The story behind two historic Blackpool villas

Arnold Villa and Westover
Arnold Villa and Westover

150-year-old tales of intrigue surround a pair of elegant homes built on South Shore’s Lytham Road.

Completed exactly 150 years ago were two elegant Victorian Villas situated on Lytham Road in South Shore.

Commissioned by Robert Rawcliffe and designed by distinguished Preston architects, Garlick and Sykes, these impressive gentlemen’s residences, Arnold Villa and Westover, were built on the corner where the track to Springfield Farm met Lytham Road.

Both were built amid ample plots of land, the northern (Arnold Villa) extending to two thirds of an acre and Westover to the south, occupying an acre and a quarter.

Sadly Rawcliffe died before the houses were completed. His trustees sold Arnold Villa to Richard Cookson and Westover to Thomas Nickson. Cookson also bought the land on the other side of the track which would later become the main site of Arnold School.

On the opposite side of Lytham Road behind a high wall was the impressive Winmarith House, home to the Seed family. Itself having extensive stables and coach house, it was named, so local legend has it, after the owner’s three daughters, Winifred, Mary and Edith. Today, it is known as The Burlington.

His regluar organ recitals became hugely popular

All three properties were quite isolated, South Shore being a tiny hamlet – separate from Blackpool with the majority of its small community settled around Holy Trinity Church, in Dean Street. To the north lay Spen Dyke, a rivulet running into the sea where Lytham Road meets the Promenade; to the east lay Hawes Side Lane with Common Edge; to the west the Irish Sea; while to the south ran Squires Gate Lane. By 1867, the population of Blackpool itself numbered little more than 4,000.

Moving into Arnold Villa in 1867 was distinguished Yorkshire Methodist, Thomas Ward, soon to become associated with Rawcliffe Street Methodist Church in South Shore. Marrying Lydia Thorndike, the couple had five daughters and a son. A distinguished descendant of the family would be legendary actress, Dame Sybil Thorndike.

It was Ward who, on the adjoining site, first built and developed Arnold School. Following Ward’s death in 1889, his son, Rev Charles Ward took charge before it closed in the early 1890s.

Taking up residence in Westover was one of the most distinguished organ builders of his day, James Kirtland.

Thomas Ward and family.

Thomas Ward and family.

A lifelong friend of author Charles Dickens, Kirtland was born in London in July, 1813. As a youngster, he was sent to Manchester to become apprenticed in his uncle’s successful organ building business. Following the death of his uncle, Samuel Renn, in 1845, Kirtland became senior craftsman, the business eventually becoming Kirtland and Jardine.

Attracting rich patrons, keen to supply fine new instruments for the many large and impressive churches opened during this period, James Kirtland enjoyed great success musically and financially.

Marrying Jane Stansfield in 1836, the couple had five children. While the business flourished, tragedy struck in September 1850, with the death of daughter, Mary, aged 17 months. Having followed his father into the organ building business, 10 years later, eldest son James died, age 22.

This second tragedy seems to have hastened Kirtland’s desire to leave Manchester and make a fresh start.

Sheet music for the song Westover, written by Kirtland and named after his home

Sheet music for the song Westover, written by Kirtland and named after his home

He moved his family to the resort, initially taking up residence in what was then Park Avenue (now Park Road), before becoming the first owner of Westover. Like many living in South Shore, one problem they constantly encountered at that time was flooding.

At a meeting at Arnold School in April 1883, headmaster Thomas Ward announced to those attending of the sudden death of James Kirtland. He is buried in the shadow of St Cuthbert’s Church, Lytham.

Due to poor health, Kirtland’s surviving son, John Samuel Renn Kirtland did not enter the organ building business, but became an articled pupil of Rev L W Riley at St Cross Church, Knutsford.

When the family moved to Blackpool, John, born in 1852, opened a music shop in the old Crystal Palace Buildings, at the corner of Bank Hey Street and Victoria Street. Business was brisk and a number of moves later the burgeoning operation became JSR Kirtland Music Sellers of Central Beach. A second shop soon followed at Church Street, now Bond Street, in South Shore.

As well as selling music, JSR also sold pianos, including Broadwoods and Bechsteins, as well as his own Kirtland pianos. The sale of gramophones and records became a new novelty. Kirtland became the sole piano supplier and tuner for the concerts at the North Pier, the Winter Gardens, The Tower, The Palace, the Hotel Metropole and the Queen’s Hydro. Becoming an associate of the Royal College of Organists in 1877, a fellowship duly followed 12 months later. He also acquired a doctorate from Trinity College in Toronto.

In 1870, Kirtland was appointed organist of St Cuthbert’s Church, Lytham. Serving under Canon Hawkins, he introduced the first surpliced choir on the Fylde Coast, also initiating the hugely popular annual festival of Fylde Church Choirs.

The design for Westover gardens

The design for Westover gardens

Between 1883 and 1887, he served as organist at Holy Trinity Church, South Shore. After a break of five years, in 1892, he joined Rev CH Wainwright, becoming organist of Christ Church, then based in Queen Street, Blackpool.

His regular organ recitals after Sunday Evensong became hugely popular. For many years he was at the heart of the nonconformist musical festivals in the Winter Gardens. At the 1883 event, he accompanied the 150 choral voices, while playing organ solos on the two manual Mason and Hamlin organ he had loaned for the occasion.

In 1904, he redesigned the organ in Christ Church. The resulting new three manual instrument, with 40 speaking stops and eight couplers, served the church for more than 70 years until the building closed in 1979.

Amid all this activity, which included a large teaching practice, Kirtland was a prolific composer. His main output was of religious music, many compositions using traditional Gregorian Chant. Among the extensive output of anthems, services, motets and hymn tunes is one named after his home – Westover.

Of the anthems, the most extensive is My Soul Truly Waiteth Upon God, for tenor solo choir and organ. It is dedicated to his great friend, Dr Varley Roberts, organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, who when visiting the resort, stayed with the Kirtland family.

Using the nom de plume, Siegfried Renn, Kirtland also composed lighter music immensely popular at the time. His biggest hit was undoubtedly The Bucket and Spade Polka, its front cover emblazoned with famous scenes of Blackpool. His instrumental output became a regular feature of the weekly concerts given by the North Pier Orchestra.

At Easter, 1907, Kirtland resigned as organist of Christ Church and in the same year sold his shops to Messrs Sharples of Burnley, who carried on the business successfully for many years. Again dogged by poor health in his later years, Kirtland died on August 29, 1911. Many in the area will remember his granddaughter Margaret, who died in 1983. Living further down Lytham Road, she married well-known local doctor Keith Willard.

Kirtland’s widow and family would remain at Westover until 1920, when the house was sold to its rapidly expanding neighbour, Arnold School. Headmaster was by then the redoubtable Frank Truswell Pennington who had arrived in the resort in 1890. He taught for a time at the local high school before, in May 1896, starting South Shore Collegiate School, initially in the South Shore Masonic Hall, before moving to Alexandra Road. In 1901, seeking larger premises, he moved to Ward’s now derelict former premises on Lytham Road, adopting its former name.

With architects Lumb and Walton making alterations to Arnold Villa and Westover, they effectively converted the premises into one large property, Westover essentially becoming the headmaster’s house. Determined to improve the garden, Pennington engaged distinguished designer, Thomas Mawson to weave his renowned magic.

It was while working at Westover Mawson received a letter from Blackpool’s town clerk, David Harbottle, inviting him to develop 280 acres the council had recently purchased.

The marvellous result, opened in 1926, was Stanley Park.

Now sadly empty and somewhat derelict, the new owners of the site, Fylde Coast Academy Trust, certainly seem to have an A* for bulldozing buildings.

We can only hope the new chief executive has an awareness and grasp of historical perspective, for very soon a further 150 years of Blackpool’s priceless heritage could soon disappear.

The re-vamped Burlington pub on Lytham Road, South Shore

The re-vamped Burlington pub on Lytham Road, South Shore