Final Frontier of old resort

Share this article

THE currently redundant structure of the old Polo Tower, if cranked into life again, would offer to anyone who cared (or dared) to ascend it a good vantage point from which to survey the whole of Morecambe.

It would certainly provide the best view of the construction work going on at the moment to provide Homebase, Next and JJB Sports outlets on the former Frontierland site on which the tower stands.

Such retail and leisure use is the latest guise for what has always been, because of its central position on our sweep of the bay, a prominent and active piece of land.

And the theme of 'looking out' from that spot is an apt one because it was that occupation that shaped the land's early role and established its place in the history of Morecambe.

Shipping

In fact it was used long before there was a 'Morecambe' at all.

Spalding's History details its very earliest recorded use in 1708 when, known then as the 'Coastguard Field' (more formal name being Sloethorne Wood), it accommodated six customs officers atop what was then the old village of Poulton-le-Sands's highest piece of ground.

From there they observed shipping in the bay, including cargoes of timber from America as well as flax and tallows from the Baltic.

That operation continued into the 18th and even 19th centuries with ships discharging their goods to be transported by horse-drawn vehicles to nearby towns.

With the arrival of the railway in 1848 (which also, of course, signalled the start of Morecambe's 'birth' as a town) the fields took on another use, often being used as a rest place for cattle being shipped ashore and then loaded on to rail wagons.

Most came from Ireland and went to Yorkshire. They were occasionally joined by imported flocks of geese making the same journey.

Later years saw the livestock sharing the 'Cattle Fields' with Territorials who used part of the higher ground for a gun park and firing range, walled off from the rest of the fields.

(This hill doesn't exist today, it was to be removed in 1934 and used as filling for part of a new sea wall round the back of the swimming stadium.)

Territorials from many places came to use the camp, pitching tents in the adjoining field and staying for two weeks at a time. In 1879 they moved the camp to Scalestones Point at Bare after a stray shot from a 32-pounder hit a passenger steamer in the bay, causing several injuries and much damage.

After that the Cattle Fields settled down to grazing until their next major milestone in 1909.

In February that year The Visitor reported that the Midland Railway Company, which by then owned the fields, had let them to a syndicate who intended to utilise them "for the purposes of an amusement ground, including scenic railway and other attractions of a popular character".

Trashy

Ever the arbiter of Morecambe morals and standards, The Visitor hoped "..that this important site is not allowed to develop into a trashy fairground but that something in the nature of the leading exhibition amusements is offered to the public.

"Morecambe cannot afford to have its front defaced while the authorities are doing their best to improve it".

An opinion that found immediate favour among ratepayers, some of whom wrote to say things like: "Fairgrounds should be sited away from residential areas", "Such should not be forced upon us by a dark and impersonal syndicate in the hateful modern way" and best of all "Morecambe would become a laughing stock... before the gaze of people from smelly towns and narrow streets".

The next thing was an announcement that on May 29, 1909 Helter's Limited was to launch its 'Figure Eight Ride', a similar one to others they operated in Blackpool, Southport and other resorts.

This version had last been seen at the Paris Exhibition with cars coming from an exhibition in Chicago and reputed to be 'the safest on any figure of eight railway'.

By the next summer the park had grown to feature, as well as Mr Robertson's Cape to Cairo Railway (by which name the Figure Eight had become known): the Arcadian Pavilion, Katzenjammer Castle with its Cakewalk ("they all come out laughing" – admission 2d), Pop Dawson's automatic machine parlour and Mrs Whalley's refreshments kiosk.

Then there was Mr Wilkinson's zoo, Fred Cawsey's photographic studio and Lawson's Skittle Alley, at the corner of which was a whelk stall.

The entertainment had grown by the next year with a new Joy Wheel and the Alfresco Pavilion featuring George Hall's Merry Japs in high class vaudeville three times a day.

That pavilion was later bought by the Arcadian Pavilion (Morecambe) Ltd and was one of the early venues where comedian Albert Modley played to appreciative audiences.

Notable events at the park in forthcoming years were to include the escape of a leopardess 'Queenie' from her cage at the zoo while it was being cleaned.

The Visitor reported: "Mr Cockroft, the proprietor, secured all the exits whilst a large crowd gathered.

"A monkey called Fifi alarmed the owner as to the whereabouts of the leopard by its shrieks and despite entreaties to stay away, Mr Cockroft spent three hours trying to recapture the cat using buckets of cold water and at one stage attempted to cover her with a chloroform-soaked blanket.

"Before the RSPCA arrived the leopardess was captured using a fishing net. The unfortunate cage cleaner was subsequently sacked."

Then, in 1934 there came the arrival of 'Eric' the preserved fin whale, weighing about 50 tons. It was transported on a box-like wagon whose wheels sank up to the axles when crossing a footpath.

A series of planks and jacks eventually got it in place and it drew crowds for a few years both as an oddity and an educational feature – a lecturer telling of its habitats and the increase in hunting that had reduced whale numbers worldwide.

Cyclone

To preserve it while being exhibited it had to be injected with formaline, 20 gallons at a time, every few days and its skin had to

be waxed and polished every fortnight to prevent it cracking.

The Cyclone ride, which remained until recent years, replaced the Figure Eight ride and opened in 1939.

In 1936 Morecambe Corporation had been offered the land between the Winter Gardens and Highfield (except the railway station) for 150,000 by the L.M. and S. Railway Company as it had become.

Councillors dithered and eventually declined but it did change hands and, in 1940, a licence was granted for a 10,000 casino on the site which was to be remodelled as part of a 300,000 Morecambe Pleasure Park scheme.

Mr Basil Wingate Saul had made the application saying the existing site had become 'ugly and untidy with a frontage of temporary buildings'.

The proposals were being fronted by Mr Leonard Thompson, of Blackpool.

And thus began another chapter in the history of the seafront site.

My thanks to the Morecambe Local History Research Group for chronological and other information as well as John and Doreen Read for the superb photos.