The Blackpool Museum Project’s friends have been sharing their favourite things about Blackpool. This week Tony Sharkey from the Local and Family History Centre at Central Library talks about his love of the Blackpool Sideshows.
Blackpool, wonderful Blackpool, has always attracted its share of disapprobation from doomsayers. The Blackburn Standard of 27 Aug 1851 predicted disaster for what was then still a fledgling seaside town if the “disgraceful” sights of mixed bathing on the sands were allowed to continue. They did of course, and Blackpool only prospered.
The interwar and postwar sideshows on Central Beach – we would refer to the Golden Mile today – were similarly divisive, and have become part of Blackpool’s rich history of providing visitors with fun and entertainment.
The Ellis Family
Amongst the fortune tellers the best known exponents of the early decades of the 20th century were the Ellis Family, with premises on the site of what is today Tussaud’s Waxworks. They practised the now outdated science of phrenology, or the study of character via bumps on the head. They engaged in all forms of fortune-telling, including palmistry, spiritualism and clairvoyance, and sold gazing balls and character-reading charts to eager visitors.
Blackpool’s sideshows could be anything that caught the imagination – or attracted paying customers! The challenging human-figure sculptures of Jacob Epstein were exhibited in Blackpool from 1939 to the late 1950s, and became art as sideshow.
If Epstein in Blackpool was art as sideshow, then perhaps Luke Gannon’s exhibition of Colonel Barker in 1937 was sideshow as art. Barker was born a woman and married a woman – and this male/female gender-identity question was challenging for 1930s British audiences. Sideshow promoter Gannon’s set allowed viewers who had paid their tuppence entry fee to view from above into a room strewn with paraphernalia – cheap paper, novelettes, cigarettes, with a cardboard cupid, two beds, with a belisha beacon and traffic lights permanently on red between the beds. Perhaps Gannon would have won an art prize for this in more recent decades?
Gannon, a suspicious but brilliant figure, occupied premises on the south corner of Brunswick Street, now the site of the Pyramid Plaza Shopping Centre. Other sideshows he promoted in the 1930s included the Starving Brides, newly-married couples fasting for 30 days to earn enough money to purchase a house. Such shows were very much frowned upon by the local corporation, who eventually sought and gained power to close down these shows.
Gannon also persuaded the discredited ex-rector of the parish Stiffkey in Norfolk, Harold Davidson, to exhibit himself in a barrel on the Promenade in the 1930s for paying customers to view. He was a great attraction, but became the ex-Harold Davidson when he was eaten by a lion in Skegness.
Starvers have often been part of the historic sideshow landscape. Richard Sacco completed a fast lasting 65 days in Blackpool in 1929. Regrettably he died six weeks after his fast – not, said his daughter, from fasting but from an “internal complaint”. Perhaps this sideshow thing was dangerous after all?
The late Cyril Critchlow’s book “Blackpool’s Golden Mile” is the best source of information on Blackpool’s sideshows. The Local and Family History Centre on the first floor of Blackpool Central Library has a range of historic information about the town’s sideshows in the Cyril Critchlow Collection.