A GIANT LAND SPECULATION?: PROMOTING NEW BRIGHTON TOWER
The Tower at New Brighton was to be, during its short life, the tallest building in Britain and one of the most expensive seaside amusements ever erected. Yet a consideration of its financial performance, contrasted with the sale price of the site upon which it was to be erected, indicates that its promotion was partly inspired by land speculation.
Shaky investment schemes had a good pedigree in seaside resorts like New Brighton. The pier building era of the 1860’s and 1870’s had spawned several disasters, and New Brighton had an Aquarium, Baths and Hotel Co., founded in 1872 to develop the site next to the Palace, which collapsed ignomiously in 1879 with almost total losses.
The Blackpool Tower and Wheel was originally promoted by a group from London which aimed to achieve massive profits from the sale of the site for the development. Only a takeover by a locally based group prevented it from being another disaster. Another financial group, specialising in the attraction of small shareholders to hopeless speculations, promoted Towers at Douglas, Scarborough and Brighton which materialized only on paper. New Brighton’s Tower differed from other speculations in that an actual building appeared.
In the early 1890’s, the riverside area south of Egerton Street was as it had been originally developed in the 1830’s. Sites fronting the Mersey had been developed with large mansions in grounds such as “Rock Point”, “West Bank”, the “Woodlands” and “Kirkdale Cottage”. In front of these, in place of the present promenade, were rocky areas and sands.
In 1895, the West Bank estate came onto the market, and a syndicate was formed to purchase the site and resell it to a new company promoted to develop a large Tower and Grounds there. A leading figure in both ventures was R.P Houston, a Liverpool shipowner and Unionist M.P., whose parliamentary career was only distinguished by his support for the Ulster rebellion of 1911. His role in the shaping of New Brighton’s new landmark was to be crucial.
The Tower Estates Syndicate purchased West Bank for £30,000 and employed a firm of Manchester architects to design an extensive new development on the site. This was to include a Tower, 561 feet tall, set in a large building with a theatre and ballroom, with an Athletic Ground and water chute in extensive grounds. The resulting scheme and site was sold to the newly floated New Brighton Tower & Recreation Company. The purchase price was some £50,000, plus £125,000 worth of shares in the new company. The glowing prospectus indicated a massive profitability, based on anticipated receipts of £84,000 p.a.. The massive profits from the sale of the land could be justified by the access to even greater profits secured by the package of land and redevelopment plans. Receipts were actually to amount to £15,000 in 1908.
Based on a prospectus issued from the M.P.’s office, with the Company controlled by his business partners, and later supported by loans from the M.P.’s company, the Tower Company succeeded in attracting shares from numerous small investors who were destined never to receive any dividends.
An agreement having been concluded with the Council over the construction of the Promenade in front of the Tower site, construction began in October 1896, with parts of the Grounds opening at Whit 1898. The massive structure was matched by a massive provision of entertainment.
The Tower development was an unusual speculation in that the promoters sought not only to gain from the original land sale, but to profit from the anticipated income and capital growth from the completed development. This was not to be achieved. The M.P. promoter, the major shareholder, did not sit on the Board of Directors and thus did not draw fees, while he was forced to prop up the ailing company with loans upon which he was, from time to time, forced to waive interest payments. The Tower itself was to be dismantled for scrap shortly after the Great War, although the other buildings and grounds were to last until their destruction by fire in 1969.
Many reasons for the financial failure of the Tower have been put forward. The Promenades were not finished in time for the opening. Anticipated improvements in the ferry service, including a new ferry to Bootle, were not to materialise. Drink licences were heavily restricted at the Tower, while the policy of the local authority in Wallasey was to favour the promotion of seaside amusements aimed at the limitation of visitors rather than the attraction of a mass audience.
All of these factors contain some truth, but a simpler explanation may lie in the probability that the Tower was a scheme fraught with massive risks, with only the certainty of profits from the sale of land. The promoter was by no means bankrupted by the failure of the speculation. Having apparently made substantial profits from the Boer War, he was to be an early tax exile to the Channel Isles, whence he emigrated after he lost his Parliamentary seat in 1922. He died a millionaire in 1926.
THE NEW BRIGHTON TOWER: SYMBOL AND SACRIFICE
The Tower at New Brighton, as with those at Blackpool, Morecambe and Wembley, was modelled on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which had been completed in 1889. The Eiffel Tower, however, was built for a different purpose, and it involved a different level of sacrifice.
The Eiffel Tower was built as the centrepiece of the Paris Exposition, an international exhibition of industrial production which was intended to demonstrate to the world France’s growing industrial strength and engineering ability. It was also conceived as a celebration of the centenary of the French Revolution, which had toppled the monarchy and begun the process of dissolution of the feudal system. In a country like France, with a growing movement for the revival of the monarchy, the Exposition was a symbol of the advances made by industrial capitalism unfettered by a monarchy and landed aristocracy.
The Tower, at its centre, was designed to outlast the exhibition itself. Previously, the largest monument of the 19th century was the Washington Monument, a stone structure, 555 feet tall, which had taken 36 years to build to completion in 1884. The structure designed by Gustave Eiffel, an engineer who had designed the interior metal framework of the Statue of Liberty, was to be 986 feet tall, and constructed of steel. The only comparable project in Europe at the time was the towers of the Forth Railway Bridge, then under construction.
The Tower in Paris was built in just over two years and completed in March 1889; the exposition itself opened in May. It proved a major success, many visitors ascending on foot to avoid the queues at the lifts. Many visitors ascended only to the first platform, but there were two platforms at higher levels, with an apartment for the engineer at the very top.
An immediate imitation was proposed for Wembley Park in London; construction of a tower planned to reach 1200 feet began in June 1893, but was later abandoned. The Tower at New Brighton had more mundane beginnings; there was no attempt to provide any sort of symbol, but merely an attempt to capitalise on the potential offered by the crowds attracted to the Paris tower and that at Blackpool. It was simply part of a leisure development. Its structure differed from the Eiffel Tower in that the feet of the structure were set in a large building, with limited attractions on the platforms themselves.
The first accident during construction took place in January 1897. A cross girder was being placed into position when the crane jib snapped; the girder fell and brought down with it a platform some 30 feet above the ground. There were 35 construction workers employed there by Handysides & Co, a Derby firm. Two died immediately when the platform hit the ground; they were a young riveter from Derby and a 45 year old foreman ironworker from Cardiff. Their bodies were laid out at their lodgings at Seymour Street, while a third worker who was injured was taken to hospital. There was a farcical scene at the inquest when the coroner appointed was found to be too old to climb stairs, and the coffins had to be fetched from Seymour Street, but some controversy when it was found that the deaths had not been notified as an industrial accident. When it was reported that the crane was new and the jib newly tested, a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
The Tower was topped out in August 1898, a major engineering achievement which rivalled the Paris tower. Yet, like that Tower, it was essentially a huge toy. Late Victorian engineering was capable of designing a Ship Canal to Manchester, of bridging barriers such as the Forth and Tay, and of lasting achievements in water supply and drainage. Seven men had died in the construction of a giant toy, whose useful life was to last only 16 years.
SETTING UP THE TOWER: Unfulfilled Promise
The development of the New Brighton Tower involved not only the construction of extensive buildings and grounds, but also the organisation of attractions to supplement the novelty of the Tower itself. At first the Tower featured entertainment aimed partly at middle class visitors, which was to be rapidly replaced by mundane seaside amusements.
The Blackpool Tower, Alhambra and Gigantic Wheel provided a model for the entertainment complex to be formed at New Brighton. Entertainments there combined the attractions of the circus, ballroom, music hall, theatre and seaside curiosities such as an “Olde English Village” and a menagerie.
The New Brighton Tower and ground amusements were designed by Manchester architects, Maxwell & Tuke, designers of the Blackpool Tower and the Jubilee Exhibition in Manchester; they first submitted plans to the Council in June 1896. The New Brighton Company was incorporated in July 1896 with a secretary, R H Davy, previously secretary to the Blackpool Tower company since March 1892. He had five years experience with the Manchester Ship Canal Company, involved with one of the biggest projects of Victorian engineering in England, completed in 1893.
Another connection with the Manchester Ship Canal was the appointment of Handysides & Co, a Derby firm, as contractors for the construction of the Tower between December 1896 and completion in August 1898. This firm had built the unique Barton Swing Aqueduct over the Manchester Ship Canal.
The initial entertainment manager was John Hollingshead, who had considerable experience in the growing field of Victorian entertainment. Formerly a journalist with Household Words, for which Charles Dickens frequently wrote, in the 1860’s, he had been manager of the Gaiety theatre in The Strand for 25 years.
The incomplete Tower opened at Whit 1897, with various attractions organised by Hollingshead. These included an open air dancing platform, for up to 1000 dancers, for which he obtained a licence in June. This overlooked a lake which was served by a water chute which opened in June. A zoo and menagerie were provided by a showman from Hamburg.
Two seasonal attractions were imported for the 1897 season. James Hardy, a Canadian tightrope walker, who specialised in cooking pancakes on the high wire, had walked across Niagara Falls in 1894; he was to return in 1898. A “Burmese Village”, comprising a troupe of entertainers from North Burma, arrived complete with bamboo huts, en route for Berlin. The Empire, then being formally consolidated, was a source of fascination, and later performers were to be cruelly exploited in true “circus freak” fashion.
The late Victorian period saw the rapid growth of professional football and amateur sports such as cycling and running. The New Brighton Football Club was founded in October 1896, and soon signed an international goalkeeper from Derby County; it was affiliated to the Football Association in 1897. A Cycling and Athletic Association was formed in March 1897, and amateur races, including several national championships, were organised at the Athletic Grounds. A world tandem record was allegedly set there in July 1898.
Musical entertainment was provided by Granville Bantock, a composer whose works are still played. Beginning with a military band outdoors, he set up a dance band indoors in 1898. This became an orchestra which was to be host to such composer/conductors as Berlioz and Edward Elgar. This middle class attraction was complemented by the opening of the basement theatre, ballroom and rooftop promenade gardens.
During 1898 the “Algerian Restaurant” opened, with catering supplied by J Lyons & Co, their first venture outside London. The ageing Hollingshead was replaced by a new manager with many years experience with the Cambrian Railway Co publicising the North Wales coast resorts. Advertising was placed as far away as Nottingham, Stafford and Leeds. A “Olde English Fairground” opened, featuring such oddities as babies in incubators and a “veriscope” of the Corbett/Fitzsimmons boxing match, among stalls let to various vendors. The formal opening of the Tower Grounds at Whit 1898 was preceded by the construction of a Himalayan switchback railway, imported from the Brussels Exhibition.
A vast and expensive range of attractions had been provided within the 25 acre site, which needed a private police force of 15 to supervise visitors. Subsequent events revealed a sorry reality behind this apparently impressive investment. A range of cases was to be brought against the Tower Company, including ones by both the architects and contractor. A jeweller and the Veriscope Company sued for loss of trade due to misrepresentation and the failure to complete works at the promised time. Another trader had been promised exclusive rights of sale and had found that the Company had let another site to a rival.
By 1900 the Football Club was unable to afford the rent for its ground, while the national sporting bureaucracy had pronounced against the use of the athletic track. Bantock departed to become Principal of the Midland Institute School of Music in 1900, and thereafter the orchestra became a dance band only. J Lyons made staggering losses on the catering trade in 1898 and withdrew at the end of the season. Changes in the character of entertainments followed, with scale and quality much reduced from the early involvement of nationally recruited talent. The failure of the profitability envisaged in the prospectus was matched by a failure to provide the promised attractions.
THE BRIEF CAREER OF NEW BRIGHTON TOWER FOOTBALL CLUB
Professional football is presently in crisis, with several Football League clubs in severe financial difficulties, facing possible bankruptcy. The greatest crises in professional football, however, were those of the 1890’s. This article will examine the brief career of the first soccer club established at the Tower and its collapse.
As construction at the Tower proceeded, organisations emerged to foster entertainment there. The amateur New Brighton and District Cycling and Athletic Club, founded in March 1897, was preceded by an attempt to establish professional sport in the New Brighton Tower Football Club, founded by seven local individuals with a total capital of £2,500.
Organised football had expanded very rapidly in the last years of the 19th century; the Football Association grew from 10 clubs in 1867 to 1,000 in 1888, and 10,000 in 1905. The Football League, founded in 1888 9, incorporated 12 clubs, mainly with semi professional players, all in the North West or Midlands. Several clubs, like Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United, originated as works or church teams. Organised sport was seen by its middle class sponsors as a means of preventing rebellion and instilling social discipline.
Some clubs ran at a loss for benefits which they could confer elsewhere, including the patronage of the drink trade. One founder of New Brighton Tower was a publican, who later bought the Marine Hotel on the Promenade. Both the most and least successful clubs were run for profit. Two successful clubs of the 1890’s in both sporting and financial terms were dominated by a brewer and landowner who reaped a considerable rent from Everton’s ground. When Everton moved to Goodison Park, he founded Liverpool F.C. on the same ground. The Tower club’s potential seems to have been based on speculation about the large number of visitors expected at the Tower itself, although this would obviously be limited in the winter season.
The ground itself was not ready at first, although an international player from Derby County was signed in May 1897. Difficulties with the F.A. were resolved, and the club entered the Lancashire League for the 1897 8 season. From May 1898, the extension of the Football League made it possible for the Tower club to enter its Second Division.
This made it necessary for the club to attract more capital than that provided by the founders, and in September 1898 3,000 preference shares were issued. The management of the club was handed over to a local committee, but most capital remained with the original promoters. The club joined a Second Division which included only one other seaside club, Blackpool, along with familiar names such as Manchester City and Woolwich Arsenal. The first recorded game was against Glossop North End, a team which had been formed as a pawn in a local political struggle. Two new players had been acquired for a transfer fee of £200, a considerable sum compared with the prewar record of £1,000 in 1905. The first game was watched by 3,000 spectators.
The opening season of 1898 9 was the most successful; only defeat by Barnsley prevented promotion to the First Division. This was not matched by financial success, in that the club could not afford the rent of £100 p.a., payable to the Tower Company. Despite takings of £885 in the 1897 8 season, no rent had been paid then; the Tower Company had advanced loans to the club, as it was seen as a useful advertising medium. The first secretary departed to become athletic secretary to the Tower Company. This was an exceptionally bad year for professional football; the Football League tried to set up a fund to aid struggling clubs.
The 1899 1900 season was not at all successful. An early defeat in the F.A. Cup, by the non League South Liverpool, did not increase the popularity of the club, and it finished low in the League. By August 1900 it was conceded that liquidation could only be avoided by promotion to the First Division. £1,000 had been raised by the sale of shares, but while a Scottish international player was acquired in August 1900, most of this capital was banked against liquidation.
The 1900 1 season did not bring success, and the last recorded match was against Burton Swifts on Easter Monday 1901. The club was then disbanded, although an amateur team was to be formed in 1903. One reason for its failure was that the anticipated crowds of visitors to the Tower did not materialise. New Brighton was not accessible to many visitors, at a time when most spectators could not afford to travel to a match.
More general reasons for failure compare with those behind the present crisis in professional football. Only a handful of clubs, such as Aston Villa, Everton, Liverpool, and Newton Heath (Manchester United) were consistently profitable, and the rest were held up only by dubious forms of finance. The drink trade was particularly influential, hoping to reap profits from its association with football. Today this role has been taken by the advertising industry and the media, while many clubs survive by bank loans secured on the redevelopment value of their grounds.