A little over years ago, on the 4th October 1946, Winston Spencer Churchill was given the Freedom of the Borough of Blackpool. Winter Gardens archivist, Ann Lightbown, has written an account of the event and provided some fascinating documents from the day.
Planning for the event had begun by the Council in March 1946 and the event coincided with the Conservative Party Conference at the Winter Gardens, its first visit to Blackpool since 1932. The ceremony, to be held in the Opera House, would be non-political and would be ticketed. When asked on what basis the freedom ceremony tickets would be distributed, the Mayor, Ald. Frank I. Nickson, mentioned the interests of school children, youth, ex-Service men and women, various organisations and businesses, and representations of neighbouring authorities, adding that the press, BBC and foreign journalists have all been recognised. In addition he had allocated each councillor 25 tickets and each alderman 10 tickets, for distribution around the 14 wards of the town. Even the size of the New Opera House was thought to be limited for such an occasion, so there were still bound to be some disappointed people, but the Mayor said the scheme of distribution had been designed to be as fair as possible.
Many people wanted to see the event and some offered 5 guineas to obtain a ticket. There were even standing only tickets issued, to get as many as they could into the Opera House.
Winston Churchill and his daughter Mary where driven to the Gardens from Lytham, where they had been staying at the Clifton Arms. Mrs. Churchill was recovering from an accident and so could not attend. A lunch preceded the ceremony in the Spanish Hall, attended by approximately 350 guests of the Council. Then it was to a packed Opera House for the ceremony.
Recorded excepts of Churchill’s wartime speeches were played before the Mayor and the guest of honour entered the stage. A newspaper report of the event below describes what followed:
“The Freedom presentation was a triumph of stage management from the minute when the golden mace was cradled on its stand to the last fall of the curtain on a scene glittering with flags, a tapestry of crimson and gold. But it will be the unrehearsed incidents which will live in memory.
“On to the stage, shoulders stooping, but a restless virility still in every movement, strode the man they had all been awaiting. A high backed chair had been set for him. Past it he walked, past the Mayor’s chair of red velvet, on the other side of the table where in a big armchair reclined Blackpool’s only other living freeman, the Earl of Derby. Down he bent to him and shook his hand. That was not in the programme. Nor was it expected that when the silver casket was given to him the new freeman would open it, take the scroll, unroll the parchment and solemnly peer at it, big horn-rimmed glasses lifted to his eyes.
“Equally spontaneous was his action when his speech ended, he moved the casket again, he took out the parchment again and flourishing it on high declared amid laughter, “This shall hang on my walls that my descendants may know that there was a time when I was well spoken of in Blackpool.” That is what they will remember – the privileged 3,000.
“They will remember, too, how after he left the stage as they chanted “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, left it in mid verse as if embarrassed at such adulation, he crept into the wings to stand, erect as a guardsman, while the band of the Loyal Regiment played ‘God Save the King’. Curiously dwarfed and humbled he seemed half on stage, visible to only a few.”
The ceremony was being recorded on disc and also relayed to people gathered outside the Town Hall. The crowds were still there when the party arrived for tea; they were waving their handkerchiefs and hats and shouting “Good Old Winnie”
Churchill spent Friday night privately and on Saturday he came to Blackpool to lunch at the Clifton Hotel with leading members of the Conservative Party. He made a brief appearance on the balcony before going on to address the mass meeting of thousands in the Empress Ballroom. This was the last day of the Conservative Party Conference.