Secret Southport by Jack Smith (Amberley Publishing)
Jack Smith will be known to many as a distinguished local historian, and as we read Secret Southport we know we’re in the hands of a reliable, authoritative guide. He adopts a chronological approach to Southport’s history, and the result is an admirably lucid and immensely readable book, tracing the origins and development of one of the region’s most interesting locations. It’s also lavishly illustrated throughout, the many colour photographs providing a vivid accompaniment to the text.
It may be a surprise to many that Southport is less than 250 years old, though in the early part of the book Smith takes us back much further than that, to the famous footprints on Formby beach, which date from the Neolithic era. He was there when some of them were discovered, and describes well his sense of excitement and wonder. In the many centuries that followed the time of these earliest inhabitants settlements in the area were sparse and small in size, owing to the wetness of the land. The first substantial settlement seems to have been Churchtown, the picturesque village on Southport’s outskirts which is known to have been occupied as far back as the twelfth century.
Southport itself owes its existence to William ‘Duke’ Sutton, who at the end of the 18th century was the landlord of Churchtown’s Black Bull Inn. Sutton was a colourful character and clearly a man with an eye for the main chance. He’d noticed that paddling and even bathing in the sea was becoming a popular pastime and in 1792 built a bathing hut for visitors on the beach. Many sceptical locals thought he was barmy, but the hut proved popular and a few years later he built an inn nearby, at the junction of what is now Lord Street and Lord Street West. Someone called the location North Meols’s ‘South Port’, and the name stuck.
More buildings followed, and the 19th century was a period of rapid development. By 1830 Lord Street (originally ‘Lords Street’) was firmly established as Southport’s main thoroughfare. Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of France stayed in the town in 1846, five years before he became his country’s Emperor. (Smith seems here to be in disagreement with the Lord Street plaque reproduced in the book, which gives the date of the prince’s visit as 1838.) Once in office he ordered the narrow medieval streets and alleys of Paris be transformed into wide, tree-lined boulevards – inspired, it is thought, by his memories of Lord Street.
The completion of the town’s first railway line (to Liverpool) in 1848 brought more visitors, though flooding at high tide was a perennial problem. A sea wall was built and behind it a new promenade, with baths and hotels. (Ironically, a few decades later the withdrawal of the sea – which, as we know today, can seem an awfully long way away – would begin to be more of a concern.) 1860 brought a pier and in 1874 the Winter Gardens complex opened. At the time it was the biggest seafront building in the country, encompassing an opera house, a conservatory and a theatre, as well as an aquarium and a small zoo. Soon after came a boating lake.
By 1900 William Sutton’s original modest business gamble had in little more than a hundred years burgeoned into a thriving, fully fledged leisure resort, attracting huge numbers of visitors. Notable 20th century additions to the town included the art deco Floral Hall (built in the 1930s) and the Southport Flower Show, first held in 1924. More recent years have of course seen the new pier and the opening of the Ocean Plaza leisure and retail complex.
The book is especially strong on Southport’s wonderful Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The author takes us on walks around particular parts of the town, explaining what has changed and what remains, pointing out unusual features and inviting us to imagine Southport as it was at different points in its history. The shopping arcades along Lord Street, the impressive neoclassical bank building that now houses Waterstones bookshop, the Roman Corinthian style HSBC bank and the Moorish influenced building next to it (now sadly missing the onion-shaped dome which once sat on top of it), the former Promenade Hospital with its French chateau-style towers – they’re all here, described evocatively and with an expert eye for detail.
As I write Southport is preparing to welcome Jeremy Corbyn, who is due to hold one of his celebrated rallies in the town (on the beach, to be more precise) this Friday (18 August). If he eventually makes it to Downing Street this will rightly be remembered as a significant event in Southport’s relatively short history. But then, as this fine book memorably demonstrates, Southport is of course already a town able to boast a history that’s full of fascination and interest.
Secret Southport by Jack Smith is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99. For more information, click HERE.