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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Scott's Antarctic 'Hut' & Rigby Road 'Works'

A fascinating aired programme this week on the conservation of the Base Camp used by Captain Scott and his team attempting to reach the South Pole - threw up some parallels with the extant structures at Rigby Road, used over decades (since 1922) to maintain, repair and rebuild Blackpool's trams.

After a hundred years the original wooden structure which was erected for the Scott Expedition still stands in Antarctica. It remains more or less as it was at the time of the expedition which ended with the deaths of Captain Scott and his colleagues in their attempt to return to the Base Camp from an abortive trek towards the South Pole. Inside, the hut retains diverse supplies, material, personal artifacts of all kinds, scientific equipment, food stuffs in familiar tins and boxes of the manufacturers, from baked beans to biscuits. The programme showed fine detail of this poignant wooden hut and its immediate surrounds, including the outside privy used by Scott's men.

Despite incessant encroachment of snow drifts, ice and the strong gale force winds that prevail in a remote region of the world - this time capsule of a doomed expedition has remained on its original site. The New Zealand government, which has some oversight in this part of the world, has taken upon itself to protect the structure under strict preservation and conservation conditions. Ongoing work onsite in an enhanced but modest base, as well as in New Zealand, is ensuring that the structure and its contents are kept 'as is' being meticulously recorded and conserved to original state and location within the hut.

This all reminds me of the potential for Blackpool's Council and diverse heritage bodies to assume a similar role for the remaining structures and content of Rigby Road Tram Workshops. This large complex of 'huts' have been providing a vital role for traditional skills since the early 1920s. A large chunk of the original site was demolished in the mid-1960s when closure of the town's street tram services meant reduction in the size of the tramway fleet - and consequent downscaling of resources to maintain the rest.

Not accessible to the public, and rarely seen by those with interest in such matters, the tram depot structure from the 1930s, and earlier work 'shops' are themselves time capsules performing tasks on trams of varying vintage, in similar manner to an earlier century. This site is the very last example of a municipal tramway workshop in the UK - and remarkably still very much in operation, although much diminished in staffing and scale today. The structures themselves stem from World War One when the Corporation took advantage of the War Department's 'fire sale' of vehicles, aircraft, equipment, and structures needed in pursuit of final military victory in 1918.

A number of original aircraft and vehicle 'hangars' were acquired and re-erected on Corporation land at Rigby Road to provide a comprehensive base in which the fast expanding Tramways fleet could be dealt with, and importantly a new fleet of tramcars built to augment earlier types. The Tramways Department's 'Standard' car design saw some 34 examples built by local craftsmen in the then new Workshops. Other trams followed, along with the famous illuminated trams, starting with the 'Gondola' the 'Lifeboat' and their successors.

Below : Rigby Road's last blacksmith at work in the Engineering Shop - the blacksmith retired but the forge and all of the attendant tools and fixtures remain.

The Body Shop with a mid-life refurbishment of one of Blackpool's final class of traditional tramcars in not too long ago. A rebuilt 'Balloon' car stands alongside almost finished for its extended service life. The tram was originally built in Preston in 1935.

A highly creditable initiative is already underway to ensure a comprehensive collection of Blackpool's famous and enduring tram types are kept very much alive on the promenade by a recently established 'Blackpool Heritage Tram Tours' group, led by Bryan Lindop, enjoying the support of volunteers operating a summer season service of tours for the pleasure of visitors (and others). The now growing impressive collection is maintained in the remaining Work 'Shops' at Rigby Road. These contain a Paint Shop, Engineering Shop, Body Shop, and Electrical Compound within the depot itself. The light rail fleet is seperately dealt with in the Starr Gate depot purpose built in 2010.

It is now important that the role of this small pocket of Blackpool's former municipal enterprise of the 19th century (and earlier) is kept as far as possible 'as is' and public endorsement and official support provided to ensure it remains so, to demonstrate the origins of Blackpool's electric tram system. Housing is now surrounding the transport operations on Rigby Road and the character of this former industrial part of the town has been dramatically changed over the past decade. Quite evidently planners and the social housing lobby would like to take over this transport property in its entirety. It is equally important for future generations, and the town's history that they are discouraged from doing so - and action not apathy is needed.

Like the Government of New Zealand - wider public and national interest should be pro-active in ensuring that Rigby Road Works is kept secure to remind us of the town's foremost role in the emergence of electric powered transport (tramways) in the late Victorian era. Blackpool was the pioneer of electric street trams in Britain (1885) and the installation of electric street lighting around the same time. It was of course first in a lot more groundbreaking developments, not the least of which is the Tower itself, and later on, that funride enterprise which grew up on sandhills at the end of the seafront tram service to 'South Shore'. Captain Scott's Hut is a fascinating example of public sector engagement with historical infrastructure - outside of the usual 'stately homes' and churches. Blackpool's council officers and its elected Members must be prevailed upon to give attention to television programme, and then to visit Rigby Road Works to apply lessons of a practical and lasting nature of benefit to future generations.

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