The great escape: Britain’s love affair with the seaside holiday

The British were the first to head for the seaside in their thousands. John K Walton reveals how growing prosperity and the birth of the railways brought the delights of donkey rides, peep shows and Punch and Judy within the reach of the masses

A poster produced for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) promoting express rail travel to the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool, the world’s first working-class seaside resort. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Summer Saturday mornings came to life early at Blackpool in the late 1870s. Excursion trains would start to arrive from the Lancashire ‘cotton towns’ before breakfast, having started their journeys in the small hours.

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Crowds of excited trippers, many in their workaday wooden clogs, clattered along the stone setts of the promenade from Central Station to the South Jetty, where a German oompah band played for thunderous dancing on the wooden floor, while Irish Sea paddle-steamers set off for Southport or the Isle of Man. On the way they could ride on a steam roundabout, or have phrenologists read their character from the ‘bumps’ on their head, in the front gardens of the terraced houses along what was to become the ‘Golden Mile’.

Soon the stalls on the beach would open, offering shooting galleries and public corn-cutting, alongside the inevitable donkeys (in 1897 there would also be camels). Those who were staying for a few days or a week would take their boxes and trunks, and paper bags of food, to their lodging-house in a street near the station. Others would head for the new winter gardens, where breakfast would be available, and later enjoy the open-air bars and dancing platform at the Raikes Hall pleasure park. The famous tower was a thing of the future: it opened in 1894. But popular Blackpool was very much in business.

Blackpool was early in this field, and its scale was already unique. But similar scenes were spreading around the British coastlines in the late 19th century, from Margate and Southend-on-Sea (Eastend-on-Mud, to Punch magazine) on the Thames estuary, to Dunoon and Rothesay on the Clyde coast. Wherever railways or paddle-steamers made seaside places cheaply accessible to those benefiting from regular wages and reductions in food prices, the working people followed.

These were the first working-class holidaymakers in the world, a product of the first industrial society; and they fed into a much older pattern of commercial seaside visits, originally catering for health-seekers, which developed from the early 18th century in step with the first industrial and consumer revolutions. In its modern form this was also a British, indeed specifically English, invention, which was later exported, like association football, across much of the world.

There were earlier versions of the seaside holiday. The Romans had seaside resorts, although they were organised around elite summer residences rather than cheap fun for the plebs. Across the globe, including in Britain (especially Lancashire), there were many examples of popular summer gatherings at the shore, to bathe and (in some places) drink the sea-water, especially around the time of the August spring tide which (in Catholic countries) coincided closely with the Feast of the Assumption.

Muslims had similar festivals of the sea, and Turkey had sea-hammams (medicinal bathing resorts) as well as inland ones. Scheveningen, in the Netherlands, attracted visitors – and painters – who enjoyed the ambience of the old fishing port in the 17th century. It was Britain, however, which inaugurated and developed the modern ritual of the seaside summer holiday as something healthy, desirable, enjoyable, commercially organised and democratic.

The modern seaside holiday seems to have begun with the commercial provision of sea-bathing at the emergent port of Liverpool in the early 18th century and, a little later, at Scarborough and Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. It originated in an extension of the growing medical fashion for ‘taking the waters’ at mineral springs, as at Bath and Tunbridge Wells, and Scarborough itself. These were the original ‘spa’ resorts, named after an early resort town in what is now Belgium. As doctors adapted popular ideas about the health-giving properties of sea-water and incorporated them into medical ‘science’, they sent their patients to the seaside and instructed them in how many times they should bathe, for how long, and how they should recover from the experience. Cold, brisk, strong northern seas were thought to be better for you, hence the early recourse to chilly North Sea waters.

However, as the fashion for the seaside developed in step both with the commercial and industrial revolutions of the 18th century and the spread of consumer spending among the expanding middle ranks of business people and professionals, the rapidly-expanding metropolis of London became the main engine of growth. So, from the 1730s onwards, the dynamic development of seaside resorts was concentrated in the south-east, especially at Margate and Brighton.

These declining seaports were given a new lease of life by sea-bathing, and soon began to provide shops, libraries, ballrooms and amusements for growing numbers of leisured visitors who sought fashion, status, flirtation and fun as much as health. Purpose-built hotels and lodging-houses, in fashionable Georgian terraces and crescents, grew up alongside the fishermen’s cottages. Margate benefited from easy access to London along the Thames, provided by sailing vessels called ‘hoys’ that also carried grain to the metropolis. Meanwhile Brighton offered the shortest land journey, and attracted the patronage of the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales who eventually became King George IV. His mistresses and raffish entourage gave Brighton an enticing combination of fashionable allure and sleazy glamour which it never lost, and his oriental pavilion established a lasting association between the seaside and exotic architecture.

Even before the arrival of the railway, Brighton at the beginning of the 1840s had an off-season population of around 40,000, standing head and shoulders above the growing numbers of other seaside resorts.

This underlines that the railways (together with paddle-steamers, especially on the Thames and Clyde estuaries and the Bristol Channel) boosted and popularised an existing seaside fashion, rather than starting it.

Several seaside resorts were highlighted by the 1851 census report as featuring among the fastest-growing English towns, alongside the more conventional industrial centres of manufacturing and mining: during the 1820s Brighton headed the list alongside Bradford. But from the 1840s onwards the railway system enabled the urban populations of the industrial English north and Midlands to join the seaside fun in growing numbers.

Special excursion trains, often organised very cheaply by Sunday schools or the temperance movement, took hundreds or even thousands of day-trippers to the coast at a time. They were accident-prone, but they gave many poor town-dwellers their first experience of the sea, and not just in industrial areas. Among the 78 deaths in the Armagh disaster of June 1889, on a seaside excursion to the little Northern Irish resort of Warrenpoint, were three labourers, two domestic servants, three dressmakers (and two apprentices), two milliners and a shop assistant, as well as several teenage daughters of local farmers, and many small children.

Feasts and tides

What promoted the development of a popular seaside holiday industry, beginning in the Lancashire and Yorkshire textile manufacturing towns, was the use of cheap fares at traditional holiday times, initially the Lancashire Wakes and West Riding feasts and tides, for extended seaside visits.

The dominant industries in the north increasingly provided regular, reliable work, and employers recognised the established unpaid holidays and even extended them. Meanwhile, jobs for women and children boosted family incomes as basic prices fell in the late 19th century, freeing up spending power for commercial sport, entertainment and holidays. Different towns had different holidays, spread through the summer and creating a market for seaside accommodation and pleasure providers. Working people organised savings clubs to prepare for their seaside visits, just as they saved for Christmas or for new clothes at Whitsuntide.

Casual or unskilled workers might fall outside this charmed circle, but by the 1890s Lancashire ‘cotton towns’ would be almost deserted during what was now the ‘Wakes Week’, as popular resorts literally set out their stalls to cater for this lucrative market. Meanwhile piers and ‘pleasure palaces’, funded by shareholders in limited companies, eagerly pursued the trippers’ sixpences.

In other parts of industrial Britain established holidays were similarly adapted on a smaller scale, sending working-class visitors to north Wales, the Lancashire coast, the Clyde resorts and the Isle of Man. West Midlanders also went to Aberystwyth, Westonsuper-Mare, Weymouth and Bournemouth; Leicester and Nottingham folk to Skegness and Great Yarmouth; Sheffielders to Cleethorpes; West Yorkshire people to Morecambe, Scarborough and Whitby; and Tynesiders to Whitley Bay and Scarborough. Railway workers at Swindon or Crewe had their own works holidays, with free or concessionary travel.

A huge popular holiday industry thus flourished before the First World War. In 1911 around 1.5 million people lived in nearly 150 British seaside resorts, and Blackpool already had four million visitors a year. The middle-class families who were still the backbone of most resort economies found ways of enjoying themselves alongside the workers, whose behaviour became more polite and less boisterous as they learned holiday manners.

Each resort had its own distinctive mix of holidaymakers, accommodation and entertainments, and guide-books helped people to make informed choices – though many came back to the same place every year, as entire streets converged on the same boarding houses. But people also ‘dressed up’ to pretend to be ‘better’ than they were. The seaside invented its own traditions, with minstrel and pierrot shows, pier entertainment (including slot machine peep shows), deck chairs, boat rides, Punch and Judy and all the pleasures of the beach.

This pattern continued into the 1960s and even the 1970s – though there were some important changes after the First World War. More working-class families could now afford to bring children, if they were in employment. Holidays with pay became more widely available – even though the act of 1938 making them general was not applied until 1950 (the cotton workers who had pioneered the popular seaside holiday were among the last to benefit).

Holiday camps offered new experiences, especially when Butlin’s developed a new model of communal pleasure and shared catering and entertainment. Interwar beaches became more relaxed and informal, as family ‘mixed’ bathing was officially tolerated, the old bathing-machines gave way to tents and huts, and costumes became shorter and more revealing (for men and women alike). The pursuit of a healthy suntan was becoming fashionable long before Coco Chanel on the Riviera.

Modernist architecture appeared at the seaside, in the form of bathing pools, lidos, the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill and the Midland Hotel at Morecambe. Coaches and cars began to challenge trains, although the railways remained important as carriers to the coast until the early 1960s.

By the 1920s the British seaside was beginning to seek inspiration from the very places to which it had originally exported the beach holiday – first to France, then to the north-western European mainland, and on to Spain, where until the 1950s the most important resorts were on the Atlantic coast, not the Mediterranean.

The United States picked up on elite seaside tourism at Newport, Rhode Island, and the seaside followed the imperial flag to South Africa and Australia. Holiday traditions mutated as they passed through different cultures: the influences on Spain (and Indo-China) were French; and on Latin America, Spanish; although the British presence in Argentina affected resort development there.

Australians gave up on seaside piers, and developed their distinctive surfing culture, after the British-style construction at Coogee fell foul of the elements in the 1930s. However, the original wellsprings of the global seaside industry were British. This tends to be forgotten, because the demand for British seaside holidays was domestic, and British resorts were never promoted overseas, thereby remaining externally invisible.

The British themselves have a love-hate relationship with their seaside, celebrating it nostalgically while denigrating it in the present. The media are almost unremittingly negative. The decline of the British seaside began later than is often assumed – in the 1970s rather than the 1960s in most places – and has much more complex causes than the rise of the Mediterranean package tour, which was also a slower and later developer than many believe. And now many resorts are working hard at regeneration, so the sun hasn’t set on the British seaside just yet.

Ten holiday hot spots


1

Portrush

The popular seaside holiday came late to Northern Ireland, but the railways brought late Victorian crowds from industrial Derry and Belfast to the Portrush peninsula and beaches. The world’s first hydro-electric tramway linked it to the spectacular Giant’s Causeway in 1883, and Barry’s Amusements later became Northern Ireland’s biggest funfair.


2

Rothesay

Paddle-steamers, later supplemented by railway links, fed the Glasgow fair and summer weekend exodus “doon th’ watter” to the Clyde coast and islands, with riotous crowds for the last return boat. Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, developed winter gardens, and has protected its luxurious Victorian gentlemen’s urinals on the pier.


3

Blackpool

The world’s first working-class seaside resort, Blackpool exploded from the 1870s, based on the Lancashire Wakes holidays. The late Victorian winter gardens, tower and Alhambra, three piers, pleasure beach, and the municipal illuminations from 1912, headed a unique line-up of attractions. A national resort by the 1930s, and still hugely popular, it peaked in the 1950s.


4

Scarborough

The first British coastal resort, diversifying from a fashionable cliff-side spa in the early 18th century. From 1845 the railway brought trippers, who walked down to the harbour beach below the castle, and the North Bay later grew in popularity. The local authority invested in magnificent bathing pools and parks, while three cliff lifts eased the journey the beach.


5

New Brighton

Founded in the 1830s, New Brighton was popular with day trippers on the Mersey ferries from Liverpool and working-class visitors from the Midlands. For 20 years it had a higher tower than Blackpool, and Cunard liners were an attraction. But beach erosion, river pollution and official neglect effectively destroyed the resort by 1970.


6

Skegness

Planned by the Earl of Scarbrough’s Skegness became the great resort for Leicester Nottingham. Famous for its ‘bracing’ North Sea air and Edwardian ‘Jolly Fisherman’ poster, it later attracted the Derbyshire Miners’ Convalescent Home and the first Butlin’s holiday camp.


7

Great Yarmouth

Paddle-steamers and trains brought Victorian Londoners and Midlanders to this medieval seaport and early popular resort, with its herring fishery, ‘bloaters’ and narrow lanes or ‘Rows’. The Victorians provided two piers and the Edwardian Corporation imported winter gardens from Torquay. The local ‘Golden Mile’ is still busy with stalls and amusements.


8

Barry Island

Barry was the resort for Welsh miners and steel and tinplate workers from the late 19th century. Bristol Channel paddle-steamers were supplemented by the railway from 1896. Caravan sites and cheap accommodation later predominated – with Butlin’s a late arrival in 1966 – not to mention the biggest amusement park in south Wales.


9

Bournemouth

Originally offering pine-laden air for invalids, Bournemouth grew rapidly after the late arrival of a direct railway. Its active local authority supported winter gardens and a municipal orchestra, but from Edwardian times it drew more popular crowds to its Undercliff Drive, piers and beaches, especially from the industrial Midlands.


10

Margate

A pioneering Thames Estuary resort which may have invented the bathing machine, Margate soon attracted East End tradesmen and their families by sailing boat from the 1730s and later paddle-steamer. Between the wars it hosted bathing beauty contests and the Dreamland amusement park, but went downhill rapidly from the 1970s.

Holiday tradition

Donkey Rides

Seaside visitors were already riding on donkeys in the 18th century, just as they did at spa resorts. It remained an adult pastime in Victorian times: there were many complaints of trippers cruelly beating donkeys, and the voyeuristic Reverend Francis Kilvert observed crinoline-clad riders at New Brighton with enthusiasm in the early 1870s. But children gradually took over, as regulations tightened and charity homes for retired donkeys proliferated.

Pierrots

Two kinds of open-air light entertainment became especially associated with the British seaside: blackface minstrels singing ‘plantation’ songs in the later 19th century gave way from the 1890s to ‘pierrots’, white-faced clowns presenting songs and patter, with some double entendre for adult audiences. Almost every Edwardian resort had its pierrot stage, surrounded by deck chairs. They declined rapidly after the Second World War, and a single troupe survives, led by Tony Lidington.

Piers

The pleasure pier was, by definition, unique to the seaside. Existing harbour jetties were used for promenading early on, and in 1823 Brighton acquired a suspension ‘Chain Pier’. But from the 1860s, especially, promenade and pleasure piers, with slot-machines and entertainments, became an emblem of the seaside, and every self-respecting resort had to have one. Some had two, and Blackpool, from 1893, had three. But fire, storm, ship strikes and postwar neglect have reduced their numbers.

Punch and Judy

The Punch and Judy show has a long pedigree, dating from at least the 1660s in England. Like the pierrots, in late Victorian times it became especially identified with the seaside and with children’s entertainment. Its robust humour and politically incorrect plot-lines (violence, wife-beating, cruelty to crocodiles) suited seaside ‘edginess’ but made its ‘Professors’ an endangered species, despite its participatory populism. However, it has survived tenaciously in several seaside resorts.

Sandcastles

The Victorian middle-class family holiday created a demand for toy buckets and spades for the beach. Soon sandcastle-building, which could be combined with cautionary tales about King Canute, became a seaside staple. By the interwar years, popular national newspapers were promoting sandcastle competitions, at Ostend in Belgium as well as in Britain. At English resorts, as in the United States, skilful sand sculptors began to exhibit their elaborate if ephemeral works of art for profit.

John K Walton is an Ikerbasque research professor in contemporary history at the University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, and author of The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century (Manchester University Press, 2000). Walton is also author of The English Seaside Resort, 1750-1914 (Leicester University Press, 1983).

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This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine