Changes took place in society as people became more affluent, more mobile and had more leisure time. It is hard to imagine today just how busy the seaside resorts became as people flocked to them in their thousands. There was tremendous rivalry between neighbouring seaside towns as they competed to attract visitors and holiday makers. A trip to the seaside was indeed an exciting adventure as there was so much to do. The popular holiday destinations were colourful, bustling places crammed with entertainment and amusements of all kinds and that’s without the untold joys of the seashore with its sandy beaches, rock pools, bathing, donkey rides and Punch and Judy.
The Victorian seaside: a refuge from the stresses of everyday life, or an environment demanding the keeping up of appearances and expensive rituals?
Most of our current perceptions of the British, and especially the English and Welsh, seaside are all the stronger for having Victorian roots. Indeed, the survival of English Professor John Walton, in the face of changing tastes and intensifying competition at home and abroad, owes much to positive associations of the 'traditional' summer holiday. Childish innocence (buckets, spades and sandcastles), nature (starfish, rock-pools and gulls as well as the power and tranquillity of the sea itself), simple 'old-fashioned' fun (donkeys, roundabouts, Punch and Judy, boat trips, beach entertainers), and tasty, informal seaside food: fattening, glutinous and eaten out of the bag while on the move, in defiance of conventional table manners (fish and chips, ice cream, candy-floss, cockles and whelks).
Most of these attributes, or their identification with enjoyment, are invented Victorian traditions. They are only part of the panorama of Victorian seaside attractions, which also embraced the fashionable promenade, military and German 'oompah' bands, a spectrum of seaside entertainment's from minstrels and pierrots to music-hall and variety which now survive only as self-conscious 'heritage' revivals. The piers on which many of these activities took place, where they survive, may now be drawn into the cloud of affectionate nostalgia through which the idealised seaside of the past is viewed and, where possible, reproduced.
The bigger Victorian resorts, and especially those which catered for the rapidly-expanding working-class holiday market of the late nineteenth century, most obviously Blackpool and Southend, also offered 'pleasure palaces', as the popular journalist G.R. Sims called them. They combined music-hall, variety and dancing with a broader menu which might include zoos, opera houses, theatres, aquaria, lagoons with Venetian gondolas and gondoliers, pleasure gardens and exhibitions. This kind of provision reached its apotheosis in Blackpool's Tower and Winter Gardens, and in the even more ambitious Tower at New Brighton, a financial failure which was demolished soon after the First World War.
Such large-scale commercial entertainment's seldom paid satisfactory dividends even in their heyday, outside of Blackpool, and they, along with the great Victorian seaside hotels, were particularly vulnerable to changes in popular taste and in the economics of the entertainment industry from the 1950s onwards. But they have their own contribution to make to the nostalgic appreciation of the Victorian seaside, in this case as somewhere popular, busy, unbuttoned and rumbustious. Somewhere where those who worked hard came to play even harder during their brief period of release, and spent their hard-earned sixpences on pioneering versions of what is misleadingly known as 'mass entertainment'.
These different (if overlapping) versions of seaside nostalgia remind us that there were (and are) many versions of the British seaside. Little informal villages where fishing and farming predominated and visitors entertained themselves and each other, up to big purpose-built holiday towns with the full paraphernalia of commercial entertainment and huge crowds of visitors who needed policing as well as pleasing, whose presence had to be supported by comprehensive and expensive local government systems providing whatever private enterprise could not, would not or (Victorians thought) should not provide at a profit, from drains and gasworks to tramways, promenades and even orchestras.
The celebrations of seaside innocence have to reckon with not only the weather and the ever-present scope for discord within families, but also with the problems that arose when visitors with clashing values and expectations about what constituted legitimate holiday fun came into close and sometimes abrasive holiday proximity. The seaside as relaxing, informal escape from the pressures of the daily grind might also be compromised by the demands of the promenade, of fashion, personal display, flirtation and consumption, at least in the larger resorts.
Victorian holiday-makers were thoroughly 'modern' in their recognition and (sometimes) enjoyment of such imperatives. They did not have to reckon with the problems of bodily exposure and the conflicts between fashion and morality that sunbathing was to bring in the new century, as they sheltered beneath their parasols to protect their milky complexions. But bathing and its regulation, through the attempted imposition and widespread evasion of the regime of separating the sexes and charging for the use of the horse-drawn wooden 'bathing-machine' with its protective 'modesty-hood', provided quite enough controversy in its absence.
To add extra spice to this mixture, the Victorian years saw the first widespread large-scale expansion of English and Welsh seaside resorts, and growing pains often exacerbated social and cultural conflict, especially as the market for holidays broadened to include significant numbers first of clerks and shopkeepers, then of the industrial working class.
The seaside resort was an eighteenth-century invention, as 'orthodox' medicine put a 'scientific' veneer on popular sea-bathing customs and marketed the result as a supplement or (increasingly) alternative to 'taking the cure' at a spa, while new romantic ways of perceiving shoreline made them attractive where hitherto they had repelled, running parallel with the revolution in taste that drew the fashionable and cultivated to the Lake District and the Alps.
Brighton could already count 40,000 inhabitants, most of them permanent, at the June census of 1841. But growth on the grand scale began with the railway age, as the railways boosted existing small settlements (they very rarely started new resorts from scratch) by making access cheaper in time and money. The main beneficiaries around mid-century were middle-class families, from the substantial to the struggling, although the relative anonymity of resort settings, especially in southern England, allowed young bachelors in mundane employment to reinvent themselves and go on the spree for a fortnight.
Over most of the country, working-class visitors relied on cheap excursions, organised by Sunday Schools, employers, temperance societies or commercial promoters, among whom Thomas Cook was as unimportant as were the penny-a-mile Parliamentary trains under the Act of 1844, which charged more and took longer than the 'cheap trips'. Here are myths that need dispelling. Only from the 1870s onwards did the Lancashire cotton workers take the lead in developing a genuine working-class seaside holiday system, saving through the year to convert the traditional Wakes holidays (unpaid for most until after the Second World War) into seaside breaks, and changing the character of many northern resorts in the process. Londoners, like, for example, Sheffielders and coal miners, depended more on 'St Monday', that enduring but unofficial extension of the weekend. They also used August Bank Holiday, 'St Lubbock's Day' after its inventor in 1871, as it became a popular holiday from the mid-1870s; but the importance of this has also been greatly inflated, and it was irrelevant in most of the north and midlands.
But by the last quarter of the nineteenth century many of the more accessible resorts were having to cope with the novelty of a working-class presence of growing dimensions and spending power, especially young people with wages and few responsibilities, and older men who lacked family commitments or chose to cast them aside. Here was a recipe for potential strife, and the popular media of the time, from Punch to Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, added jokes about cultural conflict between the classes to their older staples about clerks and shop assistants pretending to be gentlemen, adding a new dimension to the comedy of social embarrassment.
The sheer variety of resort environments, which itself contributed to the ubiquitous popularity of the seaside by offering all things to all people, was also clearly understood by the humorists. They depicted Brighton as a carnival of strange juxtapositions between fashionable high society and its imitators and an exotic medley of Cockney trippers and vulgar, assertive stallholders and alfresco entertainers.
The mainstream family resorts with their importunate minstrels and sly fishermen offered gentle comedies combining displacement, routine, discomfort and boredom, while the little fishing villages that catered for the alternative fashion for the picturesque, untidy and informal were theatres of misunderstanding between the patronising and the patronised, with the latter usually having fun at the expense of the former. Spice was added by the visitors' painful awareness that nothing was as innocent as it might seem, as landladies and boatmen strove to extract the last penny from their summer bonanza by bending and stretching their rules of engagement.
All these perceptions reflected the 'liminal' nature of the seaside as gateway between land and sea, culture and nature, civilised constraint and liberated hedonism. The spirit of carnival bubbled close to the surface, threatening and promising to turn the world 'upside down' as the holiday atmosphere stimulated the latent fun, laughter and suspension of inhibitions that Dickens (for example) celebrated in his readers.
These influences fought against the internal drives towards staid respectability, and fear of embarrassment, that were also so strong in Victorian culture, especially among the Pooterish lower middle classes (and the Grossmiths' understanding of this helps to make The Diary of a Nobody a genuine classic). Local authorities, drawing the line in different places according to their perceptions of their markets, had to pay heed to drives for the control and suppression of levity that tended to carry greater political clout. Respectability was as contentious a fault-line as class in the conflicts that cut across the enjoyment and tranquillity of the Victorian seaside. It was all the more sharply contested because its definitions were uncertain at the core as well as the edges. Alongside bathing regulation, Sunday observance was a particular touchstone. In these respects as in many others, escape to the seaside brought with it the conflicts and uneasiness about morality and identity which were so pervasive in Victorian life for the rest of the year.
By Professor John Walton
About the author: Professor John K. Walton is Professor of Social History and Director of Research in History at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. He works on seaside resorts and fishing communities in Spain and Belgium as well as Britain, and on other themes in modern social and cultural history.
Victorian bathing machines at the beach
The bathing machine was a device, popular in the 19th century, to allow people to wade in the ocean at beaches without violating Victorian notions of modesty. Bathing machines were roofed and walled wooden carts rolled into the sea. Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame.
Once in the water, the occupants disembarked from the sea side down steps into the water. Many machines had doors front and back; those with only one door would be backed into the sea or need to be turned around. It was considered essential that the machine blocked any view of the bather from the shore. Some machines were equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door, sometimes capable of being lowered to the water, giving the bather greater privacy.
Bathing machines would often be equipped with a small flag which could be raised by the bather as a signal to the driver that they were ready to return to shore.