Off topic again. But apart from that this story of Blackpool in 1937 and 1938 has everything: sex, excrement and death.
Tom Harrisson: “explorer, journalist, broadcaster, soldier, guerrilla, ethnologist, museum curator, archaeologist, documentarian, film-maker, conservationist and writer.” Wikipedia.
And it has one of the most gloriously eccentric characters… and the competition’s fierce… think of the Rector of Stiffkey (he figures too in an off-stage way). I will not dwell too long on Tom Harrisson because… well words fail me. He lived among headhunters and cannibals. So it was natural he would turn his attention to Blackpool. Whilst not actually a liar he implies in his best-seller “Savage Civilization” that he ate human flesh.
His book was a wild success and broke new ground in anthropology: it is critical of the influence of Europeans . Tom immersed himself in native cultures and came to appreciate that they have an internal logic. Any road up the point is that Tom had a gift for getting on with people from different cultures. Tom worked hard but he was also a womanizing drunken brawling kind of guy: what is there not to like?
On one of his early expeditions he shared a yacht with Douglas Fairbanks.
On his return to England he joined the Surrealist poet Charles Madge and to form Mass-Observation: movement to carry out anthropology in Britain. In articles in the New Statesmen Tom promoted the idea of close observation of ordinary people. Intellectuals had been puzzled by the Abdication Crisis and the Coronation. There was also great interest in the industrial North West which was suffering. Books such as: “Love on the Dole”, and “Down and Out in Paris and London” were fashionable and documentaries sketched the lives of ordinary people. Gracie Fields and George Formby were working-class heroes.
Tom Harrisson , gloriously unusual, was a good organiser and fund-raiser and observer. It is here that his uniqueness amongst eccentrics lies. The other well-organised eccentric that comes to mind is Hitler. And… let’s not push this too far… Tom Harrisson had a mysterious self-confidence that made people… even people who didn’t like him, obey him. Tom explained this himself by saying that a group of people will quarrel among themselves unless they have a common enemy and he solved the problem by being the enemy. True or not he was leader. And he did make enemies.
During the war Mass-Observation offered much needed feedback about the success of propaganda and the effects of the blitz on morale.
With his experience amongst head-hunters Tom was chosen to lead a group to be dropped behind Japanese lines in Borneo to prepare for an invasion. Tom encouraged the natives to take up their much loved and suppressed head-hunting. Afterwards Tom became a museum-keeper in Singapore and died in a car accident.
That’s as brief as I can make it. Anyway the bit that concerns Blackpool is that in 1937 and 1938 Tom Harrisson who had a great aptitude for getting money out of wealthy donors… managed to enthuse young volunteers and get funding for some paid volunteers. The town they chose was Bolton which was an mill-town which was suffering badly in the Depression. Pictures of the time show mill-workers who look cheerful but are clearly undernourished.
During Wakes Week many of the mill-workers and other workers decamped to Blackpool. Blackpool papers at the time have headlines such as “Bolton Visitor Drowns.” So Mass Observers were also based at Blackpool where they stayed at Chiltern Avenue. And Tom Harrisson visited and stayed there. Thomas Harrisson liked to work lying on a bed listening to George Formby records and sending out for fish and chips which he shared with other volunteers.
What follows is a vivid random string of observation. Imagine time-travel. This is as near as you can get to visiting Blackpool in 1937.
The Mass Observers… (I will put MO ) were mostly young middle-class university types. Most were Left-Wing. Some were very rich. One arrived in a Bentley. Some regarded it as fun and an opportunity to meet the opposite sex. The MOs were of course were observed themselves and sometimes they cannot resist airing their knowledge: talking about dancing at the Tower Ballroom one MO says that these are modern versions of tribal gatherings which end in copulation:: “As they still do among American Negroes.”
Some had great fun and many were prepared to make an effort: Tom told his former girlfriend and the future wife of a famous Labour MP to stand alone near the Tower Ballroom and see how many men approached her. More that five did in a few minutes.
HOTELS, BOARDING HOUSES, KIPPAXES AND HOLIDAY CAMPS
The observers stay at a variety of places. These were Hotels such as the Norbreck Castle or the Metropole “where the big knobs hang out”, Boarding Houses, Kippaxes (this was the name for unlicensed boarding houses, basically private houses that let rooms illegally, and Squires Gate Holiday Camp.
One MO arrived at a boarding house and was told he had to share his room with two boys. Blackpool flourished by letting at ferociously competitive rates and if demand exceeded supply they would send their children to sleep in a coal-shed or ask visitors to share a room.
Only the best rooms in the best hotels would have their own toilet. Even in the Metropole the cheaper rooms shared a toilet in the corridor and the rooms had a chamberpot, a “jerry.” (One of my favourite jokes about landladies is an alleged note which said: “Do not place the chamber-pot under the bed as the steam rusts the bed-frame.”) Chambermaids might work from 6am to 8pm and earn less than a pound a week.
The MO’s are deliciously politically incorrect. One says his fellows include a “Welsh pansy.” Another sits at a table with a “man in a wig.” A passing couple are: “lesbians?” At the Norbreck on the noticeboard is: “Receipt of £500 given by Norbreck Hydro to a charity for cripples.”
Landladies exploit every advantage. One landlady offered fortune-telling as part of the service.
The Kippax, the cheap unofficial boarding house, was popular with middle-classes because it offered more privacy and independence.
The holiday camp at Squires Gate was an economic option. The chalets offered privacy and there was entertainment. On the other hand there were drawbacks: an MO observed a couple return to their chalet to find camp employees with a dog, a sack, a stick and a ferret, digging out a rat .
“I’m not coming again if there’s rats.”
“Oh stop mithering. They’ll not eat you.”
Wild sexual shenanigans take place near the railway line at the back of the camp. That’s what they say. At the Norbreck a bell is rung in the morning and guests return to their rooms. That’s what they say.
Blackpool Publicity Department adored Blackpool’s sexual reputation which attracted visitors.
The MOs quickly tumble to the fact that untreated sewage is discharged at Manchester Square. A windmill is deployed to disguise a pipe. One MO says that the civic arms of Blackpool include a windmill and it is appropriate that the civic symbol disguises a sewer. The sewage is “screened.” This involves nothing fancier than using a screen to break up the discharge and disguise its nature. Nevertheless sanitary staff patrol the beach picking up “floaters.”
OLYMPIA, THE GOLDEN MILE, LUNA PARK AND THE PLEASURE BEACH
Fortune tellers and tableaux where people paid a minimum amount to see a “headless girl” or a five-legged cow were a feature. For visitors these were good value because part of the entertainment were the “Barkers.” A gifted Barker was highly paid and could build up a crowd. Barkers promoted shows and also the mock auctions which were a feature of the Golden Mile. Gypsy Fortune Tellers claimed to have advised the Royal Family. Indian Dancers and religious symbols from Buddhism and the Koran add to a sense of exoticism. Pretty girls: “gees” lure punters into arcades.
In 1937 shortly after it was visited by the MOs Luna Park was destroyed by fire. It was where the Sea Life Centre is now. There were suspicions at the time that it was not an accidental fire. There had been other fires and there was a threatening letter. Luna Park was managed by two Japanese brothers.
Pretty girls (“Gees”) would lure young men into spending money on slot machines.
Blackpool has always been a dancing town. Many girls tell MOs that they dance every single day and visitors on holiday could dance afternoon and night. The Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens were the biggest. The Tower Ballroom could accomodate five thousand people. Many MOs combined flirting with observing. One says that dancing is like sex but less intense. Some things surprise us now. At the end the band in the Tower Ballroom plays: “God Save the King.” And everybody leaves. To do what?
Well sex obviously. One MO says that for unmarried Worktowners (people from Bolton) sex is outdoor sex. This is because of crowded conditions. One description of Bolton involves courting couples having sex standing up in the alleyways at the back of terraced houses (think again about Sally in our alley) a “knee trembler.” On Sunday afternoons amorous married couple packed their children off to Sunday School (you can’t help wondering if the founders of the Sunday School Movement foresaw this) and had sex on the sofa: a “soffey ender.”
But I digress…
In Blackpool the opportunities for outdoor sex involved the sandhills and the beach. Besides the lucky couple there was an inquisitive audience. An MO says: “Watchers are not youths only. For older men of scroptophilic tendencies the sands are a happy hunting ground. ” And: “silent circles surround each couple observing their manoeuvres from a range of less than 2 yards.” MO counted 253 couples on the beach one August night. As Jane Austen said: “Why else do we exist on this earth but to provide innocent entertainment for our neighbours?”
The stoic MOs wandered the beach at night and down back alleys pretending to be drunk. On the whole the MOs believe that extra marital sex is rarer than believed. In an admirable piece of commitment one MO has sex with a visitor. He takes up with a married visitor who is looking for fun: they embrace and he: “felt a pair of artificial knickers… pulling these down… at the same time kissing her…”
We are left wondering what “artificial knickers” are.
Sex is ubiquitous. There are sweets called: “Fanny’s whatsits” and “May’s Vest.” “May’s vest” is a pun about Mae West who incidentally popped into Blackpool’s Town Hall after the War.
Prostitution has always been a career option in Blackpool. A prostitute could earn as much as a chef… a chef at a top hotel was the best-paid worker in Blackpool. And the chef would spend a lot more time working. A high ranking Police Officer says that there are a few but they mostly come from out of town. There were a lot, full-time, occasional and part-time. Like landladies they have to earn enough in season to keep them through the winter. According to the MO they line the promenade North of the Tower when the Ballroom closes. There are families: mothers and daughters who are prostitutes.
A chambermaid could work from six in the morning to eight at night for less than a pound a week. Local girls were hard to recruit and agents advertised in local papers for girls who may have thought a job in Blackpool was glamorous.
An attempt to help vulnerable girls was the Fylde House of Help in Reads Road, run by the Reverend Yates and the formidable Miss Boden, who was over 6 feet tall. Beds were available and advice was given. 228 girls stayed there in 1937, 115 were under 16 and 74 from other districts. MOs said, Blackpool’s reputation as the Sodom and Gommorah of the North West was overstated, it was not unfounded. The figures from the Police include “frequenting.” I take this to mean something like “cottaging.” There were 30 charges in Blackpool and none in Bolton. Strangely, or actually not so strangely, I have never seen these reported in the press. There were 23679 attendances at a VD clinic in Blackpool which implies a lot of socialising. Illegitimate births were the highest proportionally in the country.
THE LIVERPOOL MUSEUM OF ANATOMY
Sex was an obsession and a taboo. And an earning opportunity. The Liverpool Museum of Anatomy managed this in spades. It was attached to Louis Toussauds. Topics included models of: “The Sexual Parts of a Hermaphrodite.” 54 exhibits dealt with the effects of syphilis. One exhibit would shock “even the most habitual masturbator.” It portrayed “a confirmed onanist. He became idiotic and rapidly sank into second childhood. (What a fearful account he will have to give of himself on judgement day.”
A moral tone accompanies the displays so a syphilitic penis is a “warning to thoughtless husbands.”
A depiction of “the female Jesus” Louise Lateau, who experienced stigmata and is for no known reason semi-nude.
The centre piece of Toussauds waxworks was a “Chinese execution.” Death and exoticism are neatly linked. Toussauds went to some length to obtain “authentic items. ” The Buck Ruxton murder in Lancaster was in the public mind. Buck Ruxton had killed his wife and maid and chopped the couple up and dropped the parts wrapped in newspaper in various locations.
Buck Ruxton’s wife had been part of a “fast-set” around Lancaster Council and Buck Ruxton, a popular doctor, probably suspected infidelity and killed her and a maid after she had been to Blackpool Illuminations. Buck Ruxton had supplied his own furniture to Toussauds to raise money. So Blackpool visitors saw a Buck Ruxton effigy with his actual furniture.
MOs note how “ruxton” was a verb used by Worktowners: “I’ll ruxton the bastard.” And Bolton housewives used to refer to brawn wrapped in paper as: “ruxton.” I remember hearing somebody singing a parody of: “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Red Stains on the Carpet.” This referred to Buck Ruxton and may be the last gasp of the murder ballads that accompanied executions.
One feature of Blackpool were the peep shows with titles like: “The Secrets of the Harem.” The many shows in Blackpool had showgirls and in 1939 a MO says that: ” it was possible for the first time to see a fully nude female breast.” One of the attractions of the Fun House on the Pleasure Beach is the opportunity for underwear spotting.
There was much religion in Blackpool and Bolton. In Bolton the most common profession was clergyman. It is a bit of a diversion but interesting that MOs explored a phenomenon at Westhoughton. This was the “Keaw Yed” festival. 5 pubs displayed cow’s heads. The Vicar of St Bartholomews said to an Observer: “I don’t question it but after midnight on Wakes Sunday I always find a large pasty and a draught of beer on my doorstep. And two years ago there was a cow’s head tied to the church lychgate on the Sunday morning. ”
We are lost in deep time here. Wakes festivals were connected with Wakes Weeks and the growth of Blackpool as a “holy day” resort.
To get back to Blackpool religion was represented amongst the shows that greeted visitors: Pastor Jeffries a “four square revivalist” had a Marquee where he would dispense preaching and healing. And the Bishop of Burnley holds an annual service for the staff and stall-holders of the Pleasure Beach.
LUKE GANNON COLONEL BARKER AND THE RECTOR OF STIFFKEY
Luke Gannon was an inventive impresario. In 1937 one of his inventions was “Pat who was bad but is good.” Pat was in a motorboat and boatmen sold places to visitors who wanted to go and see her. The “telescope men” who rented telescopes also did well. The exact way in which Pat was bad is not stated but we guess it was not cheating at bridge. Remorseless in pursuit of money Luke Gannon invited Gandhi and the Empress of Abbysinia to appear on the Golden Mile. From 1933 to 1936 the Rector of Stiffkey had appeared in a barrel in Blackpool. In 1937 he died after being attacked by a lion in Skegness. The Rector of Stiffkey, the “prostitutes padre was “fitted up” and defrocked by the Bishop of Norfolk on the basis of unreliable evidence. He had a theatrical background.
He was seen by millions at Blackpool and was the best known clergyman… well ever, probably.
Colonel Barker: Luke Gannon uses the death of his colleague the Rector of Stiffkey at the paws of a lion. The barrel and the apparent corpse wrapped in sheets are a reference to the Rector.
“Colonel Barker” replaced the Rector of Stiffkey. Colonel Barker was born a woman and dressed as a man. Colonel Barker appeared with a lady. The story was that the two were not to enjoy marital bliss during the season. “I am doing this for the woman I love.” Why exactly Colonel Barker needs to do it is not explained. They were viewed in a pit with two single beds and a Belisha Beacon between the beds. The “Belisha Beacon” was a recent innovation. Luke Gannon had tumbled to the idea that his tableaux did not need to make any sense at all. People paid just to look at the couple. In his crafty way Luke Gannon managed to refer to the deceased Rector.
An MO records the scene. The couple in the pit have a packet of Craven A beside the bed. An audience member says: “The silly bugger.” An attendant silences him: “Pass no remarks, please.”
A notice says :
“The first person in the world to have the now famous operation changing her sex from that of a man to that of a woman.”
Colonel Barker had an interesting career at one time joining the Fascist Party. In an essay about Lady Chatterley’s Lover D. H. Lawrence mentions Colonel Barker. Lawrence visited Blackpool and he might just have seen Colonel Barker. Sadly after an adventurous life she died in 1960.
A lady at the sideshow who worked for Luke Gannon had memories of the Rector of Stiffkey. She turned to the Rector when Luke made a pass at her and she slapped Luke. She recalls that he joked about his youth: “When men were men and pansies were flowers.”
Luke was married but lived with his girlfriend who was a Fortune Teller. Luke Gannon’s brutal but effective world view was summed up in an interview with an MO: “I always say that you can divide the public like this: 50% certifiable, 30% on the brink, and the other 20% living of the others. ” Luke Gannon once applied to be manager of Blackpool Football Club.
Mystery Man Lobby Lud
Newspapers promoted their circulation. Lobby was a Mystery Man and that somebody carrying a News Chronicle could use the formula: “You are Lobby Lud and I claim my £50. ” Many newspapers used similar ploys the Daily Mail had the Guinea Man and the Daily Dispatch Percy Pickles. MOs reported holidaymakers clutching the paper and harassing strangers. Readers of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock will recall a Lobby Lud character.
Lobby Lud had his picture taken with a midget on Blackpool Tower.
FORTUNE TELLERS AND HERBALISTS AND QUACK DOCTORS
A Working Man’s Hair specialist
Herbalists were connected with the origins of Blackpool as a health resort. Herbalists would have a model alligator in their window. One herbalist used a boa constrictor to lure crowds.
There were dozens of fortune-tellers including Luke Gannon’s common law wife Madame Kusharney. With the abdication in recent memory many would claim that they gave confidential advice to the Royal Family. There was every variation… gypsy fortune teller, scientific fortune teller. The Professor and the Pool Winning Buddha helped people win Littlewoods Pools with the help of “astrological salts.”
Mock auctions were a feature of the Golden Mile. A skilled Barker would entice a huge audience and create an atmosphere. Here an MO sees a salesman selling… well knickers:
“Well ladies here we are look at these lovely undies, fit for the queen. In fact they are better than the Queens. And only 1/6… no dammit I’ll treat all you ladies-1/3d.”
Of Madame Celeste:”Her reading of the Duke of Windsor is here it you would like to see it?”
POLITICS: WHAT ABOUT THE WORKERS?
The MOs explore the places where workers live. In Lark Hill they find a doss house where waiters in the hotels sleep eight to a room. Colonel Barker and her partner used to stay there but they had an incomprehensible row with the landlady which involved a rabbit.
The world is on the verge of a cataclysm with Franco and Mussolini and Hitler on the rise and Japan occupying China. Yet very little of this comes across in everyday life. One MO does note a Communist Rally in 1937 when about 200 people attend.
On a wall somebody has written: ” Let us all joins Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts for peace and money.”
There are attempts to unionise hotel workers but they are hard to organise. Waiters have a strike in 1937. The problem is that there are many ready to take their place. A Labour Party supporter complains that the Council does not sort out the sewage problem. Blackpool is a Conservative town and a tradition of municipal entrepreneurialism keeps the rates low.
R H O Hills, the Winter Gardens and Pablo are agreed to be the best employers although hours are long. Pablo the Spanish Ice Cream maker takes his workers on holiday at the end of the season to France or Holland and workers come back year after year.
Because wages are low many workers improve their income by fiddling. One stall-holder tells an MO that he wouldn’t employ anybody who didn’t cheat… a cheating employee will maximise his employer’s income. Kind of profit sharing.
And what happens in Winter? Very likely in Winter people go hungry, children appear at school in clothes given to them by charities. 11000 people are unemployed. Unemployed men search for coins carried to the “Klondyke”, the drain that empties in the seawall by Blackpool Tower.
So that’s it. Blackpool in 1937 and 1938 and the MOs that help us see what it was like to wonder at Colonel Barker or gawk at a waxwork of Doctor Buck Ruxton amid his genuine furniture. So many individuals created a giant collective fantasy that was Blackpool … a War is coming but they do the Lambeth Walk or pay to see a Headless Girl. Maybe the dance is the real thing and war just a passing state. And where else can you hear those voices? I liked: “But that’s what I’m afraid of with my mother in law when you give her some brandy she’s like a lunatic.”
Blackpool with its flaws, because of its flaws, delivered joy and ease and comfort and abundance and wonder for the workers on holiday. In the MOs words we hear the joy of Bolton workers at a week of freedom from work. Bolton workers saved regularly for their funeral and for their holidays.
The Mass Observation Records are available on Microfilm at Blackpool Local and Family History Centre. There is a splendid book “Worktowners in Blackpool” edited by Gary Cross.