Victorian Seaside

In Britain, we’re all familiar with the classic day out to the beach – all of its trappings have become almost synonymous with what a holiday should be. As well as the natural good-fun of swimming and playing in the sand, we have all the paraphernalia which goes along with it. This means donkey rides, merry-go-rounds and Punch and Judy, along with the prototypical fast food like fish and chips, candy floss and ice cream.

All of these things came into being thanks to the economic and social conditions of a certain period of time, more than a century ago. All of these things can be traced back the nineteenth century, and much what we would consider a ‘traditional’ seaside holiday owes its roots to the Victorians.

In this article, we’ll take a look at exactly how the seaside holiday came to be.

A very Victorian revolution

The Victorian era was one of enormous social and economic change, spurred on mostly by the burgeoning industrial revolution. Victorians suddenly had access to more disposable income than ever before, and better transportation technology with which to travel and dispense this income.

While a day at the beach might seem like a modest day out to those looking back from the 21st century, (who might think nothing of flying through the air for a routine trip to Bangkok) the seaside holiday as the Victorians enjoyed it was an eye-popping novelty.

In just a generation, a venal network of railway lines were constructed across the country and journeys that had once taken weeks were suddenly possible in mere hours. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this change resulted in others.

No revolution takes place in a vacuum, and so these advances in transportation and manufacturing had knock on effects across the economic landscape. Among the beneficiaries were seaside towns, which experienced a golden age of tourism.

During the Victorian era, the seaside resort exploded in popularity. Workers from across the country were drawn toward the coastline – first those from the service industry, like clerks and shopkeepers, but eventually manual labourers, too.

Of course, while transport had come a long way in a very short space of time, the modern habit of bundling the family into the back of a Ford Fiesta and driving down the M5 was still the stuff of heady science fiction. There were no cars, much less motorways on which to drive them. The working class would therefore mostly have to rely on their employers or Sunday Schools in order to provide them with a cheap means of getting from the inland to the seaside.

During the latter part of Victoria’s reign, seaside resorts were having to cope with greater numbers of working class holidaymakers than ever before, as previously scarce holiday time was beginning to grow more plentiful at the bottom end of society. The result was a coastline packed with tourists from all walks of life.

These hugely changing demographics brought no small amount of tension to the seaside. The entertainments had to change, in order to accommodate the changing tastes of the customers. These tensions, along with those between families, grew still more fractious when the Victorian public was introduced to the heat and bustle of the seaside. In an era where embarrassment and social image were enormously concerning for almost everyone, a seaside holiday offered an opportunity to relax a little – after all, it was highly unlikely that you’d run into anyone from your immediate social circle, and so tawdry behaviour tended to manifest in seaside resorts. These insecurities became sources of inspiration for humorists – and you can detect much of this still in postcards of the sort made so popular by Donald McGill in the following century.

You might imagine that the semi-nudity involved with a seaside holiday might come into conflict with the notoriously prudish Victorian attitudes toward nudity in general. This, however, was not really the case. Sunbathing was not an idea that had yet gained traction in Victorian Britain, and holidaymakers would instead seek shelter beneath the parasols that sprouted along the waterfront. Swimmers would bathe using all-covering costumes, and would do so under an enforced gender segregation – though this rule was often openly flouted. Some resorts even offered visitors to chance to bathe using a specially-made bathing machine, which covered bathers with a specially-made hood.

Much of the entertainments began to comment upon this social upheaval – Punch and Judy routines, for example, would begin to incorporate the arguments between white and blue collar workers, and to ridicule the snobbery of clerks who imagined themselves to be part of the landed gentry.

What different sorts of seaside were there?

Seaside resorts in the Victorian era, as today, came in many different forms. These ranged from small fishing villages, where visitors were expected to entertain themselves, to larger purpose-built towns, which were bursting at the seams with entertainment.

Of course, the larger and more elaborate the resort, the more the local government had to step in to support the private enterprises with infrastructure, police and the like. But the state at the time also stepped in with things that we today might consider more suited to the private sector, like tramways and even orchestras.

Pleasure palaces

The largest of these resorts came to be known as ‘pleasure palaces’. These brought together a huge amount of fun things, like music and dancing performances, as well as theatre, zoos, opera and a host of other weird and wonderful distractions.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of resorts such as this, it was generally only the largest of them that reaped financial reward for those at the top. Smaller ones, by contrast, found themselves in a precarious position, particularly later on; changes in popular taste, and in the economic climate, could make the difference between success and ruin.

The Pleasure Palace is typified in Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach and its iconic tower, and then ultimately the New Brighton Tower, which was constructed at the very end of Victoria’s reign in Wallasey, Cheshire. The latter would prove too costly to maintain throughout the First World War, and would be dismantled and sold for scrap shortly after the war ended.

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