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Fun beside the sea

Few holidays evoke the same nostalgia for so many people as the British seaside getaway. Listen to the sounds of this beloved institution, and explore the history of how this classic trip became a golden standard for generations of people.

The sight of colourful beach huts, the feeling of sand between the toes or the smell and taste of the salty sea breeze – these are enduring memories that many conjure up when thinking of holidays by the sea. The soundscape too, from the screech of hovering seagulls to the crashing of waves on the beach, holds a powerful place in memory. Though many have experienced the classic seaside trip, its origins some 300 years ago are a little less well known.

Rise of the seaside resorts

The traditional British seaside holiday actually has its origins in health rather than pleasure. The restorative properties of seawater were promoted during the mid 18th century, during which the upper echelons of British society packed their cases for the coast. Dr Richard Russell, a British physician, praised the virtues of sea-bathing in A Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Diseases of the Glands (1752) as a cure for everything from scurvy and jaundice to so-called ‘king’s evil’ (scrofula) and leprosy.

Sea-bathing and spas continued to rise to prominence. In the early 19th century, Sake Dean Mohamed, an Indian surgeon, introduced shampoo baths to Britain. Setting up his own bath in Brighton, he offered therapeutic massage to some very powerful people, and was even appointed King George IV’s personal ‘shampooing surgeon’.

The Benefits of Shampooing by Sake Dean Mahomed

Engraving of Mahomed's Baths in Brighton, from S D Mahomed's 1826 book

Mahomed's Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths, where patients were treated for muscular ailments with champi and steaming baths. 

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As the reputation of sea-bathing increased, it wasn’t long before theatres, libraries, assembly rooms and smart hotels began to pop up along the coastline. After all, visitors needed something to do between those essential sea-bathing sessions. So splendid were towns such as Brighton, Margate and Scarborough, that the sea soon became just a single facet of a much larger, multi-sensory experience. The seaside resort, with all its draws, was born.

In the 19th century, numerous developments opened up the seaside holiday to the masses. One of these was a booming economy resulting from industrial growth, bringing about higher wages and disposable income for a large section of the population. The other critical factor was the development of the railway, which revolutionised our nation’s relationship with the coast. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened as the first inter-city passenger railway in September of 1830, and in the following decades rail travel further expanded. Just over a decade later, the Railway Regulation Act of 1844 ensured that affordable travel would be available to people of all classes.

So what had initially begun as a place of restorative comfort for the wealthy was now open to everyone. As long as they could afford a train ticket, people could use the coast as a place of pleasure, relaxation and a break from everyday life. The British seaside holiday had finally arrived.

The golden age of the seaside resort

The interwar years saw much investment in seaside resorts, and the government lent financial support to ambitious seaside development projects in towns such as Hove and Blackpool. Further developments during this time included the building of new modernist buildings, such as the Casino in Blackpool, and the opening of Butlin’s Skegness, Britain’s first holiday camp, in 1936. By the late 1940s, millions of holidaymakers were gracing Britain’s seaside each year; for decades tourism was the foundation of the economy in many coastal towns.

But by the 1960s the popularity of seaside holidays in Britain had begun to wane. The introduction of budget airfares and travel packages meant that British holidaymakers could continue to hit the beach, just outside of Britain, at destinations further afield. This decade also saw a reduction of the rail network following pressures for profitability; less economically valuable lines were closed or reduced, impacting access to smaller coastal towns.

This waning popularity and falling visitor numbers meant that some resorts began to see less investment. No longer filled with the same joyful noises, the golden era of the classic seaside holiday had passed.

The seaside holiday returns

In recent years, however, there have been efforts to revitalise the economy of some seaside towns.[1] Nationwide grant programmes, investment initiatives and the work of various grass-roots movements have seen a revival in tourism for some seaside towns. Places such as Brighton have remade their image and are now magnets for a trendy subculture, whilst others, such as Margate, in its revived Dreamland, have recaptured the nostalgia of the mid 20th century.  

Although not with quite the same intensity as in its heyday, fun beside the sea lives on, and on a hot sunny day in the British Isles there’s no doubt that there will be always be people jostling for space on the beach.

Footnotes

[1] House of Lords, Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities: Report of Session 2017–19 (Authority of the House of Lords, 2019), <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldseaside/320/320.pdf>.

 

Banner image © Jonny Hannah

  • Cheryl Tipp
  • Cheryl Tipp is the British Library’s Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds. With a background in zoology and library services, Cheryl has spent the past 15 years looking after the Library’s world- renowned collection of over 250,000 species and habitat recordings. She has worked extensively on projects that encourage the creative reuse of archival content, from student videogames to short films from emerging filmmakers. She is currently Secretary of the International Bioacoustics Council which seeks to promote discussion and the exchange of ideas between scientists, engineers, sound archivists and field recordists working with natural history sound recordings.

  • British Library Learning
  • The British Library’s Digital Learning team welcomes over 10 million learners to their website every year. They provide free learning resources that allow audiences to access thousands of digitised treasures from the British Library’s collection, and explore a wealth of subjects from children’s literature and coastal sounds to medieval history and sacred texts.