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What Caused the Rise of British Seaside Resorts?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Tourism
Wordcount: 5396 words Published: 8th Sep 2017

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What were the crucial factors in the rise of British seaside resorts such as Blackpool?

Samantha Taylor | Metropolis | 18/07/2017






Late Georgian (1800 - 1837)









Town Growth






Victorian (1837 - 1901)






Town Development









Edwardians (1901 - 1914)






Town Improvement






Women Travellers & Hoteliers.



The Landlady.



Travel Tips for Women.







The seaside holiday is an old tradition and for many people holds fond memories. Full of sensory delights, from the bright lights of the arcades to the humble fish and chips, the British seaside holiday is so deeply ingrained in the nation's identity that the origin seems almost forgotten.

From the 1830's until the 1870's the resort developed massively, assisted by the newly developing railway. The 1870's to the 1940's became the high point of the seaside resort era, as it became more commercialised to cater for all classes, in particular, the working class. [2]

Visiting the seaside was older than the Georgian period (1747 - 1837), however, these holidays were an upper-class affair as many of the working class could not afford the travel or take time off work. People may think that the seaside holiday is solely a Victorian idea, however, due to Parliamentary acts and the inventions of both the Victorian and Edwardian age the seaside resort becomes more publicly accessible and quickly became highly commercialised.

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Acts such as the 1850 Factory Act allowing Saturday afternoons off for mill workers and the 1871 Bank Holidays Act allowing bank staff set days off, spread to other workforces[3] and improved peoples' wellbeing whilst it incidentally helped to introduce the travel agents and Wakes Weeks clubs that provided the basis of holidays in the United Kingdom and to the Continent.

This assignment will look at the four main factors, holiday, fashion, town, and entertainment that were influenced and in turn influenced the development of the seaside in the late Georgian and Victorian period, along with holiday, fashion, town, and women travellers and female hoteliers that provided the same influence in the Edwardian period (1800 - 1914).


Taking to the water was not a new concept; the Romans left structural reminders in their baths in places such as Bath. The difference being that the 19th century saw an increase in air pollution from the industrialisation of towns and increasingly poor diet that caused ill health. This made the upper class want a cure all, Scarborough is one of the earliest sea spas opening in 1625, although Brighton became one of the most favoured resorts by the Georgians. [4]

In the first decades of the 19th century, doctors, including William Buchan (1803) prescribed sea bathing as a curative, and imposed the rules surrounding this ritual; such as 'bathing should be done in cooler months', and the 'wrapping of the body in dry, sea-soaked, towels after swimming', all believed to increase the health benefits of the sea. [5]

By 1826 William Scott advised alternative exercising alongside swimming during the warmer months, instead of Buchan's recommendations. [6]

The sea air was beneficial as well, helping to prolong life. However, the local graveyards of many seaside resorts house the remains of consumptives, as they were likely to be guests to the resort. [7]

George III's physician, Doctor Richard Jebb (1729-1787)[8], suggested the Exmouth air was as pure as that on the south coast of France. Guides suggested that the proof of how beneficial the air was, was reflected in how healthy the locals were. [9]

The Napoleonic wars (1799 - 1815) restricted Grand Tours on the Continent, meaning many Georgians developed an interest in domestic tourism. Despite the ideas of the seaside holiday as an upper-class affair, many Lancashire working class found time to visit Blackpool in this period. [10]

Despite the bathing machine, developed to protect modesty, sexual freedom was explored at the seaside, as telescopes were known to be used by women and men to spy on bathers of the opposite sex. [11]


Fig.1 Sea Side Bathing Dress[12]

Besides the health benefits, ladies of standing had the chance to show how fashionable they were with an excuse to wear something novel they tended not wear in London. Mrs Bell of London specialised in unusual bathing dresses; these were worn to prevent tanning, as it was recognised it was the sea air that was beneficial for health, not the sun. [13]

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Fig.1 is from La Belle Assemblée August 1814; it is hard to tell whether the ladies wore the whole dress in the sea or just the shift. However, it can be implied that the wearer went in with just the shift as La Belle Assemblée magazine of the time states, "... it is made in a form never before introduced, that it is equally tasteful and becoming; it enables a lady to dress herself in a few minutes without assistance..." [14]

At the turn of the 19th-century women swam at the edge of the sea in long-sleeved flannel shifts; as the century progressed and bathing became pleasurable, the bathing dresses became shorter. Depending on the fashion some years saw the bathing dress without its sleeves, in other years the bathing dress was described as a sack. Sea bathing also posed a challenge for the ladies' hairstyles; female Georgian hairstyles were complex and dressed over small cushions. [15]

In the early 1800s, most sea-bathing resorts had a book or slate, where guests signed on arrival, to secure their place in the queue for a bathing hut to undress. Men who got bored with waiting often sent their footman ahead to find a secluded bay to bathe. [16]

Gentlemen appeared unfazed by holiday fashion, unlike the ladies who competed with other ladies not only with their bathing costumes but also with day and evening wear. By and large, men took their everyday clothing although some eccentric males wore flamboyant formal wear in an evening. [17]

Town Growth

Although the pier had become synonymous with the Victorian age. It, in fact, was Georgian in origin; acting as an extra promenade for boating trips and becoming a gold mine for the local entrepreneurial fisherman. As shipping advanced from sail to steam it pushed the pier further out. Scarborough's Old, Vincent's, East and West Pier (2nd half of 1200/1732/ 1790-1812/ 1817 respectively) is the earliest collection of piers, a pioneer and epitome of English seaside architecture. [18]

Margate's pier helped keep and increase the visitors from the ships. In 1808 its new pier had a gallery charging a penny admission to promenade; in 1812 this led to demonstrations and the toll booth workers came close to being thrown into the sea. [19]

At the start of the seaside resort, many accommodations had to adapt existing housing and by 1818 this had developed into the form of hotels we now know today. Throughout this century, the two main accommodations provided were the boarding and lodging houses. Sometimes these tended to be hard to differentiate between; however, catering was only available in the boarding house. The better accommodations listed themselves in guidebooks to enable reservations to be made in advance. [20]

At the beginning of the century men tended to run the establishments, however, many guests came with no servants and expected food. This resulted in women taking up the role of 'front of house' and 'housekeeper' towards the end of the century. [21]

Blackpool had an obscure origin with no port or established heavy industry, the buildings, mere scattered farms and fisherman's huts. Blackpool was seen as far too remote to be of any historical significance, so had nothing to play to its advantage. As Blackpool transformed into a town at the turn of the 19th century, it housed the basic amenities that just satisfied the needs of its southern guests whilst at the same time being a luxury to its northern clientele. Compared to Brighton, Blackpool was a latecomer and slow in developing. [22]


Wealthy Georgians demanded a range of entertainment whilst visiting the resort; good enough entertainment to rival the spa towns. Many guests fell into a routine centred predominantly around the beach, Assembly Rooms and Circle Libraries. [23]

Regattas and rowing races along the seaside became an established fixture in the calendar for resort guests. Starcross in South Devon held its first tourist regatta in 1775 and still survives today in Cowes week on the Isle of Wight. [24]

Around the 1820s the Assembly Rooms provided places for gambling and socialising. A Master of Ceremonies regulated these activities to help impose a sense of etiquette. Many Assembly Rooms shared a Master of Ceremonies with neighbouring halls. By the 1830s, the Assembly Rooms lost their popularity, as the seaside clientele became a mixture of social classes. [25]

The Circular Library was another amenity forming the social heart of the Georgian seaside; often competing against, or working with the Assembly Rooms. However, the library was mainly used to loan books for a 5-shillings subscription. Popularity for the Circular Libraries outlived the Assembly Rooms by 10 years. [26]

Unsophisticated entertainment was also provided, such as sack races and chasing a pig with a soaped tail. [27] Hunting and shooting were a great attraction for the Georgian gentleman, the main shooting activity available at the seaside was shooting wildlife from a boat. This, unlike hunting on land, required no permission from the landowner. To provide more variety for a ladies' day, cricket matches were also put on as this activity was perfectly respectable for ladies to watch. [28]


Early industrial growth in neighbouring areas provided day-trippers to Blackpool long before the railway companies forged links in the area. The burgeoning of industrialisation throughout Great Britain however, saw the erosion of traditional holidays making them unregulated, this restricted the working class visits. By the 1830s, Wakes Saving Clubs allowed workers to join and save for their annual holiday to the seaside. These clubs flourished in Lancashire; providing a regular holiday for the working class. The Wakes Week varied from town to town from the end of July to the beginning of September. [29]

The 1850 Factory Act improved working conditions and permitted the workers time off on a Saturday afternoon. Whilst many took this time to relax, some chose to take a day-trip to the seaside as one of the many avenues of escapism. Towards the end of the 19th century Blackpool established itself as the resort for all classes, however, it focused predominantly on the working class of the north. [30]

Excursions1 was not a new concept when Thomas Cook, a printer by trade, had the idea to provide a railway excursion for the temperance movement. In fact, the railway companies had set up their own excursions as early as 1836. [31]

Cook's first excursion in 1841 was successful and by managing future short excursions himself; Cook gained more understanding of the areas. With his vision of providing cheaper travel by buying in bulk, his reputation grew. [32]

What also helped firmly establish Cook's reputation as the main travel agent was his first long distant excursion to Liverpool, which included Caledonia and Snowdonia in 1844. A self-published handbook, a precursor to the travel brochures; was a clever marketing tool that helped sell the tickets within a matter of days. In later years, Thomas Cook expanded into foreign travel. [33]

Town Development

Engineers rather than the architects of the day designed the new piers that were built in the Victorian age. Many were oriental in design, an idea left over from the Georgians. This exotic architecture intended to help the working class imagine what the Orient would look like. [34]

Improvements in new piling and bracing techniques in this period allowed seaside resorts to quickly build metal framed pleasure piers. Piers by the 1860s were attracting local investors willing to risk money in bold enterprises; Preston and Manchester business owners invested in Blackpool's piers. In 1885 Blackpool was the first in England to have an electric tram that still operates today. [35]

Financial gain from fairground operators along with the income generated by the pier and bathing machines helped overturn Blackpool corporations desire to keep the working class away. It enhanced the seaside experience for new visitors; these features strengthened the appeal of seaside holidays in Great Britain. [36]

The railway was not entirely the driving force behind the change in some seaside resorts. It was more the sheer growth in urban population and a pursuit in improvement policies that led local authorities to begin to control the development of towns by the turn of the 20th century. Some resorts diversified towards facilitating family needs by adapting to railway connections. [37]

Environmental amenities, such as scenic beauty and wildlife were at risk due to the expansion of the seaside towns, entertainment and open sewerage. To tackle this in 1852 Weston-Super-Mare introduced a partial treatment plant before changing to a sea outfall in 1866 and in 1898 Exeter introduced a settling tank. Concerns about the seaside environment forced local authorities to make it mandatory for towns to build a form of biological treatment plant by the 1900s. [38]


Around the 1850's people still bathed naked. Many of ladies visited the big seaside hotels or the coasts of France, away from such vulgar behaviour. [39]

Unlike the French, whose seaside attire became ever more fashionable, the British seaside fashion remained subdued and changed very little in the first 80 years of the 19th century. The trims and frills remained and were too cumbersome, preventing all but the determined athletic female from swimming. [40]

From the 1840s, London shops and women's fashion magazines advertised clothes and accessories for seaside fashion. This could be seen as the age of wearing clothes for one season as the items were made of cheap fabric and were damaged easily in the sea air. [41]


Fig.2 (L) caleçon tended to fall down as the man swam. (R) this costume prevented any mishaps and protect modesty[42]

Around the mid-19th century, men tended to swim naked; usually in secluded Cornish beaches that women did not frequent. Swimwear was available in the form of "caleçon"(French swimming shorts) although the exact date of this fashion is not clear, fig.2 (L) suggests around 1810/1815, although Avril Lansdell suggests as early as late 18th century France.[43]

Many men did not wear these items of clothing as they saw them as effeminate and the drawstring had a tendency to loosen and the costume come off. [44]

Swimming became serious as a form of exercise in the 1850's. The earliest male swimming club was in Brighton in 1858 and races here started in 1861. Rules stated that competitors must wear swimwear. Caleçon were unreliable, in order to comply with these rules one-piece costumes were available from the 1870s as seen in Fig.2 (R). [45]


The Victorian age was a period that saw the seaside resorts ceasing to be solely health resorts. This was to cater for the middle class and oriented around family entertainment that centred on the beach and pier. [46]

Entertainment in 1840s Blackpool focussed on the natural beauty, health, and bathing available at the resort. This was a stark contrast to the entertainment provided at the established resorts, many commentators remarked on Blackpool's lack of any historical interest.[47]

Due to ever-growing numbers to the seaside; a demand for leisure complexes arose in the 1870's. This lead to the beach centred entertainment of Punch and Judy and donkey rides; the characteristic entertainment we now know and love. [48]

During the 1870s Blackpool's pleasure beach made the town the leading pleasure resort; with its large range of all-weather entertainment, three pleasure piers that formed a complex of commercial amusement that no other British resort could compete with. [49]

Despite the apparent decline of the Circular Library and Assembly Halls, Worthing had four to five Circular Libraries by 1859. Whilst Great Yarmouth and Margate's Assembly Rooms still flourished beyond the 1870's. [50]

The working class excursion burgeoned later in the Victorian era. The investment was heavily based on the capitalised entertainment companies in the larger resorts. This cumulated in places like the pleasure places of the 1890's and the foreshore fairgrounds that characterised many Victorian and Edwardian resorts. [51]

Organised events such as bands performing on purpose built bandstands and minstrel troops from the United States all provided great enjoyment; however, both Jane Welsh Carlton; letter writer, born in 1801 and married essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle in 1826[52]; and Charles Dickens mention their distaste for the noise from the seaside promenades. [53]


Seaside fashion began to change although bathing costumes changed very little in the first half of the 20th century. It was not until the outbreak of World War One that the ideas of general fashion were revolutionised with Coco Chanel as the forerunner of this later change[54]

Irene Steer (far right) and the 1912 Olympics British women's 4x100m freestyle relay team

Fig.3 GB Women's Team.

1912 Summer Olympics, Stockholm. The first time women could compete in swimming. [55]

However, what did change for the swimming costumes, seen in fig.3, was the removal or phasing out of the cumbersome woollen bathing dress, for the more revealing and functional swimming costumes, this left a costume for women, much like the men's. Although the woman who was conscious of her figure still had a two-piece option. [56]

The corset had been around for some time, with many women bathing in them; however, the Edwardian period introduced an S-shaped corset. This corset made the women look as though their upper body was leaning forward, making the women look like stiff pigeons, and emphasised by their highly embellished blouses. However, by 1912, these corsets were phasing out of fashion, for lighter clothing that was easier to promenade along the seaside. Hats were favoured, over the bonnet, by the Edwardians; as the period progressed the women's hat became larger and became adorned with lace or feathers. [57]

Christmas cup, Meister, swimmer: [press photography] / Agence Meurisse

Fig.4 Christmas cup, swimmer [58]

Men's swimwear also changed by 1914, seen in fig.4, men could now be seen wearing better fitting legless swimming trunks. However, trunks tended to be more boy's swimwear. [59]

In the Victorian age, men injected a nautical or exotic theme into their seaside fashion. This was carried through to the Edwardian period, although the blazers were far brighter and gaily striped. Beards in this period were seen to be for the older generation whilst the younger tended to be moustached or shaven. [60]

Town Improvement

Despite the advancement in science by the Edwardian age and the obsession with sewerage disposal, this ideal did not extend to the treatment of it. Brighton's medical officer was quoted in 1903 to have said that with the advancement in the purification of sewerage there was no excuse in contaminating the sea water. [61]

John Walton contradicts John Hassan (see pg. 10), saying that even though the local government controlled the sewerage, they cut costs that impacted on the environment, health and wellbeing by carrying on disposing of it into the sea, well after 1914. [62]

The Victorian, or South Pier at Blackpool having been built in the Victorian period offered a different ambience to that at the Central Pier. By 1911 the areas taste had changed and the Victorian pavilion was built to provide concerts for audiences of up to 900 people. Despite its distance from the other Blackpool piers, Victoria Piers popularity remained consistent. Visitors to the nearby Pleasure Beach Amusement park, which in the Edwardian period was the biggest and most modern amusement park in the country, also extended their visit to Victoria Pier. [63]

In 1908 Blackpool's Central Pier made a feature of its electric railway. Roller-skating became a craze in 1909 and in 1911, in order to cater for the visitors to the resort, the owners of the Central Pier built a rink. [64]

British coastal defences have been evolving since the Roman period and as a result, Britain tended to be the forerunners of sea defence. The most distinctive are the sea walls; these defences arose from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Where most local authorities constructed them as multipurpose promenades. [65]


During the 1800s, Britain had strict gender segregation. Whilst visiting the continent, where segregation was non-existent, British families became familiar with these customs and insisted on relaxed rules in order to interact with their own family on British beaches. [66]

It wasn't until 1901 however, when Bexhill in East Sussex, introduced mixed bathing that the rules truly became relaxed, and by 1914 a majority of the beaches had mixed bathing, leading to the decline of the bathing machines. [67]

The postcard had been introduced in Britain around 1870, but the split back postcard was not accepted by the Post Office until 1902. Many artisans sold prints of their photographs or art in postcard form, becoming the first generation of postcards sent back home. [68]

Continental travel rose, to over 660,000 by the 1900's, whilst it is believed that the British seaside resort in that era was barely breaking even.[69]

This popularisation of continental travel to a wider variety of social class gained criticism from the likes of John Ruskin and other prominent Victorians who thought the well-educated would benefit far more from continental travel. [70]

During the Edwardian period, Blackpool, despite her late start, outdid her rivals with the attractions offered, with nearly four million holidaymakers per year visiting by the outbreak of World War One. [71]

Britain's seaside resorts had become unique and distinctive, using a verity of techniques to compete for guests. Torquay marketed itself as a holiday town by flaunting Ruskin's words, who had called Torquay 'the Italy of England', this was due to a large number of Italians that had settled in the resort as ice cream vendors. Although places like Newquay, a popular resort today, was a mere village in 1911. [72]

The Polytechnic Touring Association (PTA) was a travelling by-product of the Polytechnic, a classroom club for those who wanted to better themselves. Due to the outbreak of war seaside activities and travel either stopped, as seen in the south and east of England where troops embarked for the conflict on the Continent, or slowed to a quieter pace as in the north. [73]

Women Travellers & Hoteliers.

The Landlady.

Many landladies depended on an extra income due to the seasonality of their work; this came predominantly from her husband's work if he did not work in the hotel industry. A majority of the landladies were not wil


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