Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Really, Really Early History of Blackpool

Time for a spot of Geological Temporal Travel. Let’s turn back the clocks to the Ice Age when the north polar ice cap was considerably larger than it is today, extending right across Britain as far as the Bristol Channel.
Blackpool at this point (in fact the whole of the Fylde and Wyre, but it’s Blackpool we’re dealing with in this posting, so we’d better not get carried away) was, unsurprisingly, covered by a thick layer of ice, the gradual movement of which dragged rocks of all shapes and sizes along beneath its weight, flattening them out and depositing them randomly across the district in the form of boulder clays.

One glacier flowed from the Mountains of Mourne towards Snowdon, churning up the seabed along the Blackpool coast. According to E. W. Binney’s ‘Notes on the Drift Deposits found near Blackpool’: “The rocks in the till (
that’s the gravel dredged from the ocean floor) have, no doubt, come from a considerable distance, especially the lias and chalk specimens, which are not now found in situ nearer the north-east coast of Ireland.”
Leaving the double negatives aside, other glaciers passed over Cumbria, all of them eventually coalescing across Morecambe Bay and forming the cliffs around Blackpool. Recognisable rocks still in existence today, such as Carlin and Redbank (both conglomerates), were compacted into solid boulders.

Because of all the movement amongst the various strata, from time to time unusual formations would occur.

William Thornber’s ‘History of Blackpool’ records that the cliffs around Bispham once produced huge, personality-filled rocks: “…
like stalactites and icicles, with their points towards the centre, crowned generally with one or more large ‘cobble’ stones.”
Unfortunately, the unstable layers of sand that had formed around these ‘stalactites’ undermined the cliffs themselves and, over time, coupled with the constant erosion of the tide, these rocks plummeted into the sea.
The sole survivor (as far as we know) was actually donated to William Thornber during his tenancy as the reverend of St. John’s in Blackpool, (this was before he was defrocked from womanising, drinking excessively and punching various members of his congregation repeatedly in the gob) in recognition of his geological research.

To this day it stands outside the church opposite the Winter Gardens acting as the sundial illustrated above. (And before anybody asks, we’ve lost the original photograph and can’t be bothered catching the tram into Blackpool to retake it. If you don’t believe the rock’s there, go and have a look for yourselves.) The gnomon, predictably, is also missing, so if you’ve ever wondered what this phallic shaped geological phenomenon was up to, now you know.
Another ‘stalactite’ rescued from the cliffs once stood at Norbreck Villa.

It’s recorded as an ‘erratic’ or ‘whorled boulder’ in ‘Bispham in Times Past’ by Catherine Rothwell in the following manner: “(It) was retained in the grounds of Norbreck Villa by James Shorrocks when he created Norbreck Hall Hydro by adding an extra storey to the Villa.”

To the best of our knowledge, pretty much like the other rock outside St. John’s, the sundial it became no longer exists, the illustration below having been based on an old photograph. (This time we drew it up because we weren’t entirely sure how the copyright stands.)

Are you enjoying this so far? Good…because it doesn’t improve.
The Ice Age also had its fauna, of course. The ice sheets that formed across the ocean created colossal bridges from mainland Europe, allowing deer, elks and other such migratory species to enter Britain with relative ease. And in pursuit of their prey, came human hunters, little realising that the ice would shortly melt and leave them stranded. All of which brings us to the slightly more interesting part of this history lesson, that being the start of Blackpool’s human occupation.

Time for another quote, courtesy of Reverend Bulpit’s ‘Notes on the Fylde’ published in 1879: “The Jolly family interested themselves from 1731 to 1781 widening and deepening the outlet from Marton Mere, and so got rid of a great amount of the water. During the drainage large quantities of oak and yew trees were found embedded in the soil.”

The moss stocks were prehistoric, as proven by the fact that they were buried beneath the peat. Even more interesting is the fact that, apparently, they’d all been deliberately felled.

Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, none of the Marton moss stocks now survive. Elsewhere around the district, however, similar stumps (such as those in Pilling) have been discovered beneath the peat and have been dendro-dated to 3,000 B.C.

Even the relatively small patch of ground now occupied by the Pembroke Hotel (formerly the site of the Pembroke Gardens and Derby Baths) has produced moss stocks in its time, being once the site of a diminutive self-contained swamp.

Here’s what E. W. Binney had to say about it: “These beds have evidently been formed in small swamps, by obstruction to the natural drainage. The most remarkable of them is that seen a little south of the Gynn, where a bed of peat is about 4 feet in thickness. In it are some hazel nuts, besides oak, birch, hazel, alder, and willow trees.”

All of the species mentioned by Binney are native British trees. Presumably ‘torf delvers’ (the local name for the farmers who made their living digging and drying turf) excavated the peat back in the days when such activities were still perfectly legal, explaining why the Pembroke Hotel, along with its car park, now sits in a hollow as can be seen in the photograph below.

In addition to marshes, swamps and forests there were also a number of rivers and streams around Blackpool, some of which survived until comparatively recent times. Take for example the watercourse that once ran through Bispham, parallel to All Hallows Road.
Kathleen Eyre in ‘Seven Golden Miles’ recalls that: “At times such was the flow that one resident remembers people rowing past the cottages in boats and children being ferried part-way to the Sunday School by the same means.”

This river is now gone but originally ran past Bridge End House on All Saints Road. There are no prizes for guessing where that particular building derived its name. Bridge End House has now also gone.

From here the stream continued northwards past an area near Horseman’s Hill known as Hayholme (later Higham), ‘holme’ being a Norse word referring to a bend in a river, through Anchorsholme (where, once again, its course, presumably, meandered) and on towards St. Andrews on Rossall Road, which stands on the grounds that once constituted Ritherholme, the original name for Cleveleys.

Here again the ‘holme’ indicates that the stream became serpentine. The ‘Rither’ part of ‘Ritherholme’ meant simply ‘river’, Saxons not being particularly inventive when it came to proper nouns.

Another large watercourse now long since built over was Spen Dyke, which started out life as both a small brook originating on Marton Moss, and an outlet from Marton Mere.

These brooks, apparently, met at Spen Corner on Waterloo Road before heading northwest, forming a large black pool, and then emptying into the sea near Manchester Square.

This is what Thornber had to say about it: “Blackpool obtained its name, as many other towns and hamlets…from its ancient site being on the banks of an old pool, the waters of which were a dark, black colour. This pool is recorded, in the old surveys of the townships, as having been one half mile in breadth.”

Interestingly, the word ‘pool’ is local dialect for a stream or river and might even have been referring to Spen Dyke itself.

‘Spen’ itself is another old dialect word referring to ‘Mother’s milk’, indicating, perhaps, that throughout history the Blackpool locals have had a sarcastic sense of humour.
Architectus, a nineteenth century local historian (whose real name was James Singleton) described Spen Dyke in the following manner: “I was always fascinated as a boy with the Spen Dyke, a rather wide and deep dirty stream, which commenced somewhere on the moss, away towards Lytham, and eventually emptied itself through a very large pipe into the sea near the Manchester Hotel. It was later on covered over by a huge brick culvert but not before it became famous as a landmark and a musical hall joke.”

Is anybody still reading this? I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t…it is going on a bit. Don’t worry, we’re slowly but surely getting there…wherever there is.

In case you’re wondering what could possibly be amusing about Spen Dyke, the truth is that householders living along its banks, before the age of sewers and public health officials, would empty their waste directly into it.

Architectus includes the following song in his book that he once heard sung at an Opera House pantomime:
“We won’t go to sea any more, But we’ll stay by the Spen Dyke shore, Where its perfume has grown, Like eau-de-cologne, So we won’t go to sea any more.”
Legend has it that, should Spen Dyke ever flood it would spell the end for Blackpool (possibly courtesy of the raw sewerage and associated medical complaints) so it’s perhaps as well that nowadays it’s underground.

Another river seems to have once emptied into the Irish Sea further north at Church Street.

The illustration above is based on a photograph taken circa 1864. It shows a wooden structure known as the ‘Bridge of Peace’ crossing a natural gully in the cliff face, no doubt cut by the flow of the brook in times long past.
This particular gully was known, before it was filled in, as ‘Lane Ends Ginn’, which brings us to the Gynn itself where, in prehistoric times, yet another sizable watercourse cut its way through the landscape.

Exactly how many streams, brooks and rivers once meandered through Blackpool isn’t known, but we’re sure that we’ve now reduced our readership to absolute zero, so perhaps it time we brought this posting to abrupt end.


Andrew said...

I'm exhausted now. Lucky it is Saturday night and a Mr Ballantyne is calling from nearby.

Brian Hughes said...

You're exhausted? How do you think I feel? All this and I haven't even sobered up from last night yet.

April said...

I think I was saved by seeing unmentionables in some of the pics.........that was kinda fun :-)

Brian Hughes said...


They're not unmentionables...they're donkeys.

Déjacque said...

I've heard of the Spen culvert on a couple of occasions, but have always been uncertain about its existence, until you confirmed this. It was mentioned that it runs over Spen Corner. Do you know if it still exists and where it is (or was)?

Quite interesting article, actually! *Takes geek hat off*

Brian Hughes said...


As far as I'm aware it still exists, although only as an underground sewer nowadays. It drains off from Marton Mere apparently, crosses Waterloo Road at Spen Corner (not sure where abouts exactly...I'm relying on Michelle for all this information) and eventually empties into the sea beneath the Foxhall somewhere...possibly Manchester Square.

(Sounds of distant muttered conversation.)

Okay...I've just spoken to her ladyship again about this and she reckons that its original course is shown on the first edition OS map. If you check the links in the right hand column of this board you'll find the name 'Mario Maps'. They've got large scale first edition OS maps of the area there, which you can overlay on the modern versions, if that's any help?

Anonymous said...

That sundial looks excellent.

Brian Hughes said...


It does have a certain style, doesn't it? Pity there's never any sun around to see it if works.

John said...


I'm surprised you didn't call this one "Holme, holme on the grange", or "Gyn this post get any longer?" :0)

Just kidding. I asked a while back for an explanation on the origins of Blackpool, and it were nice of you to remember.

It were real smart of you to include the illustrations. Looking at the pictures first, I thought this was a post about ugly statues around the Wyre. Glad I actually read it.

Good stuff... well researched.

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


" were nice of you to remember."

I see thar's pickin' oop t' local dialect reet gradely. Catchin', intit?