A brief history of… British holidays

As Britons pack their bags and slap on the suntan lotion, Julian Humphrys takes us on a brief journey through the history of British holidays...

A depiction of a Georgian Bath chair.

Who were Britain’s first tourists?

Pilgrims. Whether it was overseas to Santiago de Compostela, Mont Saint Michel or Jerusalem – or in Britain to places like Lindisfarne or Canterbury – a religious pilgrimage offered a break from an everyday routine, and the opportunity to see somewhere new. And, like today’s tourists, medieval pilgrims liked to bring home souvenirs. Pilgrim badges were bought in large numbers while the well-off might even splash out on a holy relic.


When did the craze for cultural tourism take hold?

From about 1600 to 1800 no young gentleman’s education was truly complete until he had been on the Grand Tour, when he would travel around Europe in order to view Classical and Renaissance art and architecture in situ. For many, it was a chance to sow their wild oats and, as the contents of so many British stately homes will confirm, indulge in a huge shopping expedition.

So did anyone holiday at home?

By the end of the 18th century, they had no choice but to. Partly because of the activities of one Napoleon Bonaparte, continental travelling had become too dangerous for a Grand Tour, and so potential tourists started exploring their own country. They indulged their love of the picturesque with the aid of such publications as William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye. Others had always preferred a less exotic holiday, basing themselves in spa towns like Bath or Harrogate.

All these seem to be holidays for the rich. What about the less well-off?

The real growth in popular tourism began when railways made travel cheaper and quicker. In July 1841, Thomas Cook organised the first ever package tour, arranging for a rail company to take 570 temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough for a shilling a head.


The initial beneficiaries of cheaper transport were the middle classes. Yet, by the last quarter of the 19th century, the tradition of the British working-class holiday was firmly established, especially to seaside resorts such as Blackpool, which were now within easy reach of the industrial cities of the north.