Lancashire staycations were all the rage last time the nation was in crisis

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Lancashire’s traditional Wakes Weeks holidays became more important than ever with the nation living under the conflict’s shadow, as local historian Keith Johnson recalls

Saturday, 8th August 2020, 7:00 am
North Shore boating pool in its 1940 heyday
North Shore boating pool in its 1940 heyday

Eighty years ago, just like the current crisis, the folk of Lancashire found their holiday plans disrupted as the nation was embroiled in the Second World War.

The traditional Wakes Weeks holidays in Lancashire had become well established by the 1930s with a week-long vacation the normal break. It was only after the Second World War that one week became two, at which point the break was switched in Preston to the last fortnight in July.

By this time the workers had won the right to paid holidays and consequently the break was much more appreciated.

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Moon Rocket ride at a packed Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1940

A typical 1930s Wakes Week for Preston folk was that of August 1936 when the break started in glorious sunshine and Blackpool welcomed 250,000 visitors on one day alone. Brass bands playing on the piers, deck chairs crammed on to the sands, bathing beauty contests, Punch and Judy shows and fairground fun all entertaining the crowds.

Fleetwood also benefited that year with large crowds flocking there to the open air baths, or to the flower show and a stroll along the promenade. Great queues waited patiently to catch the steamer to the Isle of Man and a visit to Douglas – a foreign holiday of sorts back in those days. Morecambe was also at the forefront of entertainment with a carnival crown green bowling competition, and a chance to see the swimmers emerge from the cross bay Grange to Morecambe swim.

Many of those who headed for Southport walked along a packed promenade and had a chance to visit the Ainsdale beach and view Southport Motor Club’s 100 mile race. In 1940 the likes of Oldham, Bury, Bolton, Blackburn and Rochdale, which usually had the earliest of the Wakes Week breaks, had seen them postponed as the ‘Battle of Britain’ got underway in the skies above.

However, it was eventually recognised that workers needed a break from their 48 hour week and gradually in August a week long break was arranged for some with Government approval.

Wakes Week at Preston railway station

The Preston holiday week was fixed for the second week in August, although the whole of the town was not on holiday. Engineering factories on special war work continued to operate, although most cotton mills closed, enabling overdue maintenance to be carried out on the looms.

The closing of most Preston shops, despite the Chamber of Trade urging them to stay open, added to the holiday atmosphere and for many family folk a trip to the seaside was the priority. One ruling by the Government stated if you leave your home you must take your gas mask with you. It seems complacency had set in for many because an eagle eyed Lancashire Daily Post reporter on Fishergate observed that out of 122 men and women who passed by only seven were carrying their life saving respirator.

Aware of the problem Preston’s Chief Constable Henry Garth was quick to issue a warning to those ignoring the instruction. From the Saturday onwards there were a number of special trains put on with Blackpool the most popular destination for day trippers.

From early morning the queue at Preston station was the longest in living memory stretching from the booking office on to the Fishergate bridge. All of the trains were packed despite having extra coaches attached and at stations en route the engine had to stop twice so the rear coaches were level with the platforms.

Winter Gardens theatre and cinema, Blackpool presenting Vic Oliver's Plays and Musicin 1940

The station had become an extremely busy place regardless of the holiday makers with trains laden with troops passing through. For those in the armed forces the Preston Station Free Buffet was in full operations and the weekly list of donations in the Post showed the workers of Foreshocks had donated another £19 and the night workers of the English Electric canteen had collected £4.

It was also a time when wherever you went collections were being made to fund the manufacture of a Spitfire or a Hurricane. With the popular Spitfire costing £6,100 ( £350,000 in today’s money) it was a lot of pennies to collect.

Most of those who intended to spend the vacation away had taken Government advice and applied early for their food rationing cards to hand in at their boarding house or hotel. That week there was an unexpected bonus of an extra ration of sugar.

Blackpool had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the visitors happy. At the Opera House the star of the show was Arthur Aske who appeared twice nightly, at the Grand Theatre it was a chance to see Bessie O’Shea in ‘It’s A Funny Thing’, at the Palace cinema ‘Pinochet’ was showing and in the Tower Circus the lions, tigers and elephants were among the attractions.

For those sat on the sandy but breezy beaches of Blackpool who had purchased a copy of the Post the daily headlines were of the increased activity in the skies as Winston Churchill spoke of ‘Britain’s finest hour’ with reports of three Luftwaffe aircraft being downed for every RAF plane lost.

Although most of the initial activity was on the South East coast attacks on the heartland of industry Lancashire were underway and many a visitor to Blackpool had to run for shelter as air raid warnings rang out. Weather wise it wasn’t the best of weeks at a time when weather information was banned from the newspapers, but it was unsettled enough for the Germans to state it unfavourable for their flying missions at times.

With the likes of Bury, Stockport, Halifax and Bradford also enjoying a belated break the crowds swelled onto the beaches and along the piers at Southport and Fleetwood too. While many Bradford folk continued their love affair with Morecambe, as each morning 10 trains each carrying 500 passengers left the Forster Square station en route to the resort along the scenic Bentham line. The entertainment at Happy Mount Park and Heysham Head adding to the attractions there.

With petrol in short supply holiday jaunts in search of sea fishing were scarce, but the Penwortham anglers had an outing to Windermere with perch in abundance caught, with one fisherman recording a haul of 49. The Ribble was particularly blessed with good runs of salmon and sea trout, with even the lower Ribble providing local anglers with the odd brown trout.

Unlike a normal Wakes Week the number of buses and coaches available for trips to the seaside or countryside were limited, although Scout Motors operating from Starchhouse Square had enough petrol to organise daily trips to Windermere, Grange, Cockermouth and Southport.

The cinema was certainly a holiday attraction with 14 picture houses in Preston all showing double bills and among the most popular films were ‘Come On George’ starring George Formby at the Star Cinema, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ starring Judy Garland at the Prince’s Theatre on Tithebarn Street and ‘Safari’ starring Douglas Fairbanks junior at the New Victoria.

For the stay at homes the hastily arranged holiday attracted more than usual to the Preston Greyhound track with eight races on offer, if you brought your own skates you could enjoy yourself on the Majestic Skating Rink for just sixpence and you could dance the night away on the Park, Empress and Worsley ballrooms.

Four members of the local Home Guard had an usual holiday after seeing an advertisement for a training course for Home Guard recruits being held at Osterley Park Training Centre near London.

One of the men had a motor car so they begged and borrowed a few gallons of petrol to spend their vacation under canvas learning the art of warfare and how to thwart the Germans. The unusual Wakes Week of 1940 was a reminder that the world was at war and many difficult years lay ahead.

Nonetheless, most of the workers returned to their wartime toil feeling a little better for the well earned break. This year it will be face masks instead of gas masks for day trippers who catch the train to the seaside.