In the first of a new series celebrating and championing Blackpool and its people, STEVE CANAVAN meets a firebrand still as sharp-tongued as ever at 88
Lily Henderson is so synonymous with Blackpool that it comes as something of a shock to learn that she isn’t actually from the resort.
She only came for a fortnight, in 1951, to help her mum and dad clean a boarding house they’d bought - and 64 years later is still here.
If you don’t know her, you are probably in the minority.
Henderson is a feisty, say-it-how-it-is, one-woman hurricane who has made a tremendous contribution to the place she calls her “adopted home”, though it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
She lost her first child 24 hours after it had been born, she was diagnosed with cancer and a heart problem in her 20s, and her sister died in a holiday accident, which left Lily - already a mum-of-two - with three more young children to look after.
I always like to make sure I am telling the truth and if I make a mistake, I admit it...
She has a fascinating story - a lifelong career in politics; barmaid; the driving force behind countless local campaigns; taxi driver; key figure in the opening of Trinity Hospice; awarded an MBE.
And what’s almost as remarkable is that at the age of 88 she is still going stronger than ever – a councillor fighting causes on behalf of local people and striving to make Blackpool a better place.
“I might not be famous,” said Lily, “but I think I’ve done a bit of good.”
That is putting it mildly. She is a remarkable lady.
When we meet at Lily’s house on St Annes Road, the lounge is covered with newspaper clippings, some dating back years.
A closer inspection reveals they are all about the various campaigns and issues she has been involved in.
From securing funding for paraplegics to spearheading the drive to find the next Andy Murray by setting up tennis facilities for children, to coming to the rescue of allotment owners to her work with the scouts (she’s president of the Blackpool and District Association) … the list is endless.
“Sorry about the mess. I’ve decided I’ve got too much of this rubbish,” she says, waving her hands at the newspapers littering the carpet. “So I’m having a clear-out.”
Lily might be 88 but she doesn’t act like an 88-year-old.
She bounds to the door to greet me and can only spare an hour because she has a meeting to go to at the town hall (it’s one of four meetings she has that day).
I ask if she has the odd morning lie-in to get her energy back.
“Lie-in,” she barks back. “I’ve never had one of those in my life.”
What’s best about her is that I daresay she has not changed a bit since she was a young girl, despite being awarded an MBE in 2005 for her services to the community.
After that honour, Lily – a member of Blackpool South Conservatives for the last half-century – received congratulatory phone calls from MPs William Hague, Eric Pickles and Iain Duncan-Smith.
You can bet she treated them exactly the same as she would any individual in her Highfield ward, an attitude borne from her working class roots and some of the hard knocks life has dealt her.
Born in 1926 in Sheffield to parents John and Elsie, Lily married at 19 and had her first child a year later.
“He was called John,” she recalls. “He was born premature and 24 hours later he was dead.
“One moment I had a baby, the next the nurse was rushing down the corridor shouting my name out. She said ‘I’m sorry but he’s died’. I was devastated.”
At the start of the 1950s, the Hendersons bought a boarding house in Trafalgar Road in Blackpool for £6,000.
Lily, aged 25, came with her parents to help them set up, and never went home.
“Eventually my mum and dad returned to Sheffield, mainly because they couldn’t stand how quiet Blackpool was in winter,” she says. “I stayed on and ran it for another 27 years.”
It was during this period that her younger sister was killed on a holiday to Belgium with her fiancée.
“We had to raise my sister’s three children between us,” she said. “It was difficult because by this time I’d remarried and had two children of my own - David and Victoria (recently awarded an MBE of her own for services to scouting).
“But I think we did a good job because we are all very close now.”
It meant money was tight but Lily, as you’d expect, wasn’t averse to hard graft.
She worked part-time pulling pints in the Manchester pub on the Promenade, then did the cleaning and washing at her boarding house, as well as preparing dinner for the guests.
Later, to keep the wolf from the door, she got a taxi and drove for Radiocabs, ending up as company secretary.
While all this was going on she got properly into politics, following in her father’s footsteps and joining the Conservatives.
“My dad was a Tory and when I in my pram, he’d push me around singing a song called ‘vote for Lily Henderson’,” she says.
“He used to say, ‘there are only two Tories in Sheffield - I’m one and my daughter is the other’. He never pushed me into a party though, he said he’d leave it to me to decide … but I suppose it’s no surprise I went the way I did.”
Half-a-century of serving local people has followed, in the Tyldesley, Squires Gate and Highfield wards, voted onto the council in 1983. She is especially proud of her work with foster parents and council houses.
In 2000, Lily became mayor and didn’t take a day off in 52 weeks. “Actually,” she says, as if not daring to tell an untruth, “I had to come home early from one event in Lancashire because I had terrible flu – but I still managed to get there and back.”
I ask why, when she has had so many troubles of her own to deal with (she had cancer of the womb and a heart valve replacement in her 20s), she has given so much of her life to helping others. Her answer, after some thought, is simple: “I like people and I care for the town I live in.”
That town has changed almost beyond recognition in the half-century and more that Lily has been here.
But her affection for the area has never wavered.
“When I first came here, we lived on Trafalgar Road, five doors from the Prom,” she says.
“The traffic only went one way on the Promenade, south to north, and you couldn’t walk on the pavements because there were that many people here.
“It was brilliant. If you ordered a taxi at 7pm it wouldn’t get there till gone 10 because it was that busy.
“It has changed now and there’s no getting around that. But it doesn’t matter about the problems, I absolutely adore this town, warts and all.
“Speaking as a councillor, while finances are like they are then things cannot possibly be like they used to.
“But I feel Blackpool is moving forward ... though that will shock the Labour Party, they’d never expect me to say that!
“When I go to Sheffield now to see my brother, who still lives there, I say I’m going home. But I always say how lucky I am to be Blackpool’s adopted daughter. It is a truly wonderful place.”
I ask her how she would describe Lily Henderson.
“Straight-talking,” she responds. “I always like to make sure I am telling the truth and if I make a mistake, I admit it.”
With an attitude like that, and a lifelong passion for helping others, it is no surprise that this most remarkable of ladies is so well-respect and well-liked.
Long may she continue to reign.