I love visiting the sea, it has to said that the British seaside is unlike any other beach resort in Europe. The weather does play a large part in this, but I feel also that the early origins of the British seaside can still be felt today. Some of the architecture has perhaps lost its grandeur, but its still standing and plays a part in the social history of Britain. I loved going to Scarborough as a child and always remembered the spa with its distinctive black and white tiles. The heyday of the British seaside resort was in the 50s and 60s, I first visited in the late 60s and it seemed wonderful to me. Scarborough claimed to being England’s first true seaside resort and enjoyed considerable growth in the 18th century. (In the early 1700s a spa house had been built to sell the waters to eager visitors to the town, who were determined to improve their health)
I am convinced the sea air always does good, declares Henrietta Musgrove in Jane Austen’s book, Persuasion. Now, Jane Austen often poked fun at the Georgian notion of the sea as a source of bountiful health and healing and in many respects, it was the eighteenth century’s answer to today’s wellness fad. I always feel better too after a trip to the coast, so perhaps it’s time to take some Georgian health advice and rediscover the restorative qualities of the great British coastal break.
While spa towns like Bath still held their appeal during Queen Victoria’s reign, doctors were increasingly recommending trips to seaside resorts. This was mainly because they believed that the bracing sea air contained what they termed as ‘ozone’ or ‘activated oxygen’, something that was very essential but also a preventative of disease and a great aid for the treatment of ailments of all character. We now know that the Victorians were quite wrong about the seaside offering so-called activated oxygen. But in an era of rapidly industrialised towns and cities, a trip to a coastal town did offer a welcome break from the increasing pollution. At the beginning of the Victorian era, for the upper classes a visit to the seaside also gave the opportunity to promenade which grew in popularity during this era. A stroll along the seafront was considered good for the constitution, but a long, level ‘prom’ or esplanade was also like a public catwalk where you could be seen by society and enjoy admiring glances as you strolled serenely by, decked out in your best attire. In much the same way as a visit to a spa town had been the place to be seen, now it was fashionable to be seen in seaside towns.
Many of the things best associated with a trip to the British seaside have their roots in the Victorian summer holiday. However, while we now take these seaside attractions for granted, for many they were considered quite revolutionary at the time, and even an affront to common decency. This led to some puritanical restrictions (which I will mention later) but not even Victorian morality could hold back the tide of change. With the introduction of railways, this new mode of transport could whisk you across the country in a matter of hours, opening up a whole new world of opportunity. Although expensive, the burgeoning Victorian middle class could afford the rail fares and were keen to follow en- masse where the aristocrats led. The railways transformed small communities into bustling resorts to which people flocked in growing numbers.
By the middle of the 19th century, towns such as Brighton, Blackpool and Llandudno had already expanded. With the development of the resorts came the expansion of the wealth of the towns. The local piers offered an impressive variety of entertainment with the creation of much more indoor entertainment to combat the unpredictable British weather. Aquariums, amusement arcades, ballrooms and even circuses were constructed as permanent fixtures to keep the public entertained and keep them spending their hard-earned money. By the end of the 19th century things were starting to look somewhat different. As the era progressed, so did the resorts. People from all walks of life now shared the experience. Attitudes and standards slowly started to change. From rather sedate, genteel beginnings at the start of the Victorian age the upper classes increasingly had to mix with the hoi polloi and began to abandon their traditional resorts. Instead they spent their time and money on foreign holidays where the masses could not follow.( In the 1970s cheap flights encouraged the working classes to fly to europe, which lead to the decline of some seaside resorts)
As access to the seaside increased, many organised trips through churches, charities and societies such as the Temperance Movement gave opportunities to even the lowest in society. The Bank Holidays Act in 1871 saw the introduction of four days set aside through the year as official holidays for all, for the first time ever. It was the working man and his family who had taken ownership of the seaside holiday. With ever-improving conditions for workers, the popularity of what the Victorians created continued to rise, leaving a legacy that still rings true today. More recently, the British seaside conquers up images of ice creams, donkey rides, fish and chips, Bingo, coloured Rock, buckets and spades and the amusements. The rather lively Hen and Stag do’s, particularly the lack of clothing would have horrified the prudish Victorians. But however tacky and in bad taste it can be at times it is still very much our culture and we all still do love to be beside the seaside, beside the sea!
Promoted as a healthy pastime, sea bathing was as popular with Victorian women as men, if not more so as it represented a small yet significant change in attitudes towards what women should and should not do. Paddling and dipping were thought to invigorate health, but how could men and women benefit from such pleasurable pursuits while maintaining the essential decorum? Victorian values and correctness dictated that the proper etiquette was followed. On the beach, this became something of a nightmare for Victorian decency, especially when it came to the tricky subject of bathing in the sea. The first solution was quite straightforward, men and women would bathe in separate parts of the beach. In 1847, Parliament gave local councils new powers to set how far apart the sexes had to be when bathing. Regulation also required that women wore a suitable gown or other sufficient dress or covering to prevent indecent exposure of the body. This swimwear could be extremely heavy, sometimes weights were even sewn into it, so that dresses did not float to the surface. In choppy waters, these heavy outfits could drown a wearer. But these coveralls did serve another purpose, they stopped the ladies getting a suntan. Until the 1920s, having a tan was considered vulgar and only for workers in the fields. However, as modest as Victorian swimwear was ( to their prudish minds) a woman having to walk the length of the beach to the sea was the equivalent of a modern ‘walk of shame’. Instead, they used a bathing machine, which dated back to around the 1750s, these resembled a beach hut with four wheels, it would be rolled out to, sea, usually pulled by horses. Once deep enough in the surf, the bather would then exit the cart using the door facing away from prying eyes on the beach.
Men did not have to employ any similar device and they just strolled into the water wearing a considerably tighter swimsuit. (They often swam naked, but this changed when Women and Children started going to the beaches) However, bathing machines did play a small part in giving a modicum of freedom to Victorian women, allowing them the privacy to experience sea bathing first-hand rather than been excluded as they had been from so many other leisure activities and sports. So, this was the start of more freedom in their life’s.
So, the introduction of the British seaside resort, gave the change to escape the pollution of the larger industrial cities, a chance for the working classes to have a day out with their families and some emancipation for the heavily- restricted Victorian women.
Recent events have placed some restrictions on our travels, so perhaps we should value the British coastal resorts like our ancestors and try a British seaside resort instead of a European beach. Just don’t forget an anorak in case of rain!