This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The British seaside was at its most glamorous during the interwar years. Art Deco railway posters sold a vision of the coast that was drenched in light and vivid with colour, evoking French Riviera style, Hollywood movie sets, Modernism and mass sun worship.
The De la Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea is well known but, five miles east, the promenade between Hastings and St Leonards tells its own story about fashions in leisure and architecture. From the massive liner-like apartment block of Marine Court to Britain’s first underground car park, its interwar gems are still there to be found.
The £3m redevelopment of Hastings seafront was masterminded by borough engineer Sidney Little (1885–1961) whose love of the era’s wonder material earned him the title ‘concrete king’. Before Little’s arrival in 1926 the roads were poor, sanitation was inadequate and visitor numbers were in decline. A decade later, politician Leslie Hore-Belisha was so impressed with Hastings he declared it was “in the forefront of all other seaside towns”.
Competition within the domestic holiday market was intense but Hastings managed something unique in its response to the huge challenge posed by the motor car. Between 1914 and 1930 motor vehicle numbers had risen from a mere 140,000 to 1.5 million. By 1939 there were 3 million, of which 2 million were private cars. Summer weekends were already distinguished by coastward traffic jams and resorts were struggling to meet the demand for parking. As Hore-Belisha told assembled dignitaries in 1936: “Every single day since I became minister of transport [in 1934] there has been a net addition of 500 cars to the road.”
To ease traffic flow along Hastings seafront, Sidney Little reclaimed a strip of land from the top of the beach in which he built a new sea wall, the promenade and a wider road. This left a gap between the old and new sea defences into which Little proposed to insert a subterranean car park. Completed in 1931, it was the first of its kind to be built under civic auspices anywhere in the world. There are not many car parks that can be recommended for their aesthetic qualities, but the Carlisle Parade example is a mini masterpiece of 1930s design. Its sequence of shallow, squared-off arches converges to give a cinematic quality that is perfectly in tune with the era.
Cars did not revolutionise the seaside simply because of the space they took up. They were evidence of an increasingly affluent middle class that took the annual summer holiday for granted. The habit of taking a week off was spreading among workers more generally throughout the decade, and after the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 some 15 million people were eligible. As HB Brenan put it in The Architectural Review: “Before the war many villagers in central England had never seen the sea. Today, members of a Women’s Institute in a Cotswold village… will visit Aberystwyth one year and Bournemouth the next as unconcernedly as 30 years ago they would have gone picnicking.”
In the past, destinations were dictated by rail routes but cars, coaches and motorbikes opened up wider possibilities. And, critically, if a resort did not live up to its guidebook hype, holidaymakers could go somewhere else, not next year but next day.
This pressure drove a massive investment in up-to-date attractions, foremost of which was the open-air swimming pool or lido. Despite the obvious abundance of water at the seaside, no self-respecting resort could afford to be without one.
The St Leonards Bathing Pool, designed by Little, opened in 1933. Its vast D-shaped arena had the look of a concrete amphitheatre with raked seating for 2,500 spectators and a curved deck for sunbathing. It was uncompromisingly ‘modern’; the perfect place to show off your new streamlined bathing costume. And its 330x90ft pool was nearly as big as Blackpool’s. At a cost of £60,000, it put Hastings in the same league as bigger northern resorts.
But the love of lidos proved short-lived and Little spectacularly over-estimated visitor demand. The pool is therefore one of the lost elements of his grand plan, as is the contemporary block of 90 beach chalets built next door. These were flat-roofed to allow for sunbathing and like the lido were built with integral garaging. So unadorned were they in their concrete simplicity, they must have seemed an astonishing incursion amid the town’s Victorian terraces.
Thankfully the double-decker promenade that has connected Hastings with St Leonards since 1934 retains most of its original elements. The concrete may be showing signs of age but it’s still easy to imagine young women sauntering along its length dressed in the beach pyjamas made fashionable by socialites holidaying at Juan-les-Pins. When the sun was out they could traverse the pink and yellow chequer-board paving of the top deck, stopping to rest in one of Sidney Little’s distinctive modern shelters. In less clement weather they could take the covered lower deck, known as Bottle Alley because of the bottle glass Little salvaged from a local rubbish tip and embedded in the rear wall for decoration.
You can still enjoy a rhythmic run of ‘sun-trap shelters’ as the promenade continues above the shingle beach at St Leonards, but the real star here is Marine Court, a ‘liner on land’ docked as a permanent reminder of the interwar fashion for cruising.
Few people could afford to set sail for their holidays but if the seaside was the everyman’s escape, part of its remit was to give a sense of what it might be like to live a different life. Buildings designed to imitate ocean liners were a feature of several resorts and 1930s holiday camps but the scale of Marine Court is exceptional. At 14 storeys high it was the tallest residential building in Britain when it opened in 1937 and, just in case its debt to the Queen Mary was not self-evident, Cunard-White Star Line lent a 24ft-long model of their latest vessel to be displayed inside.
With its steel-framed construction, roof-top sun parlour and dramatic silhouette Marine Court cost more than £400,000 to build. Though it was nothing to do with Sidney Little, its construction showed just what an impact the borough engineer’s changes had made to perceptions of the resort as a fashionable place. The scaffolding on its exterior and the ‘wet paint’ signs on the seafront shelters that I saw during my recent visit suggest these structures may at last be on the way back to their 1930s heyday.
The interwar holiday revolution: five more places to explore
Midland Hotel, Morecambe
When the London, Midland and Scottish Railway decided to replace its two existing Morecambe hotels in 1933, it employed the best designers of the day. Architect Oliver Hill responded to the curve of the promenade with a streamlined building three storeys high. Its central circular tower contains the entrance and an elegant spiral staircase above which is the ceiling medallion of Neptune and Triton by Eric Gill. Other decorative works by Gill also survive and can be enjoyed if you choose to stay at the restored hotel or just take afternoon tea in its circular cafe.
Rothesay Pavilion, Argyll and Bute
The fashion for sunbathing began in the 1920s, famously championed by designer Coco Chanel. The influence of this trend on architecture was profound, with long rows of glazing and flat roofs for sunbathing, typical of International Modernism. In 1938 Scotland got in on the act with James Carrick’s Rothesay Pavilion, designed to give Glasgow holidaymakers a taste of this glamorous style and offering a range of attractions with a dance hall at its centre. The pavilion remains open today but has yet to be restored to its former glory.
Labworth Restaurant, Canvey Island
Canvey Island was first developed for tourism by the Victorians, but really grew in popularity during the early 20th century when many of London’s eastenders chose to holiday at the resort. Its contribution to seaside Modernism is the Labworth Restaurant, designed to look like the bridge of an ocean liner, by Anglo-Danish engineer Ove Arup. Rescued from dereliction in 1998, it still operates as a restaurant.
Tinside Lido, Plymouth
What better way to recreate the feel of the 1930s seaside than with a trip to the lido? Few coastal examples survive but the 1935 pool jutting into Plymouth Sound was restored in 2003 and is now open for public swimming between June and September. In its heyday visitors could enjoy floodlit bathing accompanied by an orchestra, but even if that’s no longer possible the turquoise pool remains an impressive sight when viewed from the contemporary sun terrace of Tinside Colonnade.
Saltdean, East Sussex
The Brighton suburb of Saltdean experienced significant development during the 1930s reflecting the seaside’s increasing popularity as a permanent home for commuters using the new electric trains to London. Not only does Saltdean have some fine examples of interwar housing, in a range of styles from Tudoresque to Spanish, Italian and Cubist, it also boasts one of the best lidos of the period, due to re-open in 2016 following refurbishment. Its architect, RWH Jones, also designed the 426-bedroom Ocean Hotel, now converted to apartments.
Kathryn Ferry is a historian and writer who specialises in architecture, design and seaside culture. kathrynferry.co.uk