British Seaside Resorts History
Seaside resorts first developed in Britain in the 1700s when the practice of taking the waters, popular at spa towns, extended to the coast. Doctors began to prescribe immersion in seawater for the treatment of conditions like rabies, gout, hysteria, and melancholy! Initially, not a pleasurable experience, though a growing fashion to experience the benefits did alter these attitudes very quickly. One of the earliest such resorts could be found in Yorkshire, at Scarborough. Already a popular spa town, because of acidic water running from one of the cliffs, it became a natural leader in the new trend for bathing. The British Seaside resorts history had begun!
Bathing machines first appeared in 1735, believed to be in Devon. The bathing machines provided a modest, sheltered place for guests. Bathing Machines became a significant part in the etiquette of bathing, particularly for the ladies. They proved popular throughout 18th century right up to 20th century. Men and women usually remained segregated to ensure members of the opposite sex could not see them in their bathing costumes. However, it is worth noting, men often bathed in the nude, up to the 1860s! Guests entered the machines whilst on the beach, wearing their street clothing. They changed into their bathing costumes and the machine would be wheeled into the water usually by a horse or horses pulling it. Some resorts employed a strong individual of the same sex, known as a Dipper. The Dipper assisted the guests from the bathing machine and into the sea. Many of the bathing machines had a flag on them that the user could raise when they wanted to return to shore. By the 1890s the popularity of the machines waned. They remained parked at the top of the beach to be used as changing huts. These soon evolved into beach huts!
Beach huts, like their earlier counterparts, afforded the gentry a private space to change. However, in the early 20th century, the huts became more associated as holiday homes for the working classes. In the 1930s the image of beach huts changed once again. Loved and used by royalty, including King George V, the upper classes renewed their passion to utilize them. The outbreak of World War Two required the beaches to be closed, but post war, saw a huge resurgence for the British seaside holiday. Initially bathing machines, fishermen's huts and boat sheds made up the bulk of the new beach huts, however, as the trend and demand increased, many beach huts became purposefully built. In 1909, at Bournemouth, the council's borough engineer designed and built 160. Positioned either side of the pier, there are now 520 huts owned by the local council and a further 1200 privately owned ones at this site. As stated above, beach huts can be owned by local councils or be privately owned. On popular beaches, the privately owned huts can reach phenomenal prices. Recently, a report in the Daily Mail, stated that a 12ft by 10ft beach hut sold for a staggering £330,000. Declared to be Britain's most expensive beach hut. The hut is situated on Mudeford Spit, Christchurch Harbour Dorset, a second hut sold for £325,000 just a week later. Fortunately, beach huts still owned by local councils, enable those with a smaller budget to rent them for the day and experience the nostalgia and convenience associated with them.
The growth of the Railways.
Improvements to Britain's transport system, particularly the railways, contributed significantly to the growth of the British seaside resort. From the 1840's onwards, expansion of the railways to the coast often transformed small fishing villages into popular resorts! Making access quicker and cheaper, the railways brought working class and middle-class citizens to the coasts of England and Wales. In Brighton, for example, numbers increased so rapidly, that in 1841 the British Royal family abandoned the place as their resort of choice!
Blackpool became extremely popular. It experienced a massive economic and demographic boom. This was exacerbated by the Lancashire Mill owners introducing the concept of a holiday break for workers. They closed the mills for one week, once a year, to conduct essential maintenance on the machinery. This, in turn, gave their employees a much-needed rest. Each mill closed on different weeks. The staggered closures created a steady flow of holiday makers visiting the resorts of the north. Known as Wakes Weeks, the practice soon extended to other industries. In Scotland it became known as Trades Fortnight, in Wales, Miner's Fortnight. The concept of the annual holiday had been born. British seaside resorts' history rocketed.
By the end of the 19th Century over 100 popular resorts existed in England and Wales. From Llandudno in North Wales to St. Ives in Cornwall. With increased numbers of visitors, for both day trips and annual breaks, the resorts had to expand. They needed to provide accommodation and entertainment. The Victorians rose to the challenge and the iconic piers came into being!
The First seaside piers originated in the early 19th Century. These wooden constructions originally started life as landing stages for boat trips. As the popularity of the British seaside resorts grew, the platforms developed to become complex entertainment venues. The World's oldest seaside pier can be found in Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Ryde pier opened on July 26th, 1814. The industrial revolution, then introduced ornate ironwork to piers. Many existing piers converted from wood to iron and a host of new piers sprung up too. Margate pier, originally a 1100 ft wooden jetty, became the first iron pier in 1855. Designed by Eugenius Birch he became one of the most famous pier designers of the age.
Providing a walkway out to sea, the piers often included amusements and theatres. Some remained open to the elements, others roofed or partly roofed. The longest pier still open to date, is Southend. Reaching out 1.34 miles over the Thames estuary, the pier is a grade two listed building and is also home to a pier train!
By 1914 over 100 pleasure piers existed in Britain. However, susceptible to the elements, fire, and collisions with drifting craft, many have been destroyed. It is believed there are now just 55 surviving piers in England and Wales. The National Pier Society, founded in 1979, have helped to protect many from demolition.
20th Century Changes
Despite temporary closures during both World Wars, the British seaside resorts continued to flourish. Ironically, further development in the transport industry, once the resorts' champion, began a decline in their popularity. Air travel and the introduction of the package holiday saw more holiday makers heading to guaranteed sunnier climates. Spain, Portugal, and Greece became the first choice for many. More recently, the introduction of low budget airlines has made holidaying abroad more affordable.
The once, classic images of British seaside resorts, like holiday camps, sticks of rock and donkey rides on the beach, are now regarded by many as outdated. Decline seemed inevitable. Many resorts, like Torbay on the English Riviera, have adapted to the change, however. Now offering excellent restaurants, shops, and nightlife, it is popular still with day trippers and holiday makers. Others, like Newquay in Cornwall, have become destination resorts for activities, like surfing. When the sun comes out, especially on a Bank Holiday, thousands still flock to the resorts, recreating scenes from the heady heydays of the British Seaside holiday.
With Blue flag beaches, clear waters, water sport activities and stunning scenery, British seaside towns can and will survive. If they continue to adapt, they can still attract holidaymakers and day-trippers to spend their time and money at beach resorts. Of, course, with the recent global pandemic, demand for staycations, is likely to rise, with more people afraid to fly and travel abroad. Could this be the next chapter in the British seaside resorts history?
Here at Sweet and Nostalgic we have a wide selection of memorabilia from the 20th century, including fantastic Railway Posters associated with seaside resorts. Why not pop along to our website for a browse?