Each year, between August and November, more than three million visitors make their way to Blackpool, a traditional Victorian seaside resort on England’s northwest coast. They’re here to see Britain’s answer to the lights of Las Vegas: the Blackpool Illuminations. For sixty-six nights each autumn a ten-kilometre stretch of Blackpool’s seafront becomes a dazzling display of neon colour, as around a million coloured lamps and five thousand floodlights and spotlights combine to create a spectacle of more than five hundred colourful scenes and designs. Today’s multimillion pounds light-show extravaganza is a far cry from its humble beginnings more than one hundred and thirty years ago, but from the very beginning the Blackpool Illuminations have been causing a stir.
Lighting Blackpool’s promenade in 1879
By today’s standards, the concept of using eight arc lamps to illuminate Blackpool’s seafront promenade seems unimpressive; laughable even. But in 1879 this was big news and, following national advertising, more than 70,000 people who had been used to living by gas and candlelight flocked to Blackpool to witness possibly the world’s first ever electric street lighting. Powered by generators, and described as ‘artificial sunshine’ these first illuminations were all the more remarkable since they preceded Thomas Edison’s patenting of the electric light bulb by a year. It was an impressive start, but thirty-three years later the Blackpool Illuminations truly began to shine.
A princess on the prom in 1912
In 1912 Blackpool received its very first royal visit: Princess Louise, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, was to grace the resort by opening a new section of promenade – Princess Parade – in May. This time, the illuminations stretched to ten thousand lights and the spectacle was so popular with the public that Blackpool’s council was urged to repeat the light show at the end of that summer’s holiday season. Once again, thousands of visitors flocked to see the lights brining valuable commerce to the seaside resort. The illuminations shone once again the following year, but thanks to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 they would not be lit again for more than a decade.
Blackpool’s bulbs return – bigger, brighter and better
In 1925 a more ambitious light show covering a greater extent of the promenade was staged. As before, the illuminations proved to be a magnet for visitors and over subsequent years they became increasingly impressive, with the addition of huge illuminated and animated set pieces joining the spectacle in 1932. The popularity of Blackpool’s Illuminations remained undiminished until, once again, war interrupted proceedings in 1939. Post-war austerity delayed the return of the illuminations until 1949, when they were turned on by the respected actress Dame Anna Neagle. Even then, permission had to be granted by Clement Atlee’s Government for Blackpool to use the electricity required by the illuminations.
The lights stay on
Since 1949 Blackpool’s famous Illuminations have become an uninterrupted annual institution. Over the last sixty years they have become increasingly impressive as lighting technology has advanced; fortuitously those same innovations have led to a fifty percent reduction in electricity consumption. Nowadays, the staging and management of the Blackpool Illuminations is a vast project, handled by forty-five full time staff who oversee the maintenance, erection, smooth running and eventual dismantling and storage of the annual light show.
There is no doubt that the tremendous effort involved is worthwhile; the Blackpool Illuminations continue to attract millions of visitors each year during a period when the vast majority of British seaside resorts have closed their doors and turned off their lights for the winter. Showing no sign of stopping now the Blackpool Illuminations, once hailed as “the greatest free light show on earth” is sure to be dazzling and delighting folk for generations to come.
O’Brien’s Lighting is a retailer of outdoor lighting for gardens, external walls and much more.