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The railways brought a population explosion to Britain’s seaside towns

Posted in British Towns, Historical articles, History, Leisure, Railways, Sea on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about the British seaside originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Margate, picture, image, illustration

Arriving at Margate on the popular Margate hoys

It was the English doctors – many of them cranks – who laid the foundations of the English seaside. The “sea-water cure,” recommended by Dr. Wittie at Scarborough and Dr. Russell at Brighton, was the simple start of it – you swallowed the sea and you floundered about in the sea, and that, roughly, was that!

But by the mid-1800s an even more dedicated gentleman appeared on the scene – an Italian named Augustus Bozzi who, to be on the safe side, changed it to Augustus Granville. Granville was a kind of refined Sanitary Inspector with a nose for bad drains and an eye ever open for invalids of “the superior classes.” He prowled from resort to resort, condemning some for the merry noise which they made and the unhealthy smell in which they made it, while praising others for their peace and quiet “so desirable for those of weakly constitution.”

On Bournemouth Dr. Granville went great guns. In his book The Spas of England the Doctor raved: “No situation that I have had occasion to examine along the whole southern coast possesses so many capabilities of being made the first invalid sea-watering place in England. I hold it superior to either Bonchurch or Ventnor. It is an inland sheltered haven for the most tender invalids.”

And so it was that the quiet resort among its health-giving pine-trees began to grow. But there was little else to do in Bournemouth but be delicate, coddle yourself and, in very many cases, to die. A depressing atmosphere existed, but we must look practically at the multitude of almost “professional invalids” which the 19th century seemed to produce. The answer was that while some of them – the wealthy ones – suffered from ills more imaginary than real, and enjoyed being fussed over, others were genuine cases of tuberculosis, “the consumption,” for which there was no cure in those days. Life might be prolonged for a little while by taking it easy in the fresh air of Bournemouth, but that was all. In Torquay it was much the same.

We have tales of healthy visitors to one of Torquay’s two hotels being appalled to find “spitting bowls” as part of their bedroom furniture, and of being kept awake night-long by the coughing and wheezing of other guests. Bournemouth’s and Torquay’s churchyards began to fill with graves of people lamentably young. One visitor, prowling around there, felt that the tombstone of a man aged 80 marked a scene almost of trespass!

Bournemouth’s inaccessibility kept it quiet, refined and full of gentle melancholy. But then, in 1871 came that greatest of all boons and blessings to the English seaside – the railway. A boon and a blessing, that was, to those residents who saw prosperity in taking money off the visitors.

In 1871 the population of Bournemouth was 5,800. Ten years later it was 17,000. The puffing grampuses of the new age of steam boosted the seaside sky-high. Places like Bournemouth, Sidmouth, Ventnor, Torquay and even Eastbourne still attracted the sickly who were hauled up and down the promenade by those almost forgotten vehicles, the Bath Chairs. But a gayer note was creeping in. Third-class rail travel in open trucks with standing room only may not have been comfortable – but it got you there in hours, not days. And to places like Brighton, accessible from London, there came an unheard-of class of person the “Day Tripper.” He came to Southend as well, and he came to Blackpool.

The seaside story was now one of contrasting chapters. It was either too deadly dull, or too noisy! The essayist Charles Lamb wrote mournfully: “We have been dull at Worthing one summer duller at Brighton another, dullest at Eastbourne, a third, and are at this moment doing dreary penance at Hastings.”

Charles Dickens, on the other hand – he had a home at Broadstairs – was plagued by portable harmonium players, fiddlers, glee-singers and bell-ringers.

Just round the corner from Broadstairs was Margate, and Margate by the end of the century was the South East’s really go-ahead seaside resort, with Ramsgate a close runner-up. Brighton, nearer to London, was a special case, but shared with the other two – plus Blackpool and Southend – a reputation for raciness. The real beginnings of the seaside as we know it now had arrived.

There were now the black-faced minstrels recently imported from America. White-faced “Pierrots” entertained on the beach (“If wet, in the Pier Pavilion, or Town Hall”). There were donkey-rides, bandstands, penny-in-the-slot telescopes, tintype photographers and, of course, the “pier.” In Margate’s case the pier was first and foremost a stone jetty to accommodate ships, particularly the paddle-steamers that plied daily between Tower Bridge and the Kent Coast.

But before these floating fun-fairs were the “hoys,” sailing ships especial to Margate. A “hoy” might make the London-Margate trip in ten hours – if the weather was right – or two days if the winds were wrong! Londoners seemed to prefer going to Margate by boat, even in a comfortless “hoy,” rather than first by coach, and later by train. There was a sense of adventure in a trip on the “briny.” What’s more, the steamer-fare to Margate was a mere 5s. compared with 10s. 6d. by train.

A holiday of a full fortnight might be taken by those who could afford it: some husbands established their wives and families in “Rooms,” complete with that old-time figure of fun the seaside “landlady,” and returned for week-ends. Margate’s Saturday nights were full of high-jinks at the pierhead when the London steamer known as “The Husbands’ Boat” tied up to discharge its usually somewhat boozy company of week-enders to join their families.

Margate was a jolly place, but not everybody’s cup-of-tea. “You think Margate more lively than Ramsgate,” wrote the poet Cowper. “So is a Cheshire cheese full of mites more lively than a sound one; but that very liveliness proves its rottenness.”

More, no doubt, to the poet’s liking were the “genteel” resorts where quiet families collected shells, discreetly bathed and diligently pressed seaweeds in their lodgings.

The seaside story was full of contrasts.

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