool Winter Gardens. If you’ve ever been to a political conference in Blackpool, there’s a fair chance that happened at Blackpool Winter Gardens, too. In fact, if you’ve ever been to any gathering of thousands of people in the country’s most famous seaside town, we’d be surprised if it hadn’t happened at the Winter Gardens. It’s a strange venue in that millions of people have seen it on television, but few people outside the town are familiar with its name. Let’s do something about that by looking at the history of this (locally) famous old building in this article.
If you know a thing or two about architecture, you can tell the Winter Gardens is a Victorian building just by looking at it. The place where the venue stands today was an empty plot called Bank Hey Estate until 1875 when the Winter Gardens Company purchased it for £28,000. Construction took three years, with the Winter Gardens opening for the first time in July 1878. In its original form, the Winter Gardens contained a conservatory, “promenades,” concert rooms, and lounges.
Over the next twenty years, further facilities were added. The Pavilion Theatre arrived before the end of the 1870s, followed by the Vestibule and the Floral Hall before the opening of the Opera House Theatre in 1889. The biggest single room in the Winter Gardens, the Empress Ballroom, welcomed its first guests in 1896. Major concerts by top bands and artists are still held in the Empress Ballroom today.
20th Century Growth
From the 1870s through the first two decades of the 20th century, Blackpool Winter Gardens was a wonderful facility for the people of Blackpool, but the building was of precious little use to anyone who didn’t live in the town. That began to change in 1920 when the town held the first Blackpool Dance Festival in the Empress Ballroom. The event had “Blackpool” in its name, but it attracted visitors and competitors from far and wide, putting both the event and the venue on the map.
The Dance Festival became an annual event, so the Winter Gardens now had a steady stream of tourists and visitors to impress. To that end, the Olympia Exhibition Hall was added in 1930. The first version of the hall, designed in the style of a Moorish village by Andrew Mazzei, contained small funfair attractions and market stalls. Things then stayed as they were at the Winter Gardens until the outbreak of the Second World War, which saw the UK Government requisition the Winter Gardens and use it for RAF training purposes. At night, the troops stationed there were entertained on the venue’s stages and in its lounges.
The Post-War Era
Blackpool was largely untouched by the war, so it was business as unusual for the Winter Gardens after it came to an end. However, becoming an RAF venue brought the potential of the building to the attention of politicians. The Conservative Party Conference came to Blackpool for the first time in October 1954, with Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill giving the closing address, after which he was made a freeman of the borough.
What was good for the government was also good for the Royal Family. The Royal Variety Performance was held at Blackpool Winter Gardens for the first time the year after the Conservative Party Conference. A new Royal Box was added to the auditorium in the Empress Ballroom for the occasion, from which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh watched the show. The box was never used again but remained in situ for several decades.
Over the years that followed, even bigger shows came to town – but they were shows with a little less decorum than the Royal Variety Performance. In July 1964, the Rolling Stones played the Empress Ballroom. The gig ended in one of the most notorious riots in the history of British rock and roll music, with seven thousand fans storming the stage after Keith Richards started a fight with an audience member. The council subsequently banned the Rolling Stones from the town. The ban wasn’t lifted until 2008!
By the 1990s, Blackpool Winter Gardens was beginning to look its age. Political conferences had stopped coming to the venue, as had the big-name musicians and star comedians. The Winter Gardens tried to plug the gap by welcoming smaller acts to its more intimate theatre stages and hosting exhibitions. By the end of the 1990s, it was hosting flea markets and car boot sales. The exhibition space in the former Olympia Exhibition Hall had been given over to the same one-armed bandits and slot machines that you’d find dotted up and down the town’s famous Golden mile.
By the early 2000s, even they weren’t enough to draw people in. There was no need for large car boot sales now eBay existed, and the slot machines weren’t getting much custom because online casinos had changed the game for them. There was little point spending money on a machine that might give you a fifty per cent return-to-player rate at best when an online casino offered games with an equivalent rate of ninety per cent or more. This is still a problem for old amusement and arcade venues today, as Sister Site estimates that there are more than five hundred significant online casinos operating in the UK alone. With the internet affecting the way that the Winter Gardens made money, change was required – and so change came.
In 2010, Blackpool Council decided the best way to save the Winter Gardens was to bring it under direct ownership. It bought the building as part of a package deal that also included Blackpool Tower and set about restoring the once-proud venue to its former glory. The rebuilding and regeneration phase took four years, after which the traditional Blackpool Summer Season show returned in 2014 with a staging of “Mamma Mia: The Musical.” 2014 was the best year of tourism for Blackpool in over a decade, and the Winter Gardens demonstrated that it was a capable venue once again.
Big shows still come to Blackpool Winter Gardens – it’s just that the shows look a little different to the ones that visited in the 1950s! The Winter Gardens is the host of the annual “Rebellion” punk festival, which is the largest of its kind in the UK and a highlight of the venue’s year. In 2022, the brand new Blackpool Conference & Exhibition Centre opened inside the Winter Gardens. It’s been hailed as the most significant new development within the building since the 1930s and may see the return of party political conferences and similar large-scale conference events to Blackpool. Will it succeed? Time will tell.