In response to the opening of the nearby Blackpool Tower entertainment complex in 1894, the sumptuously detailed Empress Ballroom, designed by Magnall and Littlewood, with moulded and enriched plaster decoration by JM Boekbinder of London, was opened in 1896. A covenant on the original Bank Hey House site had previously restricted dancing, but this was overturned in 1893 for a sum of £1,000. The main entrance to the ballroom was through an arched hallway in the Empress Buildings on Church Street, then along a path across the newly created Italian Gardens. The ballroom itself was designed with a floor area of 12,000 sq ft, making it one of the largest in the world.
The plasterwork on the upper levels and ceilings by JM Boekbinder was in a French Renaissance style, consisting of 77 patterned panels and described at the time as reflecting ‘the highest credit upon the artist’. The building was applauded for its good acoustics, due in part to the quality of the ceilings materials. Boekbinder, who also re-decorated in 1897 and 1904, was one of the foremost interior designers in Europe. The lower levels of the ballroom were clad in Royal Doulton faience tiles designed by William James Neatby, with a parquet floor by Oppenheimer. Adjacent to the ballroom an Indian Lounge, with exotic oriental decoration themed on Raj, was constructed. This was designed by Magnall and Littlewood with exotic oriental decoration by Boekbinder.
Although ideal for dancing, the programme of entertainment in the early 1900s was more diverse, with early cinematograph shows presented as a 20 minute programme between the dancing. From 1920 it was a venue for the Blackpool Dance Festival and is synonymous with both regional and national dance competitions. The ballroom was also celebrated for its local dances and specially themed Wakes Week late dances, such as Wigan Holidays or Accrington Holidays, with many towns in Lancashire having specially themed dances. Bands such as Ted Heath and his Music appeared in the 1950s, and in 1957 a more lively audience could be found dancing to Jack Parnell’s Rock’n Rollers at afternoon dance sessions. From 1970 for four years, in response to the decline in popularity of ballroom dancing, the ballroom was converted into a cabaret night spot known as the Stardust Garden.
Up and coming rock bands found the Empress Ballroom a significant marker in their careers and a performance by the Rolling Stones ended in a riot in 1964. The Stone Roses played a seminal gig in the ballroom in 1989, with the enclosed space and balconies creating a feeling of intimacy lacking in more modern venues. Political conferences were also held in the Winter Gardens and it is claimed that every Prime Minister since the Second World War has addressed an audience in the Empress Ballroom.
Today’s ballroom retains nearly all of its original features, with the exception of its ornate stage surround. Its Wurlitzer organ installed in 1935, was removed in the 1980s. The ballroom’s magnificent décor and interior architecture have been the setting for dances, political debates, formal dinners, motor shows, and leading names of the music industry. However, for Blackpool, it is the people’s ballroom, patronised by residents and visitors alike, which still ‘reflects the highest credit’ upon the designers and architects who created it, back in 1896. *
- Further information about the Blackpool Dance Festival
- In 2014, a Wurlitzer organ was restored to the Empress Ballroom once again – read more.
* The text above was taken from ‘Winter Gardens Blackpool – The Most Magnificent Palace of Amusement in the World’ by Prof Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the National Fairground Archive at University of Sheffield and a leading authority on Victorian entertainment and early film. Copies of the book are available to purchase through the Winter Gardens Trust – please contact us.
August 2016 update – To mark the 120th anniversary of the opening of the Empress Ballroom, archivists Ted & Ann Lightbown have written a detailed history of the venue which you can read here.
For a full listing of events at Winter Gardens Blackpool or to enquire about hiring facilities please visit the venue’s website www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk