Until the 19th century the British were disinterested in the seaside areas
of the coast. Then in the mid 19th century the seaside resorts began to lose
their character of substitute spas where people went for mineral health
waters. Instead they became holiday places where the pursuit of pleasure was
more important than health. The establishment of railways gave them easier
access to the coast for day trips or longer. Couples, single people and
children all enjoyed the delights of being beside the seaside.
Left- Seaside fashions for children and girls from La Mode Illustrée 1875.
Coastal popularity began in the mid 18th century when a doctor, Richard
Russell promoted the drinking of sea water as a cure all for diseases from
jaundice to gout. Visitors set about making the same atmosphere that had
existed at spa venues such as at Bath Assembly rooms. Reading rooms for card
games and raffles and other amusements were created for the benefit of
visitors. Success of this depended on there being approximate social equality
between guests. When the railways arrived hordes of people of all classes
swarmed into the resorts.
With the new visitors new forms of entertainment and catering developed. Street musicians, Punch and Judy shows, minstrel shows, acrobats, whelk
stands, ice cream carts, travelling photographers, and pedlars all swarmed the
beaches and promenades turning them into fair grounds.
Some resorts, with poor communication remained picturesque. The rest of
them grew and developed into highly organised towns with properly regulated
local services, which provided housing, transport, lighting, sanitation and
all the amenities needed to satisfy residents and visitors. The British
seaside with boarding houses, landladies, donkeys and piers was all the rage.
By 1900 the coast of Britain was populated with towns and villages. The
changing circumstances of the population previously imprisoned in industrial
towns longed for freedom and the seaside provided the escape. Escape from
industrial mid Victorian Britain was generally shown as absenteeism on
Mondays, excessive drinking, crime, gambling, and violence. To everyone the sea
was a place where social life and social pleasures were the main aim. In a
class ridden society one of these pleasures was the knowledge of emulating
The status of visitors who stayed at resorts was a recommendation for the
place and an attraction for the visitor. Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses or
other aristocracy were sought after guests. Lists of visitors names, plus
their accommodation address at a resort were published in the local
Snobbery, rivalry and envy was rife. Everyone joined in the game of hunting
celebrities or trying to identify them as they rode in their carriages or
strolled up and down the esplanade. As the century moved on, popular crowds
increased and the smart visitor moved. The status symbols of resorts were now pierrots and black minstrels.
The main appeal of the seaside resorts was that on the promenade and beach
social differences, passed unnoticed. This would have been impossible at the
former bath spas. At the beach people could relax as they chose. This kind of freedom gave the seaside a strong appeal which
gradually broke down the prim attitudes of middle class society.
On the beach
working class men and women less sophisticated
manners and open sexual advances shocked the more genteel middle classes. The genteel soon sought
remoter areas and holidayed as far as possible away from the uncouth. This
started a passion for travel abroad.
Sexuality was openly pursued at the beach and promenade. Young men peered
through telescopes at women descending into the sea from their bathing
machines. It was no accident that the postcard whose theme is sexual humour
should have developed at the seaside. The seaside brought out the wilder
nature of individuals. Even the architecture took on a more exotic style and
in the winter tropical plants provoked romantic images of the jungle. Here the
dull workaday world could be put aside for a week or two and be replaced by a
Brighton was the first major seaside town and was patronised by the Prince
Regent, but it soon began to feel the effects of a new clientele after the
rail line was installed in 1841. The railway soon made it Britain's most
Blackpool, Southport, Scarborough, Llandudno, Ramsgate,
Margate, Weymouth, Torquay, Dover, Ilfracombe, Ryde, Cowes and Worthing all
became well known resorts. Piers were developed as an extension of the
promenades and took visitors right out to sea without getting wet or
undressing. The parade and marina were as close most visitors would ever get
to the ocean. The wealthy sailed along the coastline on their yachts and
socialised among their own kind.
Architecture at seaside resorts introduced the Winter Garden as a new
social venue previously held by assembly rooms. This was a huge cast iron
structure covered with glass like huge conservatory or a huge green house. It
was the meeting place for visitors to listen to music, take tea or stroll
among palms and ferns giving the illusion of a better more exotic climate.
Many of the public gardens had a band stand as the centre piece.
As late as the early Edwardian period middle class ladies would never been
seen paddling in the sea. Only their maids or children's nannies could do
something so undignified as lower their guard so publicly. The highlight of
the seaside day visit was not morning bathing or sitting on the beach, but the
Throughout the century, the walk about the town and
particularly along the seafront, was an essential part of the life of a
resort. Everyone came out to see and be seen. The rich
in their carriages, or on their horses and later in their motors. The rest
on their feet, all dressed in their finest, but with the formal etiquette of
the town now relaxed.
The Victorian seaside visitor was clothes conscious. Huge trunks were
packed with clothes slightly less formal than those worn for town. Ladies wore
their crinolines and round hats, an impractical costume for blustery coasts
and damp sands. As long as the clothes were fashionable they wore them.
1870s crinolines were exchanged for tight corsets and bustles.
Right -Weston Sands by W. Hopkins and E. Havell
1864 - The City Of Bristol Museum And Art Gallery.
For general holiday wear and travelling to destinations women wore shorter
skirts minus trains. Large ribbon streamer straw hats were a great seaside
favourite in the mid 1850s. Many paintings of the seaside illustrate the
straw hat fashion alongside bonnets with brims with projecting frames of cane
covered in silk. They were called 'uglies' and were used to shield a woman's
face from the sun.
Young men tried to get a nautical or at least exotic flavour into their
seaside dress. By the time of Edward VII they were appearing in shiny new
straw boaters, richly striped blazers, bright cummerbunds and white flannels. Many local newspapers such as the Scarborough Gazette ran regular fashion
notes. This emphasis on dress highlights the fact that the seaside was
something very special for Victorians and Edwardians, an escape from everyday
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