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The life & death of Blackpool’s gigantic wheel

The life & death of Blackpools gigantic wheelBlackpool – the entertainment seaside capital of the North takes its name from the peat-stained, black waters that for centuries flowed out of an ancient water course draining the low lying, swampy area of Marton Moss, before discharging into the Irish Sea.

Blackpool was first mentioned around 1602 in the Parish register of Bispham Church. Until around the mid-eighteenth century, Blackpool was but a tiny hamlet set within a wilderness of marsh land at the sea edge and consisting of about a couple of dozen cottages and a small inn. The population at this time would probably be around 350 people.

In 1828, as a harbinger of Blackpool’s exciting future life as the North’s leading seaside resort, the town’s first theatre, the Grand Parade, was built on the north-east corner of Victoria Street and Bank Hay Street.

‘The Railway Mania’ of the 1840s – which affected the whole of Britain, resulted in a railway line being driven up from Preston to nearby Poulton-le-Fylde. By now, Blackpool was rail connected to the rest of Britain. Around this period Blackpool’s population had expanded to over 2,000. And by 1846, the railway was again extended from Poulton-le-Fylde to Blackpool’s Talbot Road.

The year 1852, saw Blackpool rapidly spreading along the coast resulting in the construction of numerous streets of terraced houses and shops. The gas works was built at the same time, resulting in the town being illuminated by gas lights. The Theatre Royal was opened in 1859, followed in 1863 by the official opening of the newly constructed North Pier. During 1868, with great pomp and ceremony the Central Pier was declared open, and in 1870, the splendid new Promenade was duly opened. Blackpool’s population had by now reached to over 7,000 townsfolk.

In 1891, Blackpool’s men of enterprise together with business men scattered throughout Lancashire, but also including ordinary townsfolk with money to invest, enjoyed a burning ambition to make Blackpool into the North of England’s number one place for entertainment. There was a consensus that a huge iron tower, similar to Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower should be constructed within the town. There wasn’t much deliberation because, on the 21 September of that year, the recently appointed Chairman of the newly formed Blackpool Tower Company, Alderman Sir John Bickerstaffe, laid the foundation stone for the now world famous Blackpool Tower. The striking 519 feet tall structure built from riveted steel girders, duly opened in a fanfare of publicity on Whit Monday 14 May 1894.

The excellent business brains of Sir John, his brother, Alderman Tom Bickerstaffe and Sir John’s son, Douglas, a future Chairman of the Blackpool Tower Company, delivered considerable motivation required to drive forward Blackpool’s rapid development during the late nineteenth century.

Putting the Tower aside, there were also other firsts for Blackpool. For in 1885, Britain’s first electric tram-way was installed in the town. Thus, with Blackpool Tower, the electric tram-way, the Opera House, Promenade and piers, this undeniably, placed Blackpool firmly on the map to become the North of England’s leading sea-side resort.

The Life of Blackpool’s Gigantic Wheel

Down in London at Earl’s Court, a Royal Navy Engineer Officer, Walter B. Bassett R.N. had constructed a gigantic revolving iron wheel which opened in July 1895, and had quickly become a Mecca for visitors with money to spend. A group of visiting Lancashire cotton mill barons and business men, on viewing Bassett’s wheel reached a consensus amongst themselves that such a wheel as this one if erected in Blackpool could undoubtedly generate significant much needed revenue for the town’s coffers. An agreement was therefore reached to invest in Bassett’s ‘huge revolving wheel of iron’ concept which, up in Blackpool would hopefully become a magnet for the hoards of Lancashire and Yorkshire mill workers’ families that were flocking increasingly to sample the exciting sights and sounds of bustling Blackpool.

The Lancastrian consortium set up the Auto-Music Company Limited with 50,000 £1 shares, as the owners and operators of the Gigantic Wheel. The floatation was a resounding success and quickly became greatly over-subscribed. The company directors therefore, announced, as the majority of Blackpool’s visitors came from the northern mill towns, preference would therefore, be extended to those subscribers coming from the North.

The first company directors, with the exception of F.A. Badman of Birmingham were indeed all north country men: F.J. Astbury of Manchester; James Pearson of Blackpool; and A. Bottomley of Halifax.

W.B. Bassett R.N., the engineer who built the Gigantic Wheel at Earl’s Court, was awarded the contract for the construction of the Blackpool Wheel. Bassett would eventually become nationally famous for designing both British wheels, which would ultimately win him contracts to construct other Gigantic Wheels in Chicago, Paris and Vienna. Bassett appointed Cecil Booth – incidentally, the inventor of the vacuum cleaner – as consulting engineer throughout the project. Walter B. Bassett however, due to his experience and profound motivation, remained the driving force. The Blackpool Gazette and Herald dramatically described him: “This bundle of nerves who conceived the idea, he is here, there and everywhere”.

The Battle of the Giants

Ever since late Victorian times Blackpool Tower had dominated the flat surrounding Fylde coastline and could be viewed from a number of distant Pennine and Bowland hill summits. From the completion of the Tower’s construction in 1894, the 518 feet high steel structure had reigned supreme, bringing into Blackpool millions of holidaymakers with money to spend. And it was the increasing popularity of Blackpool Tower that caused the nearby Winter Gardens Company, established 11 July 1878, to take issue with the upstart rival that was rapidly overtaking their trade, and they resolved to strike back.

Therefore, in 1896 when the Gigantic Wheel began turning the so-called ‘Battle of the Giants’ began.

The Construction of the Gigantic Wheel

The Construction of the Gigantic WheelDuring December 1895, excavations for the wheel’s massive foundations were sunk on the site of a bowling green and garden at the frontage of the Winter Garden’s Pavilion Horseshoe, and despite wintry weather, the work was completed by the end of January 1896. The Auto-Music Company Limited leased the Gigantic Wheel’s site from the Winter Gardens Company.

Because nationally renowned Arrol’s Bridge And Roof Company of Germiston Works, Glasgow had previously constructed and erected Bassett’s giant wheel at Earls Court, they were awarded the contract for the manufacture of the Blackpool Wheel including the erection of the huge supporting steel girder-work.

Arrol’s boilermakers, platers, riveters and steel erectors must have worked extremely fast, for in early February 1896, a massive volume of pre-fabricated steel work was delivered to site. Immediately, the erection commenced of two strategically placed, massively constructed 80 foot tall timber platforms. Mounted on top of each platform was a 3 ton Scotch derrick, required for lifting the various steel sections during the erection of the Gigantic Wheel. Next came the erection of the four, huge 110 feet tall, triangular-shaped, riveted steel axle support columns. This work, albeit difficult and dangerous, was nevertheless completed with the erection of the final column on 19 March 1896.

The Wheel’s huge steel axle was a one-piece forging weighing a hefty 29 tons, 6¼ cwts, and produced by William Beardmore & Co. of Parkhead, Glasgow. At the time it was broadcast as being the largest axle made anywhere in Europe. The huge forging was a massive 40 feet, 8 inches in length, with a diameter of 26 inches. The transportation of the axle from Glasgow to Blackpool caused great consternation and took a full week. So great was the weight on the railway wagon that only a slow rate of progress could be maintained, periodical stops having to be made in order to allow cooling of the wagon’s axle-box bearings. Upon the axle arriving in Blackpool’s Talbot Road Goods Yard, it was then trans-shipped onto a massively constructed steel road trolley, loaned from Joseph Foster & Sons, Engineers & Boilermakers of Preston.

The road trolley and axle’s combined weight of over 40 tons was hauled by a road locomotive owned by J.& J. Dagger of Stoneyhill. The journey from the Goods Yard to the construction site at the Winter Gardens was painfully slow, the colossal load not reaching its destination until 10 o’clock, some 16 hours from commencing the journey. There was some damage caused to the road surfaces by the heavy iron wheels of the road trolley. For example, at the junction of Coronation Street and Adelaide Street, the heavily-ladened trolley wheels, upon mounting the pavements, smashed the flags to pieces and more worryingly fractured a 3 inch gas main. Fortunately, the escaping gas did not explode!

Early the following morning, Arrol’s riggers could be seen setting up sets of 10 ton lifting tackle and winches. By noon on Wednesday, the road trolley was drawn into place at the base of the two previously erected, towering, inclined steel axle support columns in readiness for the axle-lifting operation. The axle support columns strengthened by robust steel lattice work, comprised of four steel sub-columns erected either side and 112 feet, 6 inches in height. They were mounted on 11 feet thick concrete foundations.

The off-loading and manoeuvring of the axle to a position at the foot of the support columns, was a major task involving much effort from the riggers and steel erectors who used hydraulic jacks, winches and other mechanical devices.

The men also set up thick wire-ropes, par-buckles and sundry lifting equipment. The 50 tons breaking strain wire-ropes were then carefully attached to specifically cut grooves in the wooden protective packing blocks at each end of the axle. The other end of the ropes went over cast-iron pulley wheels mounted on cantilever brackets bolted atop each of the steel axle-support columns. Heavy duty shackles fastened to the loose ends of the wire ropes were connected to large drums powered by two portable steam engines. The axle was then slowly rolled up the acutely inclined support column sides on strategically fastened cables, until the huge, 40 foot plus forging was carefully lowered into the two bearing housings and the caps secured by bolts. This section of the work was completed by 9 April.

Now that the huge steel axle was resting on top of the massive axle support columns, work turned to the erection of the Wheel itself. The component parts e.g. the hub and the rims built at Arrol Bros. in Glasgow, had previously been delivered to the site. The steel erectors commenced with the construction of the lower half of the wheel, to which were connected strong steel hawsers to act as spokes. Working to Walter B. Bassett’s explicit directions, the steel erectors suspended the half-wheel from steel cables which were connected to a hanging ‘lifting pendant’ bolted to temporary steel structures rising above the axle. Some considerable thought had gone into the design of these pendants for they were designed to swivel, similarly like the two points of a compass, thereby allowing the alignment of the two upwardly projecting ends of the half completed Wheel. The Scotch steam derricks carried out the actually lifting. The steel erectors working from both sides carried out the erecting work simultaneously and by the ingenious ‘compass’ method, the Wheel’s steel framework advanced by two sections on each side at the same time. Thus, when two sections were bolted together the lifting pendants were adjusted for height enabling the construction of the Wheel to be completed by 8 August. The distance between the left and right hand Wheel rims was about 28 feet. The total height from the top of the Wheel to the ground was 220 feet.

The Gigantic Wheel was powered by two Robey of Lincoln, 12 N.H.P. semi-portable locomotive-type steam engines. The drive was transmitted to the two Wheel rims via two endless steel wire hawsers passing around each circumference. The hawsers had been previously tested to a breaking strain of 180 tons. Each hawser had a total length of almost three quarters of a mile, and evidently were connected together by the longest splice ever made at this period. The completed Gigantic Wheel when operable towered 220 feet above Blackpool’s bustling streets.

The Gondolas or CarsThe Gondolas or Cars

There were 30 specially constructed passenger gondolas built by Marshall, Brown & Co. of Birmingham. Each had a capacity of 40 passengers giving a total load of 1200 people. Passengers were loaded and eventually discharged from six separate landing platforms specifically designed to cope with large crowds. The gondolas took the form of small railway-like carriages having large glazed windows all round. They were transported from Birmingham up to Blackpool on horse-drawn bogies arriving Thursday 25 June 1896.

With the Chief Engineer, W.B. Bassett R.N. directing operations, approximately 250 steel erectors, riveting gangs, fitters, riggers, general labourers and painters had completed the mammoth construction of Blackpool’s Gigantic Wheel in just six months. And throughout the building work, despite cold wintry conditions, wind and driving rain, not one man was killed or severely injured; undoubtedly a record for a huge engineering project of the late nineteenth century.

Brief Technical Details Of The Gigantic Wheel

  • The total height of the Gigantic Wheel: 220 feet
  • Total approximate weight:1,000 tons
  • Number of passenger gondolas:30
  • Axle (steel forging) length: 40 feet, 8 inches
  • Axle diameter: 26 inches
  • Axle weight: 29 tons, 6¼ cwts
  • Number of wire spokes:250
  • Driven from two Robey of Lincoln, 12 N.H.P. semi-portable locomotive-type steam engines.
  • Cost of the Wheel:Approximately £45,000.
  • The Gigantic Wheel was painted with two coats of protective paint: the estimated weight of these coatings was 2½ tons.

The Gigantic Wheel’s Decline

The Gigantic Wheel’s DeclineFrom the very first day of operation in 1896, Blackpool’s Gigantic Wheel was a magnet for thousands of visitors to the Lancashire resort and whose visit was incomplete without the adventure of riding the Wheel. Quickly, the Giant Wheel ‘in the Sky’ had become almost as important to Blackpool as the Tower. Many visitors thought the Wheel resembled a giant cotton reel. The epitome of Lancashire cotton! Business boomed throughout the first decade of the 20th century. However, things were to change for the worse. Mainly due to the Great War of 1914-18, Blackpool’s visitors were declining alarmingly. With business in the doldrums, and the Wheel’s operators in debt, on 18 January 1916, the company entered into voluntary liquidation.

On 30 June 1916, the Wheel and other assets were quickly snapped up for £1150 by the Blackpool Winter Gardens and Pavilion Company. The new owners carried on albeit passenger figures were still relatively poor, until 1928, when the Wheel’s ownership was absorbed somewhat surprisingly – due to the ongoing ‘Battle of the Giants’ – into the Blackpool Tower Company.

On taking over, the Tower Company commenced an engineering and business viability study of the Gigantic Wheel which concluded that people’s tastes had changed and indeed the present generation of Blackpool’s visitors demanded something far more exciting. Regrettably, the Gigantic Wheel could not compete with Blackpool Tower’s multifarious attractions, thus it was decided the Wheel should be closed down. Blackpool’s Gigantic Wheel spun for the last time on 20 October 1928. However, returning to the ‘Battle of the Giants’, the Winter Gardens in fact were the losers because they were in turn purchased by the Blackpool Tower Company, thereby laying to rest the spirit of competition between the rival Blackpool attractions.

The Death of the Gigantic Wheel

Ward Bros. Ltd of Eccles commenced the demolition of the Gigantic Wheel on the afternoon of Tuesday 13 November 1928. They started with the dismantling and removal of the first of the 30 gondolas which was delivered to the purchaser at Layton on ‘a huge wagon drawn by three powerful horses’. The detachment of the gondola generated a huge crowd. Upon the gondola being unbolted and removed from its position on the Wheel, the latter was then carefully revolved until the position of the removed gondola appeared in the twelve o’clock position. Once under way, the task of dismantling, lowering and the loading onto wagons of all 30 gondolas took six days. Once completed, the next stage was tackling the extremely dangerous work of dismantling a thousand tons of steel girders and iron castings.

On 15 November 1928, the Blackpool Gazette and Herald thundered out the following: ……‘the work of dismantling that great expanse of iron work will shortly commence, and the demolition is expected to be completed in two months time. The most intricate operation will be the removal and lowering to the ground of the huge axle weighing almost 30 tons.’

However, due to adverse weather of driving rain and high winds, the dismantling didn’t start until the first week of March 1929. The Blackpool Gazette and Herald reported: ….’The Wheel has at last begun to disappear. It is disintegrating amid a shower of red hot tear drops.’ This was a reference to the molten steel raining down from the oxy-acetylene torches cutting through the steel.

Mr. Eli Ward of Messrs Ward Bros. of Eccles, the contractors gave to the Gazette and Herald a dramatic description of the proposed demolition of the Gigantic Wheel.

‘The Wheel consists of four rings – two on either side. Each ring is built up of a double solid girder about 15 inches deep; the two being strutted together. The work has started on the top ring on each side of the Wheel. Men handling that wonderful invention, the oxy-acetylene burner are cutting through one girder at a time in lengths of about five feet. As the pieces are detached they are lowered by a wire rope into an L.M.S. lorry, which then takes the old iron to the Goods Station, from where it will be transported by rail to a steel works at Motherwell in Scotland.

The top-most rings will be cut away in the section between the timber derricks. Then the ‘cross-lattice’ girders will be removed, leaving only the two lower rings between the timber works. The lower rings will then be dissected in lengths of about 60 feet, lowered and divided up into smaller pieces on the ground …….
……. The next process will be the dropping of the derricks to a lower angle and the cutting will proceed as before. When half the Wheel has gone, the cutting will be in bigger sections, which will be dropped straight onto the ground. The Wheel alone weighs around 400 tons and it is estimated that 100,000 cu.ft. of acetylene gas will be used before the last vestige of the structure disappears.’

Upon Eli Ward being asked about the huge 30 tons axle, he said it wouldn’t be cut up until it was safely down on the ground. ‘We will jack up the axle free of its sockets, and then using pulleys and tackle, it will then be carefully slid down the sloping legs of the support ironwork.’

Within just a few weeks Blackpool’s skyline was poorer, for the Gigantic Wheel was by now just a thousand tons of broken up scrap iron awaiting the steel works smelters.

The Blackpool Iron Wheel article by Alan McEwen printed in Northern Life Magazine Spring 2017

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