Courtfield Days: An affectionate glance at the history of venerable institution.


The term ‘Courtfield’ has a dual meaning for those who experienced it. First, there was the House, ‘Courtfield House’, which served as the physical location hotel & catering training from 1947 until 1969 and then again from 1986 until 1998. Secondly, Courtfield was the name associated with all the training that went on there, when ‘Courtfield’ became synonymous with the World Class’ skills training and management education that went on there. In those early days, Courtfield and Westminster College were the two centres of excellence in the UK, competing with the best Hotel Schools in Europe. They provided the industry with the key players in hotel and catering operations and management, throughout the world.

In its heyday, Courtfield was in the vanguard of hotel and catering (as it was referred to then, ‘hospitality’ now) learning. The only other catering college at the time was Westminster and a little later the Universities of Strathclyde and Surrey offered courses in catering management. It was established in the tradition of the greatest hotel schools in the world, those of Lausanne, Luzern, Cornell, The Hague and Geneva, eventually spawning a host of competing schools throughout the UK and Europe. Courtfield’s history is woven with the names of great people, the brainchild of legends William Rees Jones, the first Head of Department, Gloria Swanson, the president of the Hotel & Boarding House Association, Alderman Machin, Billy Read, Johnny Whyte, later Geoff Cowell.

History of Hospitality Education in Blackpool

Although its actual origins are unclear, it’s certain that a School of Confectionery was operating in the 1920’s by local Baker and entrepreneur George Burton. Burtons pioneered bakery manufacturing and technologies. It became one of the UK’s largest biscuit maker, as Burton’s Gold Medal Biscuit Company and eventually becoming Burton’s Foods. George became Chief examiner with City & Guilds and by 1937 was Head of Blackpool Technical College’s School of Bakery.

Discussions commenced between the new College’s Principal and Blackpool Borough Council to establish a college to support the hotel and catering businesses in the local economy. In 1934 Classes were held to assist Blackpool Hotel & Boarding House Association improve its member’s services to its visitors. In 1937 the College held classes at Thames Road School and at Vance Road providing the beginnings of formal hotel and catering courses, together with the formation of an Advisory Committee. 1939 the College Prospectus listed a ‘Hotel & Catering Trades Advisory Committee, indicating a well established and co-ordinated provision for the town’s Hotel & Catering Industry.

After World War 2 catering courses attracted an influx of demobbed service men, at the wooden building on the site of what is now College Court on Park Road. Indeed, the Gazette and Herald reported that the first post war Courses would commence on 24th September 1945. Catering Courses would start in October when Major W Rees Jones was to be ‘released from the from the Forces’. By 1947, the pressure was beginning to tell on the limited facilities in the ‘Wooden Hut’ and negotiations began to find a suitable home for Catering education in Blackpool. ‘Courtfield’, on the corner of Hornby Road and Park Road, was soon identified as a potential site. The house had been owned by the Mather family. Robert Butcher Mather had been Mayor of Blackpool in 1897-98.

Courtfield House

Built in 1897 by Town Freeman, successful businessman and ex Mayor Robert Mather JP, the house was considered to be one of the finest in the borough. The Mather family occupied the house until its sale, by auction in 1945. The name of ‘Courtfield’ was suggested by a family friend, Rev Fr Bernard Vaughan. The Vaughan’s ancestral home in Gloucestershire was called ‘Courtfield’, it had been in the family since 1570.

At a cost of £14,750 (plus £396 costs) the buildings and land were bought amid controversy. There was much disquiet about the cost and perceived competition between the college restaurant facilities and local businesses, although there was no comment about the need for a hotel & catering school.

Courtfield as a centre for Hotel & Catering was actually established in 1947, when students were transferred from the Bakery School on Park Road. Ten years earlier classes had been held in a number of venues in the town, to assist local hoteliers. An Advisory Committee was formed to investigate the establishment of a Catering Department at the College.

The cost of acquiring the building and land of the Courtfield site was £14,750.

The overall cost of ‘The Experiment’ was reported to have been £60,000, which included modifications to the house and equipping it with some of the finest equipment available. Some of the silverware is still being used at the college, badged with the original Blackpool Technical College ‘BTC’. Much of the original polished copper pans that many of us remember cleaning with lemon and salt at the end of our classes, was sold off to provide replacement aluminium pans in the 1970’s. In 1949, ‘Courtfield’ was formally opened in a blaze of publicity with a Lunch for HRH The Duchess of Gloucester in June of that year.

In 1956 it was planned to extend the buildings by demolishing the Coach House at the rear. In the early days, the house was occupied by the Mathers, the Coach House housed 4 Carriages, two horses and a Coachman.

The development involved the addition of ‘prefabs’ at a cost of £9000. However, the Ministry of Education had suggested a larger permanent extension which would accommodate a college refectory, to the side of the house, provided a large dining room, kitchen and servery, increasing the cost of extensions to £21,104, but offsetting the costs with revenues from sales. This became the ‘College Refectory’ and well used by staff, Students and occasionally the public.

Controversy was never far away from the headlines. Disagreements and poor communications between the Council departments in setting up the College was identified as the cause. The Gazette at the time reported that there was additional confusion in the minds of the public and Councillors regarding the Courtfield proposals and those for a new and separate Food Technology building. Very quickly, extensions were agreed, planned and developed to provide a state of the art home for ‘Blackpool Catering College’. The Gazette of 13 October 1951 headlined on the ‘Battle raging over Catering College’, there were references to ‘Frayed Tempers’, especially when College staff salary increases were proposed.

Squabbles about money failed to dent the enthusiasm in neither the department nor the students. In response, The Gazette reported Mr W Rees Jones saying that his proudest moment was when one of the most vociferous critics, the Mayor Cllr Joseph Hill JP, had expressed his pride in the recent student’s results.

Outside Links

In the early days, ‘Courtfield House’ ran as an operating hotel school with all the facilities of a commercial hotel, with Reception, Rooms, Restaurant, and all the back room operations, Laundry and Linen Room, Kitchens and Stores, Cleaners and Pot washing. Press photo’s of the time show, recently ‘demobbed’ students going through the work of every department in the Hotel. As early as 1948, students were exhibiting and demonstrating at the prestigious International Hotel & Catering Exhibition at Olympia in London.

In 1936, Mr E.H. Harrison, Blackpool’s Director of Education, suggested a ‘novel move’. That is, to gain real, practical experience in the business, by taking over a local hotel in the ‘Off Season’. The Education Committee would take over the hotel. There’s no available evidence that the project started, however, the caterers established close and vibrant associations with commercial and welfare catering operations in the town, over many following years. Indeed, as it will be seen, that’s exactly what happened many years later.

Links with the local businesses were enhanced in the 1947 when Blackpool Landladies and the public were offered a three year two nights a week course series of demonstrations and talks on Catering. In the 1950’s this was supplemented by a series of eight demonstrations and talks on Catering. Hugely popular and widely reported, these were held in the Tower Circus. The Gazette reported that over 500 ‘Boarding House & Hotel Keeper’ attended the series of eight demonstrations and talks. These had been arranged via the College by virtue of the close links that Mrs Gloria Swanson, the President of Blackpool Hotel & Boarding House Association had. Mrs Swanson was also the Chairman of the Trades Advisory Committee at the College.

Open Days allowed the public, employers and prospective students to see what was being done in the Department. A programme from May 1952 cites activities going on in 12 rooms in Courtfield house as well as in the Green House and the gardens: demonstrations of buffet work, silver service, Cocktails, flower arranging, . No less than 95 staff and students are detailed in the programme to show people what was possible.

Royal Visit to Lancaster

To mark the 600th Anniversary of the County Palatine, the King, Queens and Princess Margaret accepted an invitation for a two day visit to Lancaster which included a lunch provided and served by Courtfield Students.

In May 1968, Lord Derby the then President of the BHCSS invited the Students to cater for the Queen at Knowsley Hall, Liverpool. The Gazette reported the occasion and described how great the service was at two events catered by the students at the Police College at Hutton, Preston where they catered for the Deputy Lord Lieutenants, guests of Lord Derby. Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby was Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire from 1951 to 1968. The Lord Lieutenant is the Queen’s personal representative in the County. Lord Derby had laid the College’s Foundation Stone in September 1934.

The College files are full of letters of thanks for services given to the great and the good, including Prime Minister, Edward Heath and Shirley Williams, Minister of Education and Paymaster General. She held both appointments at the same time.

During the 60’s & 70’s, each year the students had the opportunity to try out new found skills when Courtfield took over the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, ‘en masse’. The hotel management stepped aside to allow the Courtfield staff and students to take on the operational roles of the hotel, all under the watchful eye of the leading characters of the day: Jim Vincent, Johnny White, Bert Jackson, Vic Hoyle, Peter Blair, Bryan Hill, Gladys Skelton, Harold Hewitson, all taking on the management of hotel departments. Each year group of students took on roles appropriate to their experience, with everyone getting involved in the cleaning and setting up of the Hotel. They were fabulous days of learning with all students remembering them with great affection and recognition of real learning with ‘real’ customers.

Later students would have the opportunity to work at high status venues, like for example Houghton Tower and others, serving Royalty or National figures visiting the area.

Local Newspapers were filled with comment and editorial on all manner of topics relating to Courtfield, staff, students, officials, events, Prize Giving, Exam results and Open Days, and just ‘Goings on’, even Menus and recipes. Occasionally the comment was negative. Some of the local businesses objected to the success of the restaurants, large numbers of students and the public preferred to use the college refectory rather than local businesses.

Sometimes adverse comments came from politicians who objected to the education budget being hijacked by maintenance of catering equipment. Local schools jealous of the resources given to the Hotel & Catering Department rather than the local schools who argued vociferously against resources allocated to the College. Some even scoffed at the prospects of training and education for ‘chambermaids, waiters and cooks’.

Amongst the more positive reporting were references to Prizes awarded and Teachers from other institutions coming to Blackpool to ‘see how it’s done’. Some of the Politicians argued that Blackpool should be the National Centre for Hotel & Catering Education. There were frequent pictures of Students, staff and celebrities being served by them.

As commercial and educational pressures followed, those ‘take-overs’ became fewer and eventually non-existent by the mid 1960’s. There was a ‘nod’ to the practice for a number of years when final year students came off timetable, each group in turn to run the 3 restaurants in ‘C’ Block as commercial operations without intervention but with the support of the staff. So, for example, Jack Sumner in his Marketing Class, would set up a Marketing Plan with the students for their restaurant operation. Again pressures for time and space eventually finished the practice in the late 1980’s.

New Head and the move to Bispham.

The new College campus was developed at Bispham, Ashfield Road and the brand new, multi storey building was allocated for catering, with what were first class facilities: 6 floors, 5 new restaurants 6 training kitchens, a Pastrywork kitchen and a Larder preparation room along with an Accommodation suite, Science Labs, a library and a new feature: a ‘Call Order Restaurant’ modelled on the latest contemporary restaurants in London and many US city’s. This indeed was ‘Cutting Edge’. In today’s parlance, the ‘Fine Dining’ restaurant was the Machin Room, named after Alderman Machin, one of the key local figures responsible for the decision to build a new College.

Following the closure of Courtfield site, the new ‘C’ Block (‘C’ for Courtfield, now ‘Cleveleys’) quickly became a new home for the staff and the students. Managers in Morning suits, Waiters in Tails and chefs in whites with tall hats, mixed and mingled in the corridors appreciating and aspiring to jobs in the best that the industry could offer. Restaurant staff was only made up of final year students, who were inspected each day for clean hands nails, clean shoes and for their personal ‘odour’, with defaulters being given short shrift or the ‘Hair-drier’ treatment. Geoff Cowell saw the ‘Tail Coats’ as an anachronism when they moved to Bispham, but not for long, no new students bought them. John Whyte did not agree, but the College moved with the times and the Tail Coat era was over.

Many students went on to become Captains of the industry all over the world.

The 1970’s and early 80’s saw the ‘Hey-Day’ of Catering Education at Blackpool: a Faculty of 90+ staff, 1000 students, graduating 400 per year with high quality qualifications into the Hospitality business of the world. However, with the fame and popularity came the increasing demand for space and staff. The Faculty had reached a point of ‘Critical Mass’. It was time to look at the structure. It made sense at that time to separate out the so called ‘Craft’, or operations courses from the ‘Management’ provision, forming the Department of Catering Operations.

In addition, pressure was mounting to support education for those not able to join the mainstream courses either because of ability or disability, together with the need to support employability courses under the Governments YTS (Youth raining Scheme) and the ‘TOPS’ programme – (Training Opportunities Scheme, designed for adults.). Space was found in the old Somerset Avenue School site to provide kitchen and food service facilities, funded through Central Government. This author and others drew plans for the redevelopment of the site along with plant and equipment lists. The courses were very successful, but short lived, coinciding with the decision to move back into Courtfield.

By now Courtfield House was in a very poor state, occupied by the Arts Department and variously used as a studio and a Drop In space for all sorts of folk. The conditions there deteriorated badly and there was considerable damage to the structure of the building.

After much thought the decision was taken to move the Craft students – Chefs, Waiters, Receptionists, Housekeepers, Pastry Chefs and Bakers and the Butchers and courses back into Courtfield House and the Park Road site, now in an almost derelict state.

The decision coincided with the recruitment of a stylish, exciting young Chef Lecturer, who was making a name for himself in East Lancashire. Graham Wilkinson arrived at the College as a Principal Lecturer in Cookery & Food Production, he brought flair, talent and experience from the top UK establishments including Buckingham Palace. Graham and this Author planned and executed the move back to Courtfield after a major refurbishment of equipment and the building. Courtfield was back!

The move back to Courtfield

The decision to move back to Courtfield House was not universally popular. Staff and students considered it a retrograde step. But the move went on in any case. A number of us considered the move to be a rebirth of what was. Realisation was somewhat harsher. The building was in a mess but true to the word of College management and the goodwill of some of the staff and effort from other departments all moved ahead in the Summer holidays of 1985.

Like the initial move to Bispham, it was largely carried out by staff without professional movers. Funding was helped greatly by staff and students who took over a hospitality unit at the Lytham Open Golf, and the following year did the same again at another venue, we were voted the best independent hospitality unit on both occasions. Individuals were encouraged to make donations which bought dining room chairs and other essentials.

In spite of hard work some classes were not ready for the start of the new Term in September. Ivor Hixon, the Department Head at the time, recalls:

In spite of our best efforts we were not completely ready for the September start. Bakery and Meat Technology were able to run as usual. First year catering students were catered for within the existing resources, supported by part-time paid work in local establishments. The start for day release students was postponed until after the Illuminations, in November, which suited everyone.

The major problem was accommodating senior catering students. Graham Wilkinson, solved this by using his contacts and considerable charm to place them all at the prestigious Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Students would be working alongside a skilled, experienced and highly qualified team. During this highly desirable internship, Gladys Skelton and Yvonne Trotter were the resident tutors who taught, mothered, cared for and kept all in line until the end of October.

The Decline of Courtfield.

Nothing remains static, the demand for hospitality programmes declined, as did many of the craft courses. Smaller colleges that had been ‘Feeder’ colleges in the past, were given permission to run their own courses. Private providers and the larger hospitality companies decided to run their own training. Delivery and assessment of Trainees was undertaken in the workplace rather than in ‘Realistic Work Environments’. Consequently, the now depleted Craft programmes were moved back to Bispham. Eventually, the College sold off Courtfield House and its land to developers. They immediately cashed in on the artefacts of what had been a beautiful Victorian house: its marble fireplaces, carved wood doors and brass door furniture, ceiling mouldings, stained glass windows, even its oak floorboards.

From the mid 90’s a new reorganisation at the college dismantled the teaching organisation for Hotel & Catering, many of the long serving, highly qualified, but expensive staff were encouraged to retire. The faculties of Food, Leisure and Hairdressing were merged, with a new Head of Department and by the end of the 90’s the Hotel & Catering provision at the college was a shadow of its former self.

The Legacy of those times, at the peak of its reputation as a world class provider of Hotel and Catering skills ( now referred to as Hospitality) is carried by those who remember it. Never to be repeated.

The name of Courtfield lives on in our memories as a centre of vocational excellence in Hospitality management and Culinary Arts.


Editors Note: This is a short extract from a longer and more detailed History of Courtfield, made available to the Local History Department at Blackpool Central Library with pictures and memorabilia.

Feb 2016