Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Original Blackpool Tower

It’s always worth studying Saxon field names, especially around Blackpool where the physical evidence for our history is scarce and relying solely on hints, suspicions and interpretations of legal documents is the best that we can achieve.
So, let’s kick off with ‘Boonleigh’ or ‘Boon Low Side’. In 1687 (although the name predates the document) Henry Warbreck bequeathed to Bispham School: “…the closes known as the two Tormer Carrs, the two New Heys, the Great Hey, the Pasture, the Boon Low Side, the little field and 35 falls of ground on the west of the Meadow Shoot Close, amounting to about 14 acres and situated in Layton.” (Yes…Bispham School really is that old.)
In other documents, Boon Low Side is referred to as Boonleigh. As for its exact location, let’s turn to ‘Blackpool: A sketch of its Growth, 1740 to 1851’ by W. J. Smith, in which we learn that: “In 1692 the trustees of Bispham School bought land in the vicinity of Devonshire Road, Talbot Road and Victory Road.”
Or to put it another way, the land beneath (and surrounding) the former Devonshire Road Hospital, shown in the photograph below (which, incidentally, was taken by Juliette Gregson).

Unfortunately, within the last couple of years, the hospital has been demolished (as you might have gathered from the photograph…not even the NHS has become that rundown yet) to make way for a modern housing development, so for any of our readers having difficulty recalling its original whereabouts we’ve included the map below.

Anybody who was paying close attention to Henry Warbreck’s document a couple of paragraphs back might already have noticed another pair of field names of Saxon origin.

The Tormer Carrs are particularly interesting. ‘Carr’ was the Saxon word for clay, although it sometimes referred to marshy ground, in this instance, no doubt, being the moss that originally surrounded Boonleigh. The word ‘Tormer’, however, is built of two components, the latter, ‘mer’, being a pond or small lake (as in Marton Mere) and the ‘Tor’ being ‘a lookout post.’ Think Glastonbury Tor and you’ll get the idea.

In fact, it isn’t difficult to see how ‘Tor’ became corrupted into our modern word ‘tower’, and if it wasn’t for the Roman, Norse and Celtic watchtowers originally situated all around Blackpool then we could even claim that ‘Tormer’ was probably Blackpool’s first tower.

As a rule Saxon towers tend not to survive, and Tormer, obviously, isn’t an exception.

To give us some idea of what the original might have looked like, however, a visit to Peterborough Cathedral might be in order. At that particular building, in the section known as St. Oswald’s Chapel, you ca
n find the construction illustrated below. (Go on…admit it. You like my illustrations. It shows how much work I’m willing to dedicate to this rubbish.)

It was built by the Saxons and manned by a solitary monk, apparently, who zealously guarded the somewhat macabre relic known as ‘St. Oswald’s Arm’.
Many Saxon watchtowers around Britain ended up being incorporated into religious structures, mediaeval churches that have towers incongruously aligned to the main building being perfect examples of this.
You might be wondering why the Saxons would want to build a watchtower at Devonshire Road, too
far from the coast to act as an effective deterrent against raiders from the sea. Well, a quick glance at the pre-Norman map of Blackpool provides us with a clue. To the north of Boonleigh stood the Celto/Norse settlement of Warbreck, (which we’ve already written about in a previous article, so if you’re interested in that particular subject then you’d better check the ‘Previous Articles’ links in the right hand column of this board) and to the south the Norse controlled lands around Spen Dyke (which we’ve also written about in a previous article so…likewise).
Boonleigh itself, probably little more than a Saxon farmstead, would have occupied an isolated enclave between the two. Before the Battle of Brunanburgh put the Saxons firmly in charge across Britain, Boonleigh must have been a frightening place to live, especially with both the Norse and the Celts having such reputations for cattle rustling.
The name Tormer suggests that the tower would have been surrounded by a defensive moat. At a later date, no doubt, the ground that the tower occupied was divided into separate fields, hence the reason why two Torme
r Carrs are recorded rather than one. At a later date still, both the mere and the tower would have fallen into disuse and their exact whereabouts are now lost forever.
Another Saxon fieldname, recorded as having existed at Norbreck in a document from
1241, is Norhicbiec. This word, broken down, becomes ‘Norhic’ meaning ‘North’ (as you might expect) and ‘Biec’, from the Saxon ‘Beion’, referring to a ‘Beacon’. All matters considered this was probably another watchtower. It’s common knowledge that the Saxons often sent messages up and down the coasts of Britain using beacons and towers such as these, the next signalling station en route in this particular instance probably being Tormer.
As for Norhicbiec’s location, well, if you remember some time ago we discussed a suspicious
stone tower that once stood in front of Norbreck Castle, on the highest point of the cliffs. This tower, we suggested, was part of the Roman coastal defences. It seems highly likely, however, that the Saxons rebuilt the ruins of the original Roman construction for their own particular purposes.
The postcard below shows this now demolished structure. (It’s that little thing stood on its own on the left.)

Regardless of the fact that the tower is partially obscured by the tram stop sign, what’s visible is certainly reminiscent of the Saxon tower inside Peterborough Cathedral.
This calls into question the origin of Norbreck’s name, which is generally assumed to be Norse. Norbreck wasn’t actually included in the Doomsday book, presumably because it didn’t have a high enough population to warrant a mention. The name first appears in the twelfth century, suggesting that, rather than being of Norse extraction, it might actually have been a corruption of the Saxon ‘Norhicbiec’. Several other fieldnames, such as Foldworthings around Norbreck (a ‘fold’ being a cattle pen and ‘worthings’ being a farm) seem to back up this assumption.
Saxon cattle farms were common around Britain, the modern word steak originating from the Saxon word ‘steik’ meaning ‘meat cooked on a stick’. Cattle were much smaller than the breeds we’d recognise nowadays, as demonstrated by the illustration below, based on a woodcut from an early Saxon manuscript. It’s not about to win any gold stars for artistic merit, perhaps, but the drawing also shows how the oxen were employed in ploughing, the farmhand in the centre goading the animals forwards by means of a long pole.

Which is where I think we’ll stop this rapidly veering-off-its-original-track article before we run out of web space, or perhaps more importantly, readers.


Bwca said...

so the hospital is replaced with housing ... now where do the happy mortgagees go when they break an arm?

Brian Hughes said...


They go to Victoria Hospital down the road, where it's so overcrowded and understaffed they have to wait for several days in the emergency department before anybody sees to them.

John said...

Excellent post, and a good long one at that. You usually tire yourself out early and leave us hanging, but this is more like it!

You said, though, 'what’s visible is certainly reminiscent of the Saxon tower inside Peterborough Cathedral." Doesn't the tower in the postcard look more square, where the tower in the cathedral looks more round? Yes, it's hexagonal, but to my eye they look like two different form sof construction, and appear to be from different time periods. That's not to say, though, that both towers weren't built on the sites of others, though.

In the last illustration, those 'oxen' look a lot like devils... horned, goatlike human faces, and cloven hoofs. Are you sure this isn't some morality play you picked up?

Cool, nonetheless, and of course we love your illustrations! Unique, and they add to the charm and character of the site.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


"Doesn't the tower in the postcard look more square, where the tower in the cathedral looks more round?"

Well, yes...but it's the same sort of stonework, the same little windows, the same crenelated top, the same height, shaped doorway etc. Variations in buildings happened in Saxon times as they do today, but basically all the key ingredients are in place.

"Are you sure this isn't some morality play you picked up?"

Can't remember where I copied the illustration from now, 'cos I write some of these postings well in advance. It's some mediaeval woodcut or other, possibly from the Book of Kells or something, that's all I can recall. And there was something about ploughing written in Olde English above as well, I think.

Andrew said...

Totally irrelevant to the post, but how come The Metropole has such a location, on what almost looks like should be public land. It looked nice enough as a hotel, but odd sitting there on its own while the road and tram line seemed to go around it.

Brian Hughes said...


The Metropole's on the site of a much older hotel I that was there in seventeen hundred and odd when only the gentry could afford to stay in it. (If memory serves it was called Foreshaws or something.)

Since then the town's grown quite a bit and the tram lines and roads have been added etc. Towns in Blighty aren't designed, of course, they just evolve over the centuries. That's why some of them (as Reuben likes to point out) don't have many trees in their centres...because a thousand years ago the streets only needed to be wide enough to accomodate horses and carts. Back then nobody could have foreseen such things as cars and trams and buses and the need for tree-lined parking facilities etc.

The same principle goes for the Metropole, I suspect. Its forerunner was built before we invented congestion and the roads were already in place when the original hotel got its makeover.

I think.

It makes sense, so I'm sticking with it as a good enough theory for now.

Jayne said...

Great article, got the same nonsense with less hospitals but more housing here in Oz.

Brian Hughes said...


With a missing Saxon tower in the middle of it?

Jayne said... cottage hospital was missing it's stables out the back though...

Brian Hughes said... no common room for the surgeons then?