Arc Lamps Light the Way to World-Beating Display

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: September 18, 1879
Location: Blackpool, England, United Kingdom

Blackpool’s celebrated illuminations were switched on for the first time on this day, making the seaside resort in Northern England the first in the world to have electric street lighting. It happened a month before electricity was generally available in London.

Holidaymakers were agape when a total of eight arc lamps, described as “artificial sunshine”, were installed on the promenade.

But the illuminations have grown bigger, better and more spectacular every year since, and now, incorporating new technology, they are described as “the biggest free light show on earth,” stretching for six miles along the town’s seafront.

Blackpool reached its heyday as a holiday resort in the mid-19th century when thousands of visitors would pour in from the cotton towns of Northern England for their annual Wakes Week.

Originally a religious festival, this was the time when employees would escape the appalling working conditions of the mills for a hard-earned – albeit unpaid – break. And they could consider themselves fortunate: back in early Victorian times, mill workers, who included children as young as seven, were lucky to have Sunday off – to attend church – and holidays were unheard of.

By the 1830s, around 85 per cent of all cotton manufactured worldwide was processed in the county of Lancashire, where Blackpool sits on its coast. And that meant a lot of workers – far more than the holiday resort could cope with in one week.

Fortunately, Wakes Week was celebrated at different times in the various mill towns such as Burnley, Oldham, Blackburn and Bolton, allowing an evenly distributed flow of visitors to the coast.

Blackpool, with its iconic Tower opened in 1894 – inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris – along with its huge Pleasure Beach, Big Wheel, and, of course, the Illuminations, continued to be popular right up to the late 1960s.

It was then that cheap holiday packages to Europe, especially sun-kissed Spain, proved to be much more alluring than the chilly beaches of Northern England and visitor numbers to Blackpool went into decline.

But the resilient resort hopes that its light show, developed from those 1879 arc lamps, may help it to maintain a bright future.

Published: August 4, 2016

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