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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

An old photograph of bathing tents on Bexhill beach, 1919

Bathing tents on Bexhill beach, 1919.

Photo courtesy of Steven Braggs and Diane Harris www.seasidehistory.co.uk

articles > The seaside resort...

The seaside resort: a British cultural export

John K. Walton, Department of Humanities, University of Central Lancashire

The seaside resort and beach holiday, in their various guises, played a central role in the development of tourism as a great international industry, agent of economic and social transformation and depositor of deepening environmental footprints across the globe. Just as factory industry, steam power, modern means of transport and other innovations of the Industrial Revolution era trace their origins to developments in Britain, and the emergence of sport as a global economic and cultural phenomenon has its roots in the transformation of (especially) association football and golf into growing local, national and international businesses from the late nineteenth century, so modern tourism is another familiar set of phenomena that, for better and worse, the British gave to the world. The tentacles of the global tourist industry now embrace phenomena like sport and nostalgia for industrial pasts, but the seaside resort remains at the core of its imagery, both contemporary and historical. It also makes use of sport, nostalgia and other colours from the broader tourism palette to broaden its own appeal. The nostalgia dimension is fitting, given that it all began in Britain, in that eighteenth century that also saw the origins of the more conventional Industrial Revolution, although, as with so many other innovations the British gave to the world, the Romans had already been there nearly two millennia earlier. Even as the rise of the Atlantic economy and of Britain's pretensions to dominate sea-borne trade helped to usher in the heyday of the British Empire, so the British seaside grew in parallel and spread across the globe, impelled in part by demand from expatriate Britons but increasingly gathering a momentum of its own as, like football, it adapted to new cultures and mutated in line with their expectations and preferences.

Sea-bathing, on a scale that was capable of attracting business investment, transforming old towns and creating new ones, emerged as part of the growing fashionable concern for the pursuit of health and attractiveness among the broadening and highly competitive upper strata of eighteenth-century English society. It began as an extension of the older health regime of the spa, promoted by entrepreneurial medical men, and building on popular sea-bathing traditions, shared with much of coastal Catholic Europe, that saw the sea as having prophylactic powers at the August spring tides. The first local adaptations of sea-bathing from popular to polite and commercial culture come from Whitby and Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, shortly before 1720, and accessibility to the enormous London market and its Bath offshoot soon prompted developments in south-eastern England, especially at Margate, Brighton and Weymouth. The trappings of luxury and commercial pleasure, already in evidence at the more sophisticated spas, were readily transferred to this summer setting, and at Brighton royal patronage from the future George IV made the developing resort an epitome of frivolity and dissolute hedonism by the late eighteenth century. By this time the romantic revaluation of seaside as well as mountain scenery was making the sublime shoreline an attractive object of contemplation and artistic composition, with its own fashionable vocabulary of stereotyped wonder, which was already the object of Jane Austen's satire in her unfinished Sanditon.

Under these auspices the seaside resort became, on one rather loaded definition, the fastest-growing kind of British town in the first half of the nineteenth century, a peak period for urban development generally, especially among industrial towns; and, of course, the seaside resort fell into this latter category, with health and pleasure as its products. Symbolically, between 1821 and 1831 the fastest-growing towns in Britain were Bradford and Brighton. Fittingly, too, the railways (another classic British invention) helped to boost growth from the 1840s onwards, giving easier, cheaper, faster access to the coast for middling-class families and working-class trippers, and making it possible for Blackpool to become the world's first working-class seaside resort in the late nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century every English and Welsh coastline was studded with resorts of different sizes, and every possible market could find a congenial holiday home in one or other of well over 100 substantial coastal resorts, the largest of which had well over 50,000 year-round residents. For most of the twentieth century expansion continued, despite the two world wars, though it was expressed more through the expansion of existing resorts and the emergence of new scattered car-based coastal settlements than by the founding of new urban nuclei. It was not until the 1970s that competition from new kinds of holiday destination, together with changing tastes and expectations, began to damage what were by this time 'traditional' family holiday destinations; and even then recent research has suggested a greater resilience than was often assumed.

As in the case of British manufacturing industry, the challenge to the British seaside in the late twentieth century owed much to the successful export of the idea of sea-bathing for health and pleasure to other parts of the world, the growing attractiveness of what were often newer and more attractive overseas holiday environments to British tastes, and their increasing accessibility through transport and organisational innovations. A further dimension of this was the enduring reluctance of national and regional tourism promotion bodies, which were always starved of funding, to promote the seaside as opposed to the capital and more conventional emblems of Englishness and Britishness, such as Oxford, Stratford on Avon, Edinburgh, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands.

But the spread of the modern seaside resort from its eighteenth-century British origins to become a global phenomenon, undergoing various transformations in the process and thereby generating intensifying competition for the original, and increasingly mobile, British market, began early and is still continuing, with the relentless advance of the 'pleasure periphery' across endlessly desirable (but not, it is becoming clear, endlessly available) vistas of new and 'unspoiled' coastline. Seaside resorts began to appear on the French Channel coast and in what was to become Belgium and the Netherlands in the late eighteenth century; by the early nineteenth century the commercial sea-bathing habit was making an impact on Normandy and south-west France, and in north Germany and parts of Scandinavia; and soon afterwards it reached the Spanish Atlantic coast. Developments in the Mediterranean, especially the French and Italian Riviera whose early growth was based on the restoration of health through climate rather than sea-bathing, came later; but by the mid-nineteenth century Rimini was among several Italian sea-bathing resorts that were catering for a regional clientele, alongside Rome's Ostia, and an increasing German and Austrian presence was notable on the Adriatic by the end of that century. But the Mediterranean as maritime tourist playground was mainly a product of the new vogue for sunbathing and personal display on warm and languid beaches that gathered momentum during the inter-war years, and the Civil War delayed the full flowering of this process in Spain until the 1950s and 1960s.

This illustrates an older-established trend for European resorts to develop characteristics of their own as they evolved away from their British origins. They soon developed more relaxed attitudes to bathing (including issues surrounding modesty and the mingling of the sexes on the beach), casino gambling, drinking, Sunday observance and public dancing than were to be found in Britain, and when attitudes in these areas began to ease more noticeably in some British resorts in the early twentieth century, the growth of 'Continental influences' was often remarked on. Each European country and coastline developed its own quirks of architecture and beach management. The same applied when commercial sea-bathing spread to the United States and to the British Empire, especially Australia and South Africa. In Australia, especially, the development of surf bathing at the beginning of the twentieth century brought new kinds of beach culture in its wake, though the development of a new pier at Sydney's Coogee Beach at the end of the 1920s revealed an enduring nostalgia for imagined British mores. In Latin America the Spanish ways in which the Spanish seaside had adapted beach mores to its own cultural preferences were in turn exported to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. The United States, meanwhile, developed much more relaxed codes of behaviour between the sexes on its popular beaches during the later nineteenth century, as contrasts sharpened between religious and highly commercial resorts and new coastlines opened out. Race also became an issue here as well as in South Africa, and also added an important dimension to problems and conflicts in the new resorts of Asia and the South Pacific as they burgeoned in the post-war years.

As sunshine, swimming and hedonism displaced fresh air, control and formality as the dominant seaside resort idioms in growing numbers of resorts in the post-war decades, and as external resort cultures developed a momentum of their own which came back to affect expectations in Britain, not least because so many Britons were taking up the opportunity to sample other seaside climates and cultures through the growth of the airborne package tour from the 1960s (though it had many antecedents for the more affluent and leisured), the British seaside found it increasingly difficult to cope with the competition. As with factories, empire and football, a set of exported British inventions had transformed great swathes of the rest of the world, only for them to acquire a life of their own, develop the imported habits and institutions in new ways, and return the favour by transforming the British in their turn.

Further reading

C. Aron, Working at Play: a History of Vacations in the United States (New York, 1999)

M. Barke and others (eds.), Tourism in Spain: Critical Perspectives (Wallingford, 1996)

S. Barton, Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester, 2005) [Please click on the title to read a review of this book by John K. Walton]

D. Booth, Australian Beach Cultures (2001)

A. Corbin, The Lure of the Sea (1994)

G. Cross and J. K. Walton, The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2005)

A. Durie, Scotland for the Holidays (Edinburgh, 2001)

A. Garner, A Shifting Shore (Ithaca, NY, 2005)

N. Johnson, Boardwalk Empire (Medford, NJ, 2002)

J. K. Walton, The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century (Manchester, 2000)

J. K. Walton, The English Seaside Resort: a Social History 1750–1914 (Leicester, 1983)

R. White, On Holidays (Sydney, 2005)

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