In its heyday Figure of Eight Park drew tourists from across the country to marvel at its rides, illuminations and a 100-tonne stuffed whale known as Eric.
Built during the halcyon days of British seaside tourism, families flocked to the Lancashire coastline to visit the park with its maze of rides and attractions.
But a series of controversies and mishaps would bring about the demise of this Morecambe theme park.
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There was a shooting, escaped animals and a bizarre incident in which a homeless man was arrested for wiping his greasy and fish oil stained hands on fairground goers.
With plans for a £125m Eden Project at the resort town this week given the go-ahead, we’re looking back at Morecambe’s tourism history.
how it all began
Long before a stretch of Morecambe promenade was transformed into a Wild West-themed amusement park, there was Figure of Eight Park.
It’s roots can be traced back to Alderman William George Bean who returned to the United Kingdom in 1897 after giving up on his dream of becoming an advertising salesman on Madison Avenue, in New York, Lancs Live reports.
Bean opened two separate amusement parks – one in Great Yarmouth and another in Blackpool.
The park on the south coast soon failed, but Bean’s commitment to his project in Blackpool turned out to be a smart move as it would later become the widely successful Blackpool Pleasure Beach we know and love today.
Some records suggest that it was Bean who bought the Figure Eight park, in Morecambe, back in 1909, while some suggest that it was his successor, and son-in-law Leonard Thompson, who bought the park in the 1930s or possibly even the 1940s.
Little is on record about the Morecambe park before it was purchased but there are regular references to a Figure Eight Park on Marine Road in Morecambe throughout the 1920s.
The Morecambe Guardian mentions the amusement park as a major tourist attraction for the town.
Suffrage and the Six Point Group
The oldest mention of Figure Eight Park comes on February 11, 1922, when the local Women’s Citizen’s Organization held a lecture on Wireless Telegraphy by a Mr Raynor at the site.
It seems the women’s club were frequent users of the park throughout the winter and spring of 1922 with several parties and talks held there, Lancs Live reports.
One of the most significant meetings was in April, 1922, when Miss Winifred Mayo attended to talk to the women about the suffrage movement and the British feminist ‘Six Point Group’.
Britain had granted women the right to vote in 1918 but that right only applied to women over the age of 30.
Miss Mayo – a suffragette – spent time in prison for her activism during the late 19th and early 20th century and was keen to discuss the importance of women voting.
‘Bolton holiday people’
In June that year, the Morecambe Guardian reported that the park had reopened having undergone “immense improvements and alterations”.
Reporters described asphalt paths and a new green and white color scheme with new illuminations that were ‘quite a feature’.
The paper also mentions the figure eight miniature railway present at the pleasure park which is where the attraction got its original name.
In those summer days the park was open all day, with free admission.
Regular adverts appeared in the Morecambe Guardian, which described an influx of mill workers coming up to the town to enjoy the park.
Journalists mention “Bolton holiday people” and “Burnley holidaymakers” taking time off to enjoy the seaside.
a golden era
The 1920s were a golden era for the park.
in 1924 it was mentioned in the Morecambe Guardian that attractions such as Flaps and the Clock and Ball Game had arrived at the park, having been borrowed from the vastly popular Olympia amusement park in London.
Night-time Illuminations were also held at the park from 1927 – and in 1928 images of happy children enjoying the rides appeared in the Morecambe Guardian.
But, despite the early success of the site, the end of the 1920s saw a downturn in fortunes at the Morecambe Figure Eight Park.
Bad smells, an arrest and a shooting
In 1927, tourists told the Morecambe Guardian that they had experienced “bad smells” from close to the park which reflected on Morecambe’s lack of a “first-class sewerage system”.
The following year a homeless man, James Marchant, was found guilty of being drunk and disorderly in Marine Road after a policeman spotted him wiping his greasy and fish oil stained hands on fairground goers.
A Bolton native, Marchant was fined 40 shillings for the offence.
But the most shocking incident came in August 1929 when a Mr and Mrs Pollard from Leeds were enjoying the park.
While strolling through the complex Mrs Pollard was suddenly shot in the left arm. It seems that a wayward shot from the park’s shooting range had caught her.
Doctors at Blackpool Victoria Hospital found that the bullet had gone right through her limb and the Morecambe Guardian said Mrs Pollard had experienced a “narrow escape from death”.
The controversy continued when it was reported that Figure Eight owners had failed to inform the police.
Fortune tellers, theft and escaped animals
That same year the park was taken over by Blackpool-based Hitchens LTD, which oversaw Figure Eight during a particularly dark period.
In 1930, three women who were working as fortune tellers at the park were arrested for deceiving customers with claims that they could heal them of serious ailments and tell their future.
Ruth Walshaw, Lennie Ada Lister (known as Madame I’Ada), and Bessie Mooritt (going by Madame Beulah) were found guilty of cheating people out of funds and were all found ten shillings.
In 1933 five watches were stolen from a dispensing machine at the amusement park and 58-year-old John Williamson Wilkinson was sent down for the crime.
That same year a zoo was included in the attractions at Figure Eight Park and the Morecambe Guardian reported how two monkeys escaped from their cages that October.
Eric the Whale
Figure Eight owners continued to invest huge amounts of money in their attractions, splashing the cash on a massive feature in 1934.
Eric the Whale, a pickled and stuffed whale corpse which had spent years on display in Southend-on-Sea, spent time in Morecambe.
According to records the 100-tonne whale was worth £1,000 in 1931 – more than £60,000 in today’s money.
But the decline of the park was seemingly inevitable.
The promenade had been damaged by storms and the land surrounding Figure Eight Park was falling into dereliction.
With the continued downturn in visitor numbers it was dismantled sometime in 1938 after the council approved a £150,000 regeneration scheme for the Morecambe promenade.
A children’s playground, restaurants, and a cinema, were due to replace the old site.
But the Figure Eight Park would rise again. Mere months after it was dismantled the amusement complex was resurrected nearer to Marine Road West, where the former Frontierland site stands today.
The move was not popular as the park was very close to residential properties and was described as an ‘eyesore.
Wartime and many changes
Records from 1939 onwards named the park as Morecambe Pleasure Park and work continued on an expensive renovation scheme to transform the old Figure Eight Park site.
At some point between the war’s beginning and 1949 Leonard Thompson added the site to his Pleasure Beach business and built an ice dome at the new site, on Marine Road West, which opened in July of 1949.
One of the first productions staged there was Stars & Stripes, an American show put on by Bettina Merson.
Although there was an ice theater at the park there is evidence it still operated as a fairground with various rides attracting thousands of summer visitors, including the famous Cyclone.
A major overhaul
In 1955 firemen battled a fire at the park which began after a holiday-maker threw his cigarette butt onto a wooden ride, causing a 40-foot blaze.
Various shows appeared at the ice theater until 1962, when the dome was made into a bingo hall and then a playsite called Fun City.
By the 1980s visitor numbers were dwindling again and, in an effort to save the park, Leonard’s son Geoffrey Thompson, set about giving the site a complete and utter overhaul.
In 1986, Frontierland was born, inspired by the rising popularity of the Wild West in popular culture.
An account of renovation work is included in a 1986 edition of the Staffordshire Sentinel.
The paper claimed that Pleasure Beach director Tony Lee bought four themed slot machines for the site at Sotheby’s auction in Chester. One of them was in the shape of a Native American Red Indian, it cost the director £2,200.
The Frontierland Days
Frontierland did not enjoy an easy start to life as a themed amusement park. On November 14, a fire ripped through Fun City, burning it to the ground and inflicting £1m worth of damage.
The park recovered and rides like the Silver Mine, the Texas Tornado, and the Western Carousel, brought visitors flocking back.
Frontierland even hosted a magic stage show at its 500-seater theatre, the Saloon Bar.
Known as The Magical Experience, the production ran for several seasons and was fronted by teenager Damian Lloyd.
This production was later replaced in the 1990s by the High Stepping Country Show, a western themed dance production.
The Thompson family continued to introduce new rides and features to Frontierland throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.
Stampede roller coaster opened in 1988 having previously operated as the Cyclone at Blackpool Pleasurebeach, and in 1989 the cable car Sky Ride was introduced.
At the time it cost £20.50 for a family of four to enjoy the park, plus £16 for lunch.
A Daily Mirror review gave it a rating of 7/10, calling Frontierland one of the best amusement parks in the country based on value for money.
In 1993 Frontierland received the Space Tower, a 150-foot (46 m) gyro tower, moved from Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Though the ride resulted in a significant increase in visitor numbers, it was to be the last major investment at the park.
‘We could have been killed’
In July 1998, an incident at Frontierland made headlines when the old wooden Texas Tornado ride was launched when the safety bars were still up.
Tourist Craig Bennett, who was on the ride with his six-year-old daughter, at the time told the Daily Mirror: “we could have been killed.”
Not long after, three seasons of staged demolitions were planned across the site and, as the park began to shrink, the Thompson family cashed in on their assets.
The iconic giant teacups, Ghost Train and Runaway Mine Train were repurposed and sent to Pleasureland Southport.
In 1999, the 62-year-old wooden Texas Tornado enjoyed its last outing before being demolished, marking the end of the site as an amusement park.