Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Victorian Seaside

I spent the last week at the seaside in Southend, enjoying the sun, sea and sand. The fabulous weather, classic English food (such as fish and chips) and roller coasters made it a fantastic trip, but it also sparked my interest in Victorian holidays to the seaside.

The seaside resort was an eighteenth-century invention due to new 'romantic' ways of viewing beaches, making them more attractive them previously believed. These new opinions grew alongside the change in taste that drew the fashionable and cultivated to the Lake District and the Alps.

There were many different types of Victorian seasides. Many small, informal villages developed where fishing and farming were the main functions and tourists entertained themselves and each other. At the other end of the scale huge purpose-built holiday towns were built which housed large crowds of visitors and held many different forms of commercial entertainment. Expensive local government systems provided drains, gasworks, tramways, promenades and even orchestras.

The bigger Victorian resorts, and especially those popular among the working class, which was a fast growing holiday market, offered 'pleasure palaces'. For example places such as Blackpool and Southend had music-halls, zoos, opera houses, theatres, aquaria, lagoons with Venetian gondolas and gondoliers, pleasure gardens and exhibitions.

In 1841 a June census showed Brighton had 40,000 residents, most of them permanent. However growth on a large scale occurred mostly with the beginning of 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 the mid 1800s were middle-class families, however many young bachelors used the anonymity of the resort settings to reinvent themselves and go on the spree for a fortnight.

Most working-class families in Britain relied on cheap trips organised by Sunday Schools, employers, temperance societies or commercial promoters, such as Thomas Cook. The penny-a-mile Parliamentary trains under the Act of 1844 actually turned out to charge more and take longer than the 'cheap trips'.

From the 1870s onwards Lancashire cotton workers developed a working-class seaside holiday system, to convert tradition unpaid holidays (which ended after WWII), into seaside breaks. Londoners, Sheffielders and coal miners depended on 'St Monday', an unofficial extension of the weekend. They also used August Bank Holiday, 'St Lubbock's Day' after its inventor in 1871, as a popular holiday period.

Bathing machines were small, four wheeled carriages that were used in the 18th and 19th century to allow people to change out of their usual clothes into swimwear. Some had solid wooden walls; others had canvas walls over a wooden frame.The bathing machine was part of etiquette for sea-bathing more rigorously enforced upon women than men but was observed by both sexes for people who wished to be "proper". Especially in Britain, men and women were usually segregated, so nobody of the opposite sex might catch sight of them in their bathing suits, which (although modest by modern standards) were not considered proper clothing in which to be seen.