A short history of the British seaside
The British seaside has always been a place to get away from it all and rejuvenate — a place of escape from normal life, to experience new things and enjoy oneself.
Although in its earliest incarnations, the coastal holiday did place upon its visitors’ expectations of proper codes of behaviour, as time went on and more and more people from differing backgrounds enjoyed the attractions of the resorts, the seaside brought out a more relaxed view of life. This manifested itself not only in the behaviour of holiday makers and day trippers, but in their dress and the types of activities they enjoyed whilst there.
In the early 1700s, rich and fashionable people seeking the restorative actions of the seaside visited the coast for health reasons. However, while the social norms were vigorously upheld in places like the new assembly rooms and the seaside promenades, behaviour was more relaxed when it came to sea bathing. People from all classes, with the exception of upper- and middle-class women, bathed in the nude; the upper and middle classes because it was fashionable and thought to be healthy, the working class because they could not afford clothes to bathe in. This was done in an age when even “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking” (Porter, 1934, ‘Anything Goes’), where women and men covered themselves from head to toe and even just showing bare feet was looked down upon as being an indicator of poverty. However, at the seaside the normal rules did not apply.
Naked bathing continued at resorts — albeit in special segregated bathing areas or at different times from the general populous — right up until the 1890s when mixed bathing became the norm. Both sexes wore the latest bathing suits and enjoyed the sea together. It should be noted here though that, despite the best efforts of municipalities to ban it, working-class bathers continued to swim in the nude, being unable to afford a proper costume.
By the early 20th century, newer ‘figure hugging female costumes’ were beginning to find favour with fashionable ladies and by the 1920s, it was a much more revealing costume that was being worn to take advantage of the latest trend — gaining a healthy suntan. Having one ascribed the person has being glamorous and associated with wealth and leisure, yet could be anyone could get one. This was much to the consternation of some daily newspapers who felt the wearers lacked modesty. However, these new costumes proved to be hugely popular with women as they gave a ‘greater freedom of movement, and, of course, greater exposure to the sun’.
Male costumes, too, had changed and by the 1920s, they were also being seen in a one-piece bathing suit. In 1934, the shocking new trend of men rolling down their costumes to expose their chests was becoming a thing and men haven’t looked back since.
It was in the early 20th century that the working class began to find themselves with more disposable income and more free time. With the introduction of bank holidays and unpaid vacation weeks, the working class could also enjoy the pleasures of sea bathing. They could afford to save up and pay for a bathing costume, they learned to swim in new municipal pools in towns and cities, and they travelled in droves by trains, charabanc or bus to seaside resorts to enjoy the healthy fresh air and invigorating sea.
As living standards continued to rise, the rules about what a person from any background could wear on the beach continued to relax and by the 1950s, the first bikinis began to make their appearances. This trend continued even more towards the end of the 20th century when air travel made it possible for people to holiday abroad. Whilst sunning themselves on foreign beaches, fashionable British sunbathers began to wear smaller and smaller costumes, including thongs which first appeared in the early 1970s and women were going topless from the 1980s … a far cry from the bloomers and tunics of their Victorian ancestors! Specialist nudist beaches were also created for those who wanted an all over tan. The irony of all this is that even today women would be horrified at the thought of parading in public in their underwear, but think nothing of wearing a tiny bikini on a beach, and it is rare that anyone would walk about outside their own homes naked.
Of course, fashion wasn’t just reserved for the water. From the 1730s, the seaside also became the place for the upper and middle classes to see and be seen at their fashionable best. They dressed up to promenade along the sea front, to attend concerts and dance at the assembly halls. Contemporary paintings and photographs from the mid-19th century depict women dressed in the long dresses or heavy skirts and blouses, and men in smart suits and ties. Both sexes wore hats and shoes or boots, and this attire was even worn on the beach.
However, wearing ones best for the beach was not something available to the working class until the turn of the century. By the early 1900s, as the working class began to earn more, they were able to afford Sunday and holiday clothes, giving them some parity with people of higher classes). For once in their lives they could look and feel special even just for a day. Once they returned home, however, it would be back to their work clothes and real life.
During the interwar period, clothing worn on the beach and on promenades began to change and become less formal. Led by fashion designers such as Coco Chanel, skirt lengths were higher, clothing was sporty and more casual and made from lighter materials such as jersey and tricot. For women, gone were the heavy skirts and dresses of the Victorian and Edwardian periods to be replaced by shorter summer dresses and high heels. Men, too, began to wear more fun and fashionable attire such as the wide Oxford bags trousers and two-tone shoes.
After the war, substantial changes in dress took place. Fewer men wore collars and ties or hats, and more of both sexes ditched their formal shoes in favour of sandals.
By the 60s, fashion and the relaxed societal rules even brought violence to the seaside which became literal battleground of two different fashion-conscious groups — the mods and the rockers. Both easily identified by their attire, hairstyles and choice of vehicles, the two cultures clashed on a number of beaches in the south-east of England during the Whitsun holiday of 1964.
Despite newspapers such as the Daily Express citing the events as smearing “the traditional postcard scene with blood and violence.” , participants in the fighting had quite another take on it. As one young Mod, who fought rockers at Margate, put it: “It was a laugh, I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for a long time.” There remains the question: would these gangs have fought each other like they did that weekend on home ground or did the more informal nature of the seaside contribute to their behaviour?
As time went on, people began to adopt even more casual attire as shorts and t-shirts for both adults and children became the norm for the beach by the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Whilst the seaside was initially the playground of the rich, as living standards rose and new technologies such as steam travel and the combustion engine came into everyday use and offered cheap transport, the beach resorts began to attract the working class.
Day trips, often organised by employers, the church or charities, brought thousands of them from the polluted industrial cities and towns of Victorian Britain to the fresh air and fun atmosphere of the seaside.
While the upper and middle classes went there for purposes of health and self-improving recreation, the aim of new working-class day trippers was to get away from the drudgery and slog of their normal working life. And they entered into it with gusto.
A popular ideal right through the 19th century was trumpeted by middle class reformers. Rational recreation was the belief that the urban working class should use any free time they had for controlled and organised pastimes that would be enriching and self-improving, including at the seaside. It was a way of diverting them away from activities that could potentially undermine key social values and stop them partaking in behaviours such as drinking. Wholesome activities, it was felt, would eliminate idleness and give the working class a sense of respectability and worth. In a century that saw social unrest spread across Europe, rational recreation, many felt, would help show the working class the “right” way to behave.
However, when it came to their leisure time, the working class had other ideas and voted with their feet as to what seaside attractions they preferred. Whilst some resorts resisted the influx of these unwelcome visitors, others, such as Blackpool, recognised the financial advantages they brought and consciously catered for them. New piers and amusements were built specifically to entice the working-class visitor and attractions, including outdoor and all-day dances, were organised specifically for them.
But this new found freedom of a trip to the seaside came with its own issues. As the factory workers, coal miners and mill girls flocked the coast, some threw off their normal code of behaviour to fully embrace the experience, often with poor results. There were reports of bad behaviour and of working-class people being drunken and disorderly.
And this wasn’t just the men. Women also threw themselves into having a good time.
In the 1930s, girls from the London laundries became infamous for their day trips to nearby Southend. One report claimed a group of 32 women took 24 crates of beer with them on to the bus that was taking them to Southend. By the time they reached the resort, the driver said, they decided “that they had perhaps better not get out, so they stopped at Billericay and ended up with whisky and port…”. This happened in an era when it was frowned upon if women even went into a pub.
Of course, drunkenness wasn’t a modern phenomenon. As far back as 1885, one journalist complained that working class Londoners visiting Seven-Dials-on-Sea were “drunken and card-playing humanity” who attended “vulgar music-halls”.
While working class preferences for the music hall were seen as tasteless, there was one form of music that was enjoyed by all classes at the seaside. The brass band proved a perennial favourite with people from all different backgrounds and the amateur brass band competition was a huge draw.
Brass bands consisted of amateur, mainly working-class musicians and were often created and funded by employers as a way of providing a self-improving activity for workers. Their repertoire consisted of arrangements of classical music performed by high quality amateur musicians and, because of this, were thought to be morally improving. This led to them being popular with people from many different backgrounds who gathered together to listen and enjoy them, something that would never have happened in normal life where the upper and middle class did not mix socially with the working class. However, not all brass band competitions ended well for, when an unpopular winner was announced, there were occasions when fist fights broke out amongst rival fans.
There is no doubt that in the 18th and 19th centuries the upper and middle classes would have continued to follow certain rules of conduct during a trip to the seaside, albeit maybe not so strict as it would be at home. However, as the coastal resorts opened up to all, including the working class, attitudes, fashion and behaviour relaxed and opinions began to change. People viewed the seaside as a place that was not just for health and self-improvement, but could be fun as well.
In the first half of the 20th century, in a society changed forever by two world wars, the seaside continued to be a place to let down one’s hair and enjoy oneself. It was where you went to have a nice holiday, to get away from the drudgery of normal life and have fun.
And, although the British seaside has lost much of its popularity since then thanks to foreign travel, it still continues to be a place frequented by people wishing to get away from it all… even if it’s only for the day.