Pollution, games arcades and traffic jams have tarnished the traditiona l image of the British seaside holiday. The postcards shown here and overleaf recall a more innocent age: that of the turn of the century, when the working c lasses discovered the unfamiliar joys of idleness.
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The Independent Culture
IN THE year 1906, in the middle of the golden age of the British seaside resort, an enthusiast for Margate took up his pen to extol the merits of the town. Everybody, he wrote, could derive benefit from the place. "Its merry side is good for the busy workers with hand and brain, and the good honest folks who look for the joy of life in their week or fortnight of freedom and want to make the most out of every shining hour of their holiday. It is good for the happy children who frolic in the sands and grow brown and bonny in the sun, and gay with the pure new wine of life that courses in their veins. It is good for the quieter visitors, who come from Cliftonville and the more aristocratic quarters of the town, to gaze on a happy world at play, a world that is not ashamed to let its neighbours know that it is enjoying itself."

It is a perfect picture of the bliss of seaside holidays before video- game arcades and traffic jams, before pollution monitoring and skin cancer warnings, and before the Costas, the Greek Isles and the Disney parks. It was a time of novelty and of a sort of innocence, when people were still discovering the joys of leisure for pleasure's sake. Not just in Margate but in all the resorts, from Scarborough to Torquay and from Lowestoft to Blackpool, a generation whose parents had never seen the sea and thought of themselves only as workers were breathing in with the ozone new freedoms and new independence. It was an experience which helped them to redefine their place in the world.

In the photographs on these pages they can be seen, crowding the promenades in their unsuitable clothes, strolling on the piers, buying "Genuine" ice-cream and building sandcastles. From morning to night, the new holiday- makers dedicated themselves to having a good time, and as they did so the resorts witnessed the blossoming of a new culture. The boom lasted from about 1890 to the outbreak of the First World War; whether they were large or small, beautiful or ugly, the resorts spun upwards in a happy spiral of demand, investment, profit, pleasure and consumption.

It did not, of course, happen overnight. Nor- mally, the changes are ascribed to two causes, both of which were slow to make their impact. The first is the railway, born early in the century and long established throughout the country by 1890. The second is the arrival of free time.

From mid-century on, the trains had carried the middle classes and their betters to the seaside for their annual holidays en famille. There they walked the promenades, attended concerts and lectures, studied flora and fauna, read books from the library and generally improved themselves. It was a style of leisure borrowed from the spas, and this was no accident.

Ever since the time of George III, who holidayed famously at Weymouth, the seaside had been a place to be cured. Bathing was prescribed by the best doctors, but only if the pores were closed. This meant doing it when air and sea were good and cold, at the crack of dawn, and preferably in mid-winter (Fanny Burney, finding herself by the sea in June, decided not to bathe in case it was unhealthy). Patients were also urged to drink a pint of sea-water before their dip - sufficient, according to medical opinion, "to give three or four smart stools".

Much of this bathing was done naked, although latterly with the benefit of bathing-machines complete with canopies to ensure privacy. Many could not and did not swim; instead they would be manhandled into the water by burly female "dippers" who, as popular hate-figures, were worthy forerunners of the seaside landladies.

Not much pleasure there. The Victorian middle classes, it seems, enjoyed themselves by not enjoying themselves. Improvement, cure, health, refreshment of body and spirit, that's what they were after. To have been idle would have been sinful. It was the working classes, or at least the better-off among them, who brought the fun with them.

They arrived at first in dribs and drabs, with the textile workers of Lancashire leading the way. They were relatively prosperous, and for them the sea, whether it was at Southport, Blackpool or Rhyl, was relatively close. Cheap excursion tickets on the railways helped to make possible a grand day out. But day-trips were what they were, by and large, and picnics were brought. The resorts did not at first have the accommodation or the facilities for mass, cheap holidays, and their more usual patrons frowned upon the rowdy "trippers".

In any case, proper holidays required time off from work, and this was not to be had in sufficient quantity. It was only in 1850 that Parliament decreed that women and children should have Saturday afternoons off, and it was 1871 before it introduced the Bank Holiday - so called for legal reasons, because bills of exchange due on that day were to be settled the next. There were four of them: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. Christmas Day and Good Friday were already established days of leisure (or, more properly, of worship).

All this was good for the trippers; it affor- ded them a day or two out now and then. Holidays in the modern sense, of at least a week, took longer to come, and then it was rising prosperity that brought them rather than Acts of Parliament. But the Bank Holidays made a difference: they introduced the notion of free time, time of your own to do with as you wished so long as your means permitted. In that time, the trippers got a taste for the seaside, a taste for leisure, a taste for getting away from it all.

By the 1880s, those who could, whether they were skilled factory workers or office clerks, were saving up all year for a family week at the seaside. Street savings clubs, temperance societies, friendly societies and other bodies would run holiday funds. Rail fares were falling to match the means of these travellers, and cheap boarding houses were springing up to house them. The resorts changed. At those within easiest reach of the rising working-classes, the traditional clientele, often to their intense annoyance, found themselves squeezed. Often, these middle-class families took themselves off to more remote, and more refined resorts, although in truth nowhere was immune to the new culture. And the resorts grew. Blackpool, Lancashire's Queen of the Seas, overtook Southport, doubling in size in each decade between 1870 and 1900. The boom had begun.

WHAT did these newcomers do beside the seaside? They invented a world; or, rather, it was invented to meet their needs. First, they swam very little. In the earlier years, not many people knew how to, but any disposition they might have had to learn was inhibited by Victorian mores. At the beach, as elsewhere, the demands of morality grew more fierce as the Queen grew older.

In mid-century naked bathing was commonplace and mixed naked bathing not unknown. As late as 1875 the Rev Francis Kilvert wrote in rhapsodic terms in his diary of a naked beauty he had seen on a beach in the Isle of Wight - "the gentle dawn and tender swell of the bosom and the budding breasts... and above all the soft, exquisite curves of the rosy dimpled bottom and broad white thighs..." By 1890, however, women who wished to bathe had to be swathed from neck to knee in black serge, usually with corsets underneath. Men wore generous one-pieces, and even then the two sexes were obliged to swim at separate parts of the beach.

Changing facilities were limited to the old bathing machines or rented huts and tents that succeeded them, but to those of slender means this was usually an obstacle too many. Daring folk who changed in their boarding house and ran to the beach through the streets in coats found themselves the target of new by-laws forbidding "mackintosh bathing". Little wonder, then, that paddling became a ceremony. In their unsuitable clothing, with shoes and socks off and trousers or dresses hiked up, the new tourists would enter the sea to ankle-depth and chat, stroll and laugh to their hearts' content.

But the sea was only a fraction of the attraction. First, there were the new-found joys of idleness. The seaside, wrote one observer, was a place "where the children may tumble about in the wholesome air without getting into mischief, and materfamilias, released from the cares of housekeeping, will not find time hangs too heavily on her hands, while he himself [paterfamilias] can lie on his back, and read the paper... and smoke his pipe, and generally take things easy until it is time for dinner."

This blessed peace was, however, subject to frequent interruption, for the foreshore was a seething snakepit of hustlers and mountebanks. In 1895, Blackpool's Town Clerk counted 316 "standings", or stalls on the beach, including 57 stalls selling trinkets, 52 ice-cream stands, 21 oyster and prawn sellers, 36 photographers, 24 ventriloquists and phrenologists, six quack doctors and five conjurors. Entertainment, cheap entertainment, was the order of the day. The workers were out for some budget hedonism.

The new world extended above the prom as well. Boarding houses stretched inland in all directions, and teashops and fish-and-chip restaurants sprang up - the first popular eating-out establishments where you could sit down. Above all, there were the pleasure palaces.

The finest was in Blackpool, tucked between the legs of the Tower. A visitor in 1897 wrote: "In the basement is a large variety circus, the arena of which can be filled with water for aquatic spectacles. On the ground floor are a fine billiard room and restaurant. An aquarium, the tanks being disposed in a series of rocky passages; a menagerie, with monkeys, gay-plumed birds, lions and tigers; the tropical roof-gardens; such are but a few of the attractive appendages to the Tower itself. "

Only lip-service was now paid to the old ideas of education and improvement. Funfairs and rollercoasters rose above the sea-front, miniature railways ran along the prom and music-halls assured entertainment when the weather was wet. And then were the piers. For a tuppenny ticket at Ramsgate in 1890 you could pass a whole day out there above the waves. In the morning there were diving displays by experts who dignified their art by calling themselves "Professor" Osbourne and "Professor" Reddish. Then you could spend hours enjoying the variety shows. After that you could dance, inside or in the open air, and when night fell there were fireworks.

All this fun, of course, was transitory. There must be something to remember it by, something to show those back home that you had been to this new world. You could buy sticks of rock with "Hastings" all the way through, or knick-knacks with "Greetings from Clacton". Or you could buy picture postcards. Photographs of the resort, or of yourself in some silly pose, were available from an early date, but in 1894, when the Post Office lifted restrictions on postcards, a national mania for "views" set in. They were sent in the mail (with a 1/2d stamp and a few words on the front), but above all they were collected and tucked into handsome albums. The pictures on these pages are among the finest of the era, the work of the Photochrome Company, originally of Zurich but subsequently established in London. Sold as colour photographs, they are in fact hand-coloured black-and-white images reproduced using a sophisticated printing process introduced after 1895. The tinting, with its browns and oranges and its too-blue skies, may not be all that realistic, but it lends the pictures some of the charms of watercolour paintings. A century of photographic history may have passed since they went on sale, but they put to shame most of the seaside cards of today, with their lurid colours and their dull compositions. Although the English seaside remains popular (more than 18m holidays last year), few of us now send cards, and we rely on our own cameras for "views" that are rarely worth a second glance. The image has become banal. But for those first-generation holiday-makers, with their parasols and their stuffy clothes and their desperate thirst for pleasure, pictures such as these could keep alive the joys of one heady week through all the remaining 51. And they keep them alive to this day. !