On the Beach

The first August Bank Holiday in 1872 prompted an exodus of people from England’s cities to the seaside, including to Hastings where the new pier opened on that day. And each year since, except during the wars, millions have followed them.

Historic England’s beach bum, sorry seaside expert, Allan Brodie looks through our archive to illustrate how beach holidays have changed over the centuries.

DP034504 another place by Anthony gormley Crosby
‘Another Place’ at Crosby by Antony Gormley | Historic England Archive DP034504

The recorded story of days on the beach begins in the early 18th century. In the diary of the Crosby landowner Nicholas Blundell, he recorded bathing in the sea in August 1708 because ‘it was extreamly hot’(sic). A year later he took his children to the beach to cure ‘some out breacks’ by nothing in the sea (sic). The Blundell family appear to have visited the stretch of coast nearest their house, possibly Crosby Beach, where Antony Gormley’s atmospheric ‘Another Place’ has become a modern place of pilgrimage

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Detail of Engraving of Scarborough by John Setterington 1735 | Historic England Archive CC80/00145

Soon the first bathing machines were in use and by the 1750s the fully developed bathing machine with a canvas cover was taking people out to bathe in the sea. The earliest depiction of a bathing machine occurs in an engraving of Scarborough in 1735, though there are documentary references to one in use at Liverpool, a decade earlier.

Hastings beach in the late 19th century | Historic England Archive BB68/05589

Bathing in the sea took place during the morning on the advice of doctors and a caution against swimming on full stomach persisted at least until the 1960s.

However, it also left the rest of the day free for entertainment at coffee houses, assembly rooms, in circulating libraries and at the theatre. It would only be in the 19th century that the beach became a regular place for entertainment.

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The beach at Dover in the late 19th century | Historic England Archive BB88/03995

Through the rest of the 18th and the 19th centuries bathing machines were central to the experience of sea bathing. People were taken out into the sea in these contraptions, where they enjoyed a brief dip beneath a canvas canopy, that was lowered from the rear of the bathing machine. This was for the benefit of the modest, but also offered some protection for bathers when the sea was rough.

A busy beach beside the railway station | Historic England Archive OP29135

A combination of the arrival of the railway and an increase in holidays, including bank holidays, led by the beginning of the 20th century to millions of people heading to the seaside each year. Nevertheless, the bathing machine remained a key feature of the beach of major resorts. This photograph predates the appearance of the deckchair on beaches in the mid-1890s, the chairs and benches apparently to rent being regular pieces of garden furniture.

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Weymouth Beach in the late 19th century | Historic England Archive BB88/02329

By the late 19th century photography began to be able to capture something of the busy atmosphere of the seaside resort. This photograph of Weymouth taken in the late 19th century shows heavily dressed women pushing perambulators and besuited gents strolling on the promenade. Leisure wear in the modern sense did not exist and therefore even after World War II it is common to see people on the beach in everyday clothes, including suits.

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A troupe of minstrels on Margate sands c1900 | Historic England Archive OP00621

 As well as fun in the sea and building sand castles, beaches were also a place where entertainment could be enjoyed. This was often in the form of visiting troupes of Pierrots or Minstrels.

Scarborough, Yorkshire. Copy of postcard of seafront, circa 1900
The beach at Scarborough in the early 20th century | Historic England Archive

Entertainers sometimes performed on the sands, but at some resorts small platforms were erected on the beach. This early postcard of Scarborough, dating from after 1894 when sending cards bearing photographs became legal, shows the entertainers with the unused bathing machines behind, bathing being over for the day.

op00075 punch and judy show on the beach 1949 lowestoft
Children enjoy Punch and Judy at Lowestoft in 1949 | Historic England Archive OP00075

Entertainment on the beach is synonymous with Punch and Judy. Once a popular sight on the streets of major cities, it is now usually enjoyed at a handful of seaside resorts where ‘Professors’ amuse children of all ages.

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The Salvation Army teaching a hymn to attentive children at Blackpool | Historic England Archive AA047908

In the 19th century respectable people feared that the seaside was undermining the Sabbath, encouraging entertainment and drinking at the expense of churchgoing. But this post-war photograph of Blackpool beach by John Gay illustrates that the Salvation Army was willing to take religious worship to holidaymakers.

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A hot, sunny day at Weymouth Beach | Historic England Archive DP054532

The peak of popularity of seaside holidays lies somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s and the seaside still remains popular despite the lure of the warm Mediterranean sun.

Since the 1950s the colourful life of the beach, with bathers stripped to soak in the sun has becoming a defining image of the seaside, at least on the hot days. The other extreme is the image of the huddled holidaymakers in a shelter, but let’s hope this Bank Holiday weekend is scorching rather than soggy!

Further Reading

There are a number of books in the Historic England bookshop about England’s Seaside heritage. Take a look here and brush up on coastal history before heading out on your jollies.

Use code BLOG16 to get 20% off any book from the Historic England bookshop.

Allan Brodie at Nice


When Allan isn’t researching England’s influence on the development of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, he’s writing a book on the history of the seaside and another on the history of tourism.

3 responses to On the Beach

  1. milliethom says:

    Great post. I’m from a seaside town myself (Southport) and well remember the beach scene of the 1950s – Punch and Judy and all. Those 19th century bathing machines were quite something, though no doubt seen as necessary at a time when modesty needed preserving.

  2. Claire Roos says:

    I am very fond of this book. I often pick it up and have a leaf through.

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