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May 2009 Meeting Report

“The rise and decline of the English seaside resort” by Tony Kirby

As an introduction to this fascinating and well illustrated presentation, Tony showed a picture of Staithes, a small seaside town to the north of Whitby. This had no seafront and was typical of most seaside towns up to the early 19th century where the sea was seen as the livelihood, usually as a fishing town, or in the case of towns such as Yarmouth and Wisbech, as ports and trading centres.

One of the first seaside towns to attract visitors using the sea as an attraction was Scarborough around 1670,which had a well known spa. Spa visitors were also encouraged to drink sea water as a curative! Other fashionable spa towns such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Epsom were thus unable to compete on that basis. By the early 19th century visitors were invited to take a dip into the sea using one of the new fangled bathing machines which allowed bathers to change into their bathing costumes in complete modesty, and after the quick dip, to change back again. By 1860 Scarborough had become a very popular resort, rivalling the landlocked spa towns, and was especially popular with people from the Yorkshire towns served by the railways. Scarborough sensibly had a rail station very close to the sea, with 9 platforms by 1900 served by 70 trains daily in the season by 1930.

Naturally, other seaside towns also started to get into the act, but some, like Weymouth were given considerable help by being visited by George 111 who went bathing there, accompanied by a fanfare from the Grenadier Guards. Yarmouth, in the 1840s had fashionable hotels and theatres built, and even the iconic Wellington Arch. Up to the 1840s these seaside resorts were only available to the wealthy, but the burgeoning rail transport change all that and by 1860 it was possible to make day trips from the industrial heartlands to the nearby rapidly expanding seaside resorts such as Ramsgate, Brighton, Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Sheringham, Cromer and Blackpool.

Tony also gave an example of a failed resort, this being Ravenscar, about 10m south of Whitby. A syndicate of Leeds business men planned to turn the clifftop village into a resort at the end of the 19th century, building a large hotel, roads and sewers. However they appeared to have overlooked two major problems, Ravanscar was on a cliff 400 feet up and north facing on the bay. Up to about 1850 Cornwall was considered too remote from the rest of England but the building of Bunel’s famous railway bridge, the Royal Albert Bridge, over the Tamar changed that, especially when some whiz dreamed up the slogan “The Cornish Riviera” for the railway posters.

In order to cater for the changeable weather the resort towns had very palatial theatres built at the beginning of the 20th cent, and, of course the amusement arcades. Many resorts had piers with amusement arcades, theatres and cafes, Cromer now being the only one which still has an “End of the Pier Show” still attracting coachloads of punters.

Then, of course, came the holiday camps, the original one being started at Skegness in 1936 ( “Skegness is so bracing”) by a certain colonial called Billy Butlin. We were shown a slide of people swarming off trains smartly dressed, with the fellas wearing ties and hats. Holiday camps still continued to be popular in the 50s but slowly declined in the 60s, mirroring the inexorable fall in English seaside visitors. This accelerated in the 70sand 80s with the availability of overseas package holidays. Then came Ryanair and Easyjet in the late 90s when flying to the sun was never cheaper

Now, it appears that the situation is being reversed a bit as we are now becoming fed up with having to submit to a 2 hour hassle at the airport and the budget fares are becoming increasingly less so and more restrictive. So perhaps there will be an English Coastal resort renaissance, especially in these credit crunch times!

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