Ghostly goings-on at historic hotel

Birkdale Palace Hotel
Birkdale Palace Hotel

Local historian Alf Ridyard takes a look at spooky stories from a North West hotel..

Today we jump in our time machine and it takes us back to 1866, a time when the rail systems of the country had spread their tentacles to the coast, not for industrial purposes but to convey the working classes for holidays.

This was a new phenomena, as prior to this the only way was to use stage coaches and the canals in the case of Southport with the the fly boats on the Leeds Liverpool canal (passenger-carrying barges) to Scarisbrick and onward to the seaside by horse-drawn carriage.

We look at one particular hotel which, when opened, would not have been for the working class but the great and the good of society. The Birkdale Palace was opened in 1866 by a group of Manchester merchants.

It was a typical Victorian monolith, which shouted out opulence, with 75 bedrooms, concert room, dining areas and international cuisine to match those of the London hotels.

The problem with the beachside hotel was its inaccessibility by road or rail and its life, as it was, ended in bankruptcy. A change of ownership and a change of direction in prospective clientele was brought in by 1881.

After a complete revamp, an increase in the bedrooms to 200 opened the way, to not just the upper classes but the now growing middle classes. The hotel was now what today we would call a health spa, water drawn from the sea, a major effort in itself at Southport, tennis courts, a croquet lawn, dancing to a live band, and evening concerts. The remarkable addition was its own railway station named conveniently, “Birkdale Palace”.

This station was on the Southport and Cheshire railway lines between Liverpool and Lord Street stations in Southport.

Southport was the more gentile resort as opposed to Blackpool further up the coast and the choice of the working classes. It was at the time still not really accessible by road.

The crowds of wealthier guests were now turning up in their droves and enjoying the hydro therapeutic offerings. Unfortunately the hotel was also gaining a reputation as being haunted, stories of the architect throwing himself from the roof and his spirit wandering around the place, were, as it turned out, stories and nothing else.

But an incident in 1886 just added to the rumours, with some paranormal credibility. The incident was, on the night of December 9. The sailing ship Mexico out of Liverpool had been driven by gales onto the beach at Ainsdale.

The Birkdale lifeboat, in attempting a rescue of the stricken sailors, overturned and 14 of the 16 lifeboatmen were drowned, making it one of the worst lifeboat disasters on record.

The connection to the hotel was that the bodies were laid out in the hotel coach house which was used as a temporary morgue.

Again the spirits of the sailors were reported as active on nights of poor weather.

Stories of two sisters staying at the hotel, it was alleged, had agreed to a suicide pact, which further added to the haunted theory.

Moving on to World War Two and the hotel was requisitioned by the American Red Cross as an R&R (rest and recuperation) place for the American Army Air Force bomber crews.

From 1942-1945 over 15,000 airmen enjoyed the facility, one being Clarke Gable who, at the time was also making a moral-boosting film for the folks back home, showing the servicemen around Southport and the hotel in particular.

Of course, no mention was made at the time of the town or the hotels name for security reasons. It was still the target of German bombers but fortunately they missed ,sadly the bombs hit a home for blind children.

In 1946 Gable revisited the hotel still in full uniform and was greeted by 300 astonished guests. The hotel had also since 1889 welcomed golfers who would play the newly opened Birkdale course, which is five minutes from the hotel.

Of course, in later years, international tournaments took place on the course, 1948 being the first when the Curtis Cup was played there followed by the Walker Cup in 1951.

The British Open in 1954, ‘61,and ‘65 and the Ryder Cup also in ‘65. These tournaments ensured the hotel was booked to capacity.

By 1952 the station adjoining the hotel had closed to passenger traffic but was specially opened for these events to ferry the spectators in from Liverpool and other fans from elsewhere, via Lord Street station.

In the after-war years many celebrities also stayed at the hotel. In 1953 Frank Sinatra stayed when appearing at the Liverpool Empire for five nights.

During his stay he also used the golf course daily, his golf instructor who he had met in Tokyo being a Birkdale man.

Judy Garland, Peter Sellers, and Laurel and Hardy were guests on more than one occasion and the Beatles performed there in 1962.

The introduction of cheap air travel abroad in the mid-60s and the haunted house stories were sounding the death knell of this seaside resort, apart from the day trippers who now had access by better roads and rail.

Two weeks of sun in Spain was costing just as much as one week of pampering and opulence in these vast mansion-like hotels.

The year 1958 was also a bad one for the hotel, as no fewer than seventeen deaths were reported, four in one room No. 287, plus in 1961 there was a scandal involving the hotel which further diminished its reputation when a young girl, Amanda Jane Graham, was found murdered and hidden under the bed in one of the rooms.

A hotel porter was arrested and convicted for the murder.

In addition it has been widely stated over the years that eleven murders had been committed within the walls of this hotel.

The ghost of the young girl is also said to appear in the Fisherman’s Rest at certain times. In its last years the hotel was used as a film set: “What’s Good For the Goose” starring Norman wisdom and “The Sorcerers” and the “Haunted House of Horrors” starring Boris Karloff where filmed here.

The hotel was eventually demolished in 1969 but not without adding to the hauntings theory, the demolition men witnessed the lifts operating themselves after the electricity had been cut off and the hand cranking machinery dismantled.

Plus there were the sounds of high heels walking the corridors and also voices arguing. The demolition men also reported being locked in the bedrooms on many occasions. It seems like the old building was not giving up without a fight.

One last story, the coach house these days is a pub named the Fisherman’s Rest.

In recognition of the 14 lifeboat men that lost their lives back in 1886, and their bodies laid out there when a hurriedly convened post mortem took place, the handrail for the bar is now supported by 14 mermaids as a memorial.

Additional note, the railway line that brought the guests is also long gone as is Lord Street Station in the town centre.

The coast road now runs along the site of the rail line and the hardcore base for the road is the rubble of the demolished hotel, perhaps in time more paranormal activities will raise their head.