Towering presence for a new funland

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It was destined to be 232ft high, containing 800 tons of steel and featuring a unique spiral walkway. It never fully materialised but the Morecambe Tower project did act as a catalyst for many entertainment opportunities which our older readers still fondly remember. Visitor editor, GLEN COOPER, traces the site's history from its origins as unused land largely occupied by a large pool

HAD our country not been thrust into war with Germany early last century we may now have been preparing for the centenary of one of Britain's most famous landmarks – the spectacular Morecambe Tower.

Our earliest modern public record of any interest in the site in question – a parcel of land near the resort's seafront now occupied by Gala bingo - appears in 1866 when a Capt Alcock bought the land, then known merely as 'The Pool', from the local Board of Health for a sum of 40.

The money, it was decided, should go towards improvements to the village of Poulton (the 'pool' may have even prompted the name 'Poulton' in the first place).

Within a few years it had a new owner, Mr Charles Waller, who built the Calton Lodge properties there with extensive gardens.

Then, in June 1898, plans were submitted for a new tower to be erected on the Calton Estate.

Though it was to be less than half the height of Blackpool's now famous structure, the Morecambe Tower was designed to be far more interesting.

It would be built in a conical shape, 130ft in diameter at its base and tapering to a platform of 52ft. A spiral 'road' around the structure would begin at 15ft wide and diminish to 9ft at the top – an 800 yard walk from ground to summit.

For the elderly or infirm there would be an electric car running beneath the walkway with stops at intervals to enjoy the various shops that would line the route.

The shops would be of an 'eastern' design to give a 'bazaar' effect.

Shop attendants, according to The Visitor of the time, would be garbed in the dress of the 'tribes' they represent – Arabs, Egyptians, Turks, Moors, Circassians, Ethiopians – with commissioners told to keep order dressed as bedouins of the desert. There would be four floors above ground level occupied by a pavilion, theatre, bandstand, restaurants and other kiosks.

Initial estimates projected the cost at 54,000.

The plans had been submitted on behalf of John Tillotson, auctioneer and valuer of Bingley and Tom Bradley of Bingley – they were the patentees of the Tower idea and W.H. and A Sugden of Keighley were the architects.

Henry Waters, a businessman who had been the local income tax collector for 47 years was instrumental in the flotation of the Morecambe Tower Company as he had been with the West End Pier Company and was to be with the Winter Gardens. The share capital of 70,000 for the enterprise was offered as 70,000 ordinary shares of 1 each.

The prospectus described it as 'a tower upon a scale somewhat in excess as regards attractiveness and different in construction to the towers of Blackpool and Paris'.

As well as income from merely ascending the structure to access the extensive views of the surrounding scenery, the tower would accommodate a variety of entertainments in 'a novel and varied programme, the attractiveness of which shall not be excelled at any other rival watering place.

'These entertainments will include a first class orchestra, under the conductorship of an eminent musician, with performances twice daily.

There will be spectacular ballets on the stage of the Grand Pavilion which will also be utilised for circuses and high class variety shows.'

With other attractions the complex would offer 'an incessant and unremitting round of amusements from 10.30am to 10.30pm'.

After delays over purchasing the land and finalising construction contracts, work started in 1900.

But the onset of the Boer war posed a problem with supply of iron for the main structure. The economic slump that followed that conflict hampered the project further.

A tower was started and approached completion when geological inspections concluded that, in fact, the site was subject to 'shifting' and shouldn't ever have been considered for a structure of such size and weight.

The steelwork was, in 1904, offered for sale in an unfinished state at the nearby Grand Hotel, eventually going for around 9,000 to a Mr Hardcastle, one of the Tower Company's principal debenture holders.

The steel structure was, after being damaged during a lightning storm, eventually dismantled in 1918 by Wards, the Morecambe shipbreakers, and the metal used to help the World War One efforts.

But though the tower idea was to prove ill-fated, the dream of the site providing all-day entertainment for thousands wasn't dead.

Far from it.

The tower grounds were let in 1905 to Mr Bernard Highin of the Theatre Royal in Nottingham who intended to open them to the public and give three shows daily.

If this venture proved successful he would, he said, complete the other tower buildings including the ballroom, billiard room and restaurants.

Concerts were given in the grounds and, in 1910 the manager of the grounds, a Tom Bradley, applied to add another floor to the existing building that had emerged by the summer of 1909 beneath the unfinished tower.

During the war years the ballroom proved hugely popular with locals and the various servicement billeted here as well as munitions workers.

There was also a theatre capable of accommodating 5,000 and the grounds were developed into 'a veritable fairyland embracing oriental cafes, Grecian gardens,providing open air entertainments and illuminated by thousands of fairy lamps.

In the 1920s some of the very biggest music hall stars of the day – names like Vesta Tilley, Florrie Forde and Little Tich – appeared, commanding the then huge fees of 100 a time.

The by then imposing buildings were offered for sale by auction in 1925 but withdrawn when bidding only reached 29,500.

Ownership did eventually pass to cinema company New Century Pictures in September 1928 and, in October of that year, on to Gaumont British.

That same month it hosted a banquet to commemorate the amalgamation of the Heysham and Morecambe councils, whose members paraded from the Battery.

The buildings were redecorated and reorganised and then, in 1929, renamed The Gaumont. A large level floor which had allowed ice-skating was tilted so audiences could better see the cinema screen.

Gaumont combined with Odeon and the new company, Circuits Management Associations Ltd – a development arm of the mighty J Arthur Rank organisation – was listed as owner of the complex in 1949.

There had been a couple of decades with little investment in the buildings but 1949 saw a major 65,000 40-day refurbishment, greeted with delight by local dignitaries when the new-look facilities were unveiled in June of that year.

It was the start of a new era for the 'Tower' buildings - and we'll tell you about that next week.

n Meanwhile, my thanks to Doreen and John Read for images and to members of the Morecambe Local History Research Group who used the Morecambe Library Local Studies Collection to provide chronological details for this feature.