The Winter Gardens Company was registered on 7 August 1875. On the 1 October 1875 it entered into possession of the six-acre Bank Hey Estate, which had been offered to the company for £23,000 by William H. Cocker, himself a director. Cocker had inherited the estate from his late father, John Cocker, and he stipulated that his former house, Bank Hey, should remain. The amount finally paid was just under £28,000. The intention was “to place on the land a concert room, promenades, conservatories and other accessories calculated to convert the estate into a pleasant lounge, especially desirous during inclement days.” A design competition was held, which was won by Thomas Mitchell of Oldham, who was appointed architect on 20 Jan. 1876.
The first completed parts, gardens and an open-air roller skating rink, were opened 27th July 1876. The entrance at that time was from Leopold Grove. At the end of 1876, many of the foundations and basements of the main buildings had been put in and there were both outdoor and indoor Skating Rinks. The porch of Bank Hey House had been removed and in front a building was being built described as “a grand vestibule”. This was the imposing Victoria Street entrance, which totally obscured Bank Hey House. The basic structure of the house, which was built in 1846, survives around the amusement arcade off the Floral Hall. The 120 ft. x 42 ft glass dome of the Winter Gardens’ Church Street entrance was completed 18 March 1878 and the Floral Hall was open at Easter that year. The official opening of the Winter Gardens took place on 11 July 1878, when the Lord Mayor of London attended a banquet, along with the mayors and mayoresses of 68 towns.
By the mid-1880s, the Company was virtually bankrupt. It had continued to provide high-class entertainment, failing to adapt to changes in the public’s taste. In November 1887 William Holland, a London Theatre entrepreneur was appointed general manager. He was famous for his publicity stunts and introduced popular entertainment, including a long series of ballets. In 1888, plans for the first Opera House were being prepared by Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect. The contract was let on 19th October 1888 and the 2500 seat “Her Majesty’s Opera House”, costing £9,098, opened with Gilbert & Sullivan’s new opera “Yeomen of the Guard” on 10th June 1889.
During 1893 electric lighting was installed throughout the entire building at a cost of £3,307. That year £975 was paid to W. H. Cocker for the release of all covenants on the property, which had restricted dancing. The Company was now able to respond to the Blackpool Tower Company’s Pavilion with its own Ballroom. The Empress Ballroom, to the south-east of the Winter Gardens’ site, was substantially complete during the summer of 1896, when it opened for a short period. Mangnall & Littlewood were the architects, with plasterwork by J. M. Boekbinder. Its dimensions, 189ft by 110ft, with a floor area of 12500 sq. ft., made it one of the largest ballrooms in the world. The main entrance to the Ballroom was through an arched hallway in the Empress Buildings, Church Street, which were erected at the same time. This led to a path to the Ballroom across new Italian Gardens on the site of the recently demolished St. John’s Vicarage. Adjacent to the Ballroom was the Indian Lounge with its exotic oriental decoration. The directors were evidently pleased with the results, as a bust of J. M. Boekbinder was later placed at the top of the main staircase [now the Arena].
1896 also saw the erection of a 220ft. Gigantic Wheel with 30 carriages, each carrying 30 people, on the site of a bowling green and garden area in front of the Pavilion Horseshoe. Again, this was in response to the Tower, although it never achieved its rival’s popularity. During 1897, a large glass and steel arched structure, not unlike the Crystal Palace, was erected as a new Victoria Street entrance. It formed a lofty palm-house with an enormous illuminated transparent sign with lettering in white opal against a ruby glass background, “doubly prominent at night from the promenade, piers and steamboats.” Also in 1897 the original Winter Gardens Pavilion was extensively altered, the floor being lowered and tilted towards the stage. The architects were Messrs. Wylson & Long. It had received a new proscenium and private boxes in 1885.
In April 1901 an iron and glass canopy was added to the Church entrances of the Winter Gardens and Opera House. At Whitsuntide the following year, a circular switchback railway, Les Montagnes Russes, opened in the gardens between the Empress buildings and the Ballroom. It attracted many complaints about noise from residents of Leopold Grove.
In November 1910 the Opera House closed for rebuilding. Its larger replacement, by architects Mangnall and Littlewood, was formally opened in August 1911. The opportunity was also taken to rebuild the Church Street façade of the Winter Gardens. It was clad in white faience in a Renaissance style. Behind it was the new Opera House’s grand foyer. At street level, the 1901 verandah was retained. During the Great War, the whole of the Winter Gardens premises had been thrown open to the naval and military forces stationed nearby. Early in 1918, the Admiralty had requisitioned the Empress Ballroom to assemble gas envelopes for the R.33 airship. The building was handed back a year later and some restoration was undertaken. The original three large chandeliers, which were taken down when the building was commandeered, were not put back, but in their place 13 new chandeliers were been suspended, each of 2,700 candle-power.
On 9th February 1928 the Winter Gardens Company was taken over by the Tower Company. Only months later it was decided that the Big Wheel, for years a white elephant, would be removed. The contract for its demolition was let on the 12th October and the wheel’s last trip was on 20th October. Demolition of the Wheel was completed by June 1929 and the following month a circus occupied its site.
1929 saw the inauguration of the extensive improvement schemes that have given the Winter Gardens much of their present ambience. Talkies were installed in the Grand Pavilion and the roller shutters to the Horseshoe were built up with tile facings. Construction of the Olympia began, taking less than 8 months to build. When it opened in June 1930, its interior comprised stalls and attractions themed by Andrew Mazzei in the form of a Moorish village. The Olympia’s exterior of white faience was continued on the next part of the scheme as far north as Carter Street to include the iron and glass Victoria Street entrance arch. Inside, replacing the old Fernery, a floor was put in to allow the creation of the Spanish Hall, again involving more plasterwork by Andrew Mazzei, who also worked in the film industry. Adjoining it, and replacing the Victoria Hall on the first floor of the original Victoria Street Entrance building, and looking like something from a period Hollywood film, Mazzei created the Baronial Hall, with heavy oak panelling, all in reality plasterwork.
The new areas opened on 28th May 1931 and included the bar Ye Galleon, Renaissance Restaurant, Windsor Bar and a revamped Floral Hall with a jazzy adjoining lounge bar. The scheme had cost over £100,000. The architect, J. C. Derham, continued to work for the Company until his death in 1936, having designed an Art Deco style cocktail bar for the Renaissance Restaurant. At the end of 1934, the Empress Ballroom was re-floored with 10,000 pieces of oak, mahogany, walnut and greenwood, laid over 1,320 four-inch springs and covering 12,500 ft.
In October 1938 the old Opera House was demolished and in its place was erected the present 3,000 seat Opera House. Possessing the biggest stage in the country, it was designed in a modernist style with a sweepingly curved proscenium. Its elegant foyers and bars completed the effect. Derham’s successor, Charles McKeith was the architect. The Opera House was opened on 14th July 1939 by Jessie Matthews and her husband Sonnie Hale, and followed by the revue Turned out Nice Again with George Formby. During the Second World War, the Winter Gardens was used for RAF training purposes by day and for entertainment in the evenings. Morse code was taught in the Olympia and troops marching by had to break step to avoid disrupting the lessons.
After the War, things continued very much as before. As if to emphasise that all was well, on 13th April 1955 a Royal Variety Performance, the first outside London, was given for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. A period-style Royal box was constructed for the occasion. It remained for many years, spoiling the modernist lines of the auditorium.
Through George and Alfred Black’s lavish summer shows, with the top stars of the day, the Opera House attracted large audiences throughout the 1950s. The floor of the Empress Ballroom could still be crowded with dancing couples, some undeterred by notices stating “no be-bop or jive”. Eventually, though, the management had to respond to the changes in social taste and expectations. The management itself changed, EMI’s taking over of the Tower Company in 1967. The first casualty was the Indian Lounge. At the end of 1964, its beautiful but faded interior was ripped out, to be replaced by the Planet Room, a large lounge bar with a cabaret stage. In March 1966, the bronze fountain that been under the dome of the Winter Gardens since it opened was removed.
By the 1970s, however, the unique architectural heritage afforded by the complex was being realised and in 1973 the Winter Gardens received a Grade Two Star listing. A little later in the decade, to reduce the over-capacity of the Empress Ballroom, its size was effectively reduced by temporary carpeting, seating and much white trellice work. It was renamed The Stardust Room and was intended to function as a nightclub.
In 1983, First Leisure took over the Winter Gardens and, in association with Blackpool Borough Council, made plans for a £4 million pound refurbishment programme. The architects were McKeith, Dickinson and David Quigley. During April 1986, work started to convert the Winter Gardens Pavilion Theatre into a conference room by levelling the floor and by once again having the option of opening it to the surrounding Horseshoe. The stage area became the new Palm Court Restaurant. It was completed in March 1987. Work continued elsewhere in the building; the old Palm café became the Foyer Room for the Empress Ballroom in a style influenced by the Viennese Sessession. The Planet Room was revamped in a Roman style to become the Arena and the Caesar’s Palace cabaret at night. Victorian Statuary, albeit plaster reproductions, once more adorned the area under the dome. The refurbishments were completed in January 1989.
In 1998 Leisure Parcs Ltd took control of the complex and a general upgrading of the building took place with an emphasis on improved conference facilities. The original pavilion resumed occasional use as a theatre, including old-time music hall shows. An undoubted recent highlight for the venue was the second hosting of The Royal Variety Performance in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in December 2009 with a cast including Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldeberg, Michael Bublé and Peter Kay.
In March 2010 Blackpool Council purchased the Winter Gardens. Funding for the purchases and investment was secured from Blackpool Council, European Regional Development Fund, Homes and Communities Agency and Northwest Regional Development Agency. Following the acquisition the Winter Gardens is undergoing a major programme of refurbishment projects that has already seen extensive work to the entrances, Dome and Floral Hall, and the opening of 2 new dining options. Further projects continued through 2011 and into 2012 including the re-glazing of the Floral Hall and the opening of two new dining options: The Empress Grill Room and Mazzei Cafe. Early 2015 saw the re-opening of the Opera House Foyer Bar and another new addition, The Theatre Bar on Church Street. This venue incorporated into its design several of the surviving W.J. Neatby decorative panels with their distinctive mermaid designs.