One of the UK’s most iconic buildings is today a step closer to re-opening its doors following a £1.1M refurbishment. 

The venue, which dates back to 1894 and is known by millions as the home to Strictly Come Dancing’s annual ballroom special, has under-gone the most extensive programme of restoration work and deep clean for more than 60 years.

The work, led by Hayles and Howe, specialists in ornamental plaster work and scagliola, has also uncovered some incredibly rare and unusual finds. 

The team has revealed the remarkable details of one of the largest hauls ever found in the Grade 1 listed Blackpool Tower, all discovered behind the angel figures adorning the ballroom ceiling.

The finds have included newspapers dating back to 1911, old cigarette packs which would be museum pieces today, a myriad of bottles and even an old walking stick.

The oldest newspaper found was an issue of the News of The World dating back to 1911, printed in the same month as the coronation of King George V and his wife Mary as King and Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Empire. 

Among the front page articles is a piece pre-empting the new King’s very first visit to the seaside town and the preparations which were taking place. 

Other papers include a 1913 copy of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, printed the same year as Suffragette Emily Davison was killed at Epson Derby. The Daily Mail, dating back to 1922 – the year Tutankhamen was found and a Sunday Pictorial dated 1957, the year the ballroom last experienced vast renovation works. 

The smoke filled past of the ballroom is illustrated by a timeline of cigarette packets found lying in the ceiling voids from the ballroom’s first opening in 1894.

The oldest pack is thought to date back to late 19th century, with further packets found from the periods of WW1 and WW2. 

While it is assumed these packets belonged to construction workers and craftspeople of the past, today’s restoration team can also see clear evidence of historic smoking in the Ballroom. 

Peter Baker, the muralist responsible for restoring the ceiling back to its former glory, said: “The murals had developed various cracks and stains in them, as you would expect in a building which dates back so many years. You can see just by looking at them, the areas where there would have been a bar and smoking area beneath – they tell a big story about what would have been happening in the ballroom all those years ago.”

Peter has had the painstaking task of mixing all of the colours matching them by eye to ensure everything is an exact replica of those used previously. With vast colour differences visible between the historic smoking areas of the ballroom, such as the bar, this has made this task even more difficult, mixing colours to match the historic nicotine damage to the murals. 

The restoration team has also unearthed a number of bottles, with the earliest thought to date back to Edwardian times. Alongside a number of water bottles is a vintage bottle of Whiskey and even a tin of baked beans which would likely have been eaten by construction teams working on the building at the time. 

The vast haul has astonished the team working on the project. 

Keith Langton, Project Manager, said: “Working here at The Blackpool Tower Ballroom has literally blown me away. This really is something else. It is a project I will never forget. 

“It has been an absolute honour for the team and I to follow in the footsteps of construction specialists before us. We are using the same skills which we utilised when this ballroom was constructed over 125 years ago. These artefacts are the closest we will get to the team who built this incredible spectacle.”

When asked how these artefacts are likely to have found their place in the ceiling Angels, Keith said: “We can only assume that craftspeople were sat on these steels over 100 years ago, reading the paper and having a cigarette. Their waste was tossed into a void and has been preserved almost in a time capsule for our teams to find today.”

The artefacts are being preserved by The Blackpool Tower management team and will be placed within the Tower building for visitors of future generations to see.  

These finds are a stark reminder for the team working on the project that aside from a period of closure in 1957 due to a fire, the global pandemic is the first major disaster to force the closure of The Blackpool Tower. 

The Tower, along with the ballroom and circus, have been open for visitors for an incredible 125 years!

A team, including some of the most highly skilled craftsmen in the country, who have worked across the world on projects including the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, have dedicated more than 21,000 hours, over a period of six months, each climbing an average of 85 flights of scaffolding daily, to restore the famous Blackpool Tower Ballroom to its original glory.

The work has been made possible thanks to a lifeline grant of £764,000 as part of the Government’s unprecedented £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, together with funding from Blackpool Council, taking the total investment to £1.1M.

The grant, awarded to Blackpool Council by Historic England, has supported the venue to carry out comprehensive repair and restoration work on the ballroom’s period plasterwork ceiling.

It is one of the most significant projects Historic England has been involved with to date and has replicated the skills used by workers back in 1894 when the Tower was built,  including:

• Skilled scaffolders, artists, decorators, structural engineers, joiners, plasterers and conservators all pooling their skills.

• The rare art of fibrous plastering

• More than two tonnes of plaster being mixed.

• Organic hessian being imported from India to mix with the plaster to make a special formula allowing intricate repairs to be carried out to the ornate plaster work adorning the ballroom ceiling.

• A team of over 30 specialists on site, working a combined 21,000 hours.

• Skilled craftspeople working daily in tiny roof spaces to inspect and restore the ornate plasterwork from behind the ceiling.

• Oil paints being colour-matched by the naked eye by on site restoration experts to patch up murals damaged by water ingress and nicotine over the years.

• Several hundred litres of gold paint being mixed to ensure the gold leaf ornate artwork is restored to its former glory.

• Deep cleaning behind all of the ornate models which adorn the ceiling, with dozens of dust filled bags being removed from site every day.

• Murals being deep cleaned removing water damage and nicotine damage from over the decades.

• Intricate and detailed research work being carried out to establish exactly how the work was originally done to ensure all the works which took place during this latest refurbishment were carried out to the exact same standards. This involved drilling more than 12 square spaces in the roof space to enable this “methodology” as the craftsmen call it to be carried out.

Historic England has worked closely with the expert team leading the work on site.

Tamsin Cooke, Heritage at Risk Projects Officer at Historic England, said: “It really is incredible to see the work which has gone on here. The repair project was carried out with traditional methods like those used when the ballroom was built all those years ago.  We’re very happy to have been able to offer such a significant grant to this stunning piece of Blackpool’s heritage.

“This is an extremely rare and precious building. Only one in 40 Listed Buildings are given Grade I Listed status.

“Blackpool Tower is a real icon of the British seaside. And the ballroom is a jewel in its crown!

“The Culture Recovery Fund grant awarded by Historic England for the repair work has been a great opportunity. This is a huge grant for Historic England to award but we are extremely excited about the opportunity to make a difference to such a well-known and well-loved location – not just for today’s visitors – but for generations to come.

“It is so important to preserve buildings such as this. It’s a ballroom which dancers and families worldwide enjoy so much!”

Councillor Gillian Campbell, Cabinet Member for Tourism & Culture, at Blackpool Council, added: “We are thrilled to be awarded this grant which will help bring the ornate ceiling of the magnificent Tower Ballroom back to its former glory. The ballroom has provided entertainment for generations of people for more than a century and is a national treasure, not least because of its relationship with Strictly.

“We are enormously appreciative that its importance to the cultural heritage of this country has been recognised in this way.” 

Kenny Mew, General Manager of The Blackpool Tower, said he cannot wait to re-open the ballroom.

He added: “The works which have been carried out really are something very special. This is a once in a lifetime project that I feel incredibly fortunate to have been involved in.

“We cannot wait to reopen our doors and invite the public to experience the splendour of The Blackpool Tower Ballroom first hand, whether they are taking to the dancefloor, enjoying afternoon tea or simply taking in the incredible surroundings. 

“Due to the Coronavirus pandemic the ballroom has now been closed for over 12 months. We are hoping to re-open on June 21st, if the Government’s continued road map out of lockdown goes to plan!”

Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage added: “The Blackpool Tower Ballroom has been at the heart of British dance for more than a century, annually hosting the Strictly Come Dancing Blackpool special.

"I am delighted that, thanks to the Culture Recovery Fund, the ballroom has been fully restored and is getting ready to reopen and host fantastic dances and events once more."

Robin Harrison, Managing Director at Hayles and Howe, added: “The Blackpool Tower project has been one of the most challenging projects we have undertaken.

“It has allowed us to continue to learn and develop our methodologies to restore historic plasterwork. 

“This project is a very iconic one for both myself and my team and is definitely one of our flagship pieces of work. One of my favourite parts of looking after buildings like this is being able to give something back to the public to enjoy safely for generations to come.”

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