England’s seaside resorts are places of leisure but also tell stories of working towns in times of war and peace.
In search of health
People began to visit the seaside in the early 18th century in search of improved health. Initially they bathed in the sea using bathing machines or enjoyed baths in small bathhouses, but by the late 19th century growing numbers of people were swimming in the sea and in purpose-built pools.
The Open-Air Baths at Blackpool opened on 9 June 1923. Designed by J C Robinson at a cost of £80,000, the pool measured 115m by 52.4m, much larger than a modern Olympic-size pool. Around the outside, there was a colonnade of Doric columns flanking a central, Beaux Arts, domed entrance and a café with a pergola-style roof terrace.
There were 574 dressing rooms around the concourse measuring a third of a mile long and tiers of seating could accommodate around 3,000 spectators on three sides. By the 1960s, the popularity of the open-air pool at Blackpool, and outdoor pools in general, was in decline and so it closed in 1981 and was demolished in 1983. Since 1986 its site has been occupied by the Sandcastle Waterworld indoor leisure centre.
Getting to the seaside
Today most people visit the seaside in their own cars, sometimes creating the notorious traffic jams endured on bank holiday weekends. Prior to this, the train was the most popular way of travelling but between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century many people also visited seaside resorts by steamer.
To land passengers, many seaside resorts constructed piers; the first Clacton Pier opened on 27 July 1871 and was 146m long. It was extended to 360m during the 1890s and included a new polygonal pier head and steamer landing stage.
The ship moored at the front of the pier is the Queen of Kent. It was built as an Ascot Class paddle minesweeper HMS Atherstone in 1916; after the war, it was rebuilt as a passenger steamer.
Staying at the seaside
In the 18th and 19th centuries most visitors to resorts stayed in lodgings, rooms in people’s houses, but a growing number of wealthier people wanted the comfort of hotels.
The North Western Hotel opened at Morecambe in 1848 and it was renamed the Midland Hotel in 1871. The leading modernist architect Oliver Hill was commissioned by the London Midland and Scottish Railway to design a new hotel in a contemporary style to replace that hotel. The new Midland Hotel was built in 1932-33 in a striking, modernist form; avant-garde works of art and design were incorporated into the building, including items by Eric Gill, Marion Dorn and Eric Ravilious.
During the late 20th century, the Midland Hotel was almost a symbol of the decline in the fortunes of the English seaside resort and it was forced to close in 1998. It stood derelict for a number of years but was refurbished and reopened in June 2008.
Walking on water
Piers were constructed at seaside resorts to land passengers from steamers, but they were also popular places for visitors to promenade. By the end of the 19th century, they were also home to many entertainments, including fairground rides and theatres.
Cast-iron piers began to become common features at resorts from the 1850s onwards. Initially largely unadorned structures, Eugenius Birch (1818-84) erected Blackpool’s first pier in 1863 with a series of kiosks on its deck and three years later, he completed Brighton’s West Pier using the first hint of exotic forms inspired by the nearby Royal Pavilion. In 1872 at Hastings, he constructed the first pier designed with an integral, large pier-head entertainment building.
All these innovations were incorporated into Birch’s pier at Eastbourne. It opened on 13 June 1870, though work was not completed until 1872. The first 400-seat theatre was constructed on the pier head in 1888, but was replaced by a 1,000-seat venue, bar and camera obscura in 1899-1901. Two saloons were constructed halfway along the pier in 1901. In 1912, new entrance buildings were added and in 1925, a 900-seat music pavilion was constructed at the landward end.
During the 18th century, seaside resorts might welcome a few hundred visitors each year but by the end of the 19th century, Blackpool was attracting millions of holidaymakers each year. To entertain them huge new complexes were created, including Blackpool Tower, the ultimate expression of the mass production of fun.
Britain’s tallest man-made structure when it opened to the public on 14 May 1894, the owners of Blackpool Tower have modestly labelled it as ‘THE WONDERLAND OF THE WORLD’ in this 1920 photograph. It was both a technical triumph and an act of financial courage, particularly by John Bickerstaffe, Mayor of Blackpool and Chairman of the Tower Company. Designed by the Manchester-based practice of Maxwell and Tuke, the Tower measured 158m and was constructed in less than three years at a cost of £300,000.
Blackpool Tower offered visitors a range of entertainments for 6d, including an aquarium, a menagerie and the original Grand Pavilion, which was soon reinvented as the celebrated Tower Ballroom. If visitors paid extra, they could ascend the Tower or enjoy a show in the 3,000 seat Circus.
To the left of the photograph can be seen the Alhambra, another substantial leisure complex (now gone) and behind is the Winter Gardens with the large Ferris wheel.
All the fun of the fair
By the end of the 19th century, new technologies developed for manufacturing were finding their way to the seaside to give resorts rollercoasters and other fairground rides. Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Britain’s first enclosed seaside amusement park, opened in 1905. By 1920, millions of people were visiting the park each year.
The most monumental structure in the Pleasure Beach was the cylindrical ‘spectatorium’ for the Monitor and Merrimac battle show, which re-created a naval engagement that occurred during the American Civil War. In 1914, it was adapted to present a review of the British fleet. To the right can be seen the wooden Velvet Coaster, built by William H Strickler and named after its velvet seating. Elements of this ride were incorporated into the Roller Coaster constructed in 1933.
Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machine can be seen in the centre, to the right of the white Casino building of 1913. It is the oldest ride in continuous use in Europe; it first operated on 1 August 1904 at Blackpool. Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840–1916) was an engineer and the inventor of the Maxim machine gun. He was also experimenting with primitive flying machines and in 1902, he devised this ride as a spin-off from his research. It consists of ten steel arms, from which originally gondolas hung from cables, spinning outwards as the central shaft of the ride rotated.
Today most people think of seaside resorts as places of fun and leisure, but many are still workplaces, and have harbours at their heart because of their origins as coastal ports.
At Lyme Regis, there was no natural harbour or suitable river in which boats could shelter, and therefore the Cobb, the town’s harbour wall, was created. It is first mentioned in 1328 when it was described as a structure of oak piles driven into the seabed with boulders between. As the centuries progressed, the structure became more substantial and in 1820 it was reconstructed as a more substantial structure. It serves as a breakwater, protecting the town and boats in the harbour from storms.
The Cobb has featured prominently in literature; Jane Austen visited it while on holiday and she used the location in her novel Persuasion. The local writer John Fowles employed it as a central location for his novel the French Lieutenant’s Woman and in the subsequent film.
The seaside at war
Everybody loves a nice beach, including our enemies, because a stretch of coastline that is great for holidaymaking would also be ideal for an invader. Due to Henry VIII’s decision to break from the Papacy, England faced invasion in 1538 by the combined forces of the Emperor Charles V and Francis I, King of France seeking to re-establish papal authority.
Fortifications were constructed along the coast of England and Wales, stretching eventually from Hull round to Milford Haven. The smallest were the blockhouses defending the shores of the Thames, but at some locations on the south coast of England, huge fortifications were built. These were designed with a tall, central, cylindrical block surrounded by rounded bastions and provided dozens of gun positions in castles such as those at Deal, Walmer, Sandgate or St Mawes. Although vast sums of money were spent, these fortifications were not put to the test; on 7 June 1546 a peace treaty ended the immediate danger of war with France.
Deal Castle remained in use as a military fortification until the early 20th century, but from the 18th century onwards, it was increasingly used as a private house for the captain of the castle, which had become an honorary position. During the Second World War, the castle was used as an observation post for a nearby artillery battery. Following wartime damage, the building was restored during the 1950s and it is now cared for by English Heritage.
The power of the sea
This photograph shows Canvey Island in the immediate aftermath of the huge storm surge of 31 January and 1 February 1953. The height of the southern North Sea rose by between 2.7m and 3.4m, leading to 800km2 of land being inundated and causing damage costing £900m. Resorts as far apart as Margate in Kent and Skegness in Lincolnshire were damaged; in total, 307 people died and 24,500 houses were destroyed or damaged. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it a ‘National Disaster’.
Canvey Island, a low-lying settlement on the Essex coast, suffered dramatically during the 1953 storm surge. There were 58 deaths and some of its victims drowned while in bed.
After the Second World War, England’s coastal defences had been neglected; Canvey Island had no adequate protection for its housing and industry. This photograph was taken a day after the storm surge, while Canvey Island was still inundated with water. Once the waters receded, new, substantial concrete sea defences were installed to protect the town.
Memory and commemoration
The seafronts at many seaside resorts are important civic spaces where towns celebrate and commemorate their citizens, monarchs and national heroes. Statues of Queen Victoria are particularly common, but there are also many war memorials and celebrations of local figures such as heroic lifeboatmen. There are also a wide range of more practical types of monument such as water fountains, clock towers and even water troughs for the hardy animals that worked on seafronts.
One of the largest, and most unusual, commemorative structures on a seafront was the elongated, octagonal paddling pool on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea. Built in 1921 by Mr and Mrs Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, it was in thanks for the safe return of their five sons from the First World War. Joseph Bevan was a Quaker, as were his sons, yet they fought during the war.
At high tide, the pool would fill with sea water and here at low tide, when the sea is some distance out, this became an ideal pool in which children can play. Unfortunately, due to cost and structural problems, the pool was demolished in 2010.
Beyond the pool can be seen the pier at Burnham, the last to be built immediately before the outbreak of the First World War and apparently the shortest pier in England.
The Aerofilms Collection
Aerofilms Ltd was created in 1919, and almost immediately set off to the seaside. Some of the earliest photographs taken by this new company were at resorts in the south-east of England in the early months of 1920 and the company regularly returned to the seaside during the subsequent decades.
The Aerofilms collection of more than one million photographs was acquired by the national heritage bodies for England, Scotland and Wales in 2007 and in the subsequent decade, around a tenth of the collection representing the earlier decades were digitised and can be viewed on Britain from Above.
In 1920, their first full year of operation, Aerofilms logged 2,332 aerial photographs in the registers. Today, when a telephone contains a camera, photography may seem to be a straightforward skill, but for the pioneering photographers of Aerofilms, life was much more complicated. The images were captured one at a time on glass negatives measuring 5 inches by 4 inches in bulky cameras. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are errors in some of the negatives, such as a bit of flare from the Sun or the edge of the wing. However, this offers great insights into the conditions under which these heroic photographers worked.
Not a slot for Southend-on-Sea pier? The longest pleasure pier in the world – rather a glaring omission me thinks.