Monday, February 16, 2009

By the Seaside, By the Beautiful Sea

Promenades, piers, Punch and Judy, music hall - where else could a Victorian on holiday possibly be but at the seaside. Whether at Brighton, Margate, Bournemouth, Weston-super-Mare or one of a hundred other resorts, one of the most popular forms of holidaying for the emergent middle-class during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a visit to the seaside. Most "white collar," or to use a more Victorian term, "black coat" workers received a week's holiday every year. Frequently this coincided, as in the case of Mr Charles Pooter, the lower middle-class clerk in Diary of a Nobody, with the August Bank Holiday.

With many others, Mr Pooter took his family to Broadstairs, a coastal town on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent about 76 miles east of London. By the middle years of the 1860s, Broadstairs was served by rail with its station located about a ten minute walk from the seaside. Here the Pooters took lodgings in a boarding house near the station where the cost was about half of what they would have paid closer to the sea. Broadstairs Beach at around the turn of the century is pictured on the left.

For many Victorians, the seaside seemed to hold a particularly romantic image. Although writing of American seaside resorts, J. P. Ritter, Jr. captured the "spell" of these holidays in his long poem, Marie, A Seaside Episode, when he wrote, in 1888,

My story opens with our heroine
And mother at a famous seaside place;
Two large hotels-along the beach a line
Of red-tiled cottages-in front a space
Of glistening sand, up which the ocean rolled,
And where bright groups of summer idlers strolled.

The reality, however, was that the quality of such seaside accommodation ranged from excellent to pretty awful. Udny Yule recalled going to the seaside as a youngster. "Keating's Powder [a powerful insecticide] was an invaluable item in the outfit for the summer holidays." He had, he went on, "dreadful recollections of our taking a house at the seaside ... a doctor's house - out of which we fled the next morning, hopelessly routed by its hordes of saltatory inhabitants."

A typical seaside holiday featured walks along the shore, donkey rides, bathing, band concerts, and Punch and Judy shows. For those women wishing to bathe in the sea, there were bathing machines which could be hired. These consisted of a wooden shelter on wheels which was dragged into the sea by a horse or a donkey. Within the enclosure, one could undress and change into one's bathing costume with absolute decorum and, for those not brave enough to actually swim, they offered a secure site from which to splash in the water.

No seaside town could possibly be complete without a pier where one could play games, go on rides and engage in all of those activities traditionally associated with a seaside holiday even today. The reality, however, of such a holiday was often less exciting than the prospect. Mrs Pooter, for example, probably found that the case for when her husband commented, "I don't think we can do better than 'Good old Broadstairs,'" Carrie, much to Charles' "astonishment, raised an objection to Broadstairs for the first time."

Mr Punch, never slow to comment on the social peculiarities of the middle-class summed up the seaside holiday in verse entitled "A Seaside Reverie."

I think as I sit at my ease on the shingle,
And list to the musical voice of the Sea,
How gaily my Landlady always will mingle
From my little caddy her matutine tea.
And vainly the bitter remembrance I banish
Of mutton just eaten, my heart is full sore,
To think after one cut it's certain to vanish,
And never be seen on my board any more.

Some small store of spirit to moisten my throttle
I keep, and indulge in it once in a way;
But bless you, it seems to fly out of the bottle
And swiftly decrease, though untouched all day.
My sugar and sardines, my bread and my butter,
Are eaten, and vainly I fret and I frown;
My Landlady, just like an Aesthete's too utter
A fraud, and I vow that I'll go back to Town

In a more serious vein, in the introduction to the book, Mr. Punch at the Seaside, published in 1910, the editor has noted that

It is ... curious ... how little seaside customs, amusements, troubles and delights, have varied in the last half-century. Landladies are at the end what they were at the beginning; the same old type of bathing-machine is still in use; our forefathers and their womenfolk in the days when Mr. Punch was young behaved themselves by the "the silver sea" just as their children's children do to-day. Nothing has changed, except that the most select of seaside places is no longer so select as it was in the pre-railway days, and that the wealthier classes, preferring the attractions of Continental resorts, are less in evidence at our own watering places.
For many, the annual trip to the seaside was little more than an extension of their home life. The Pooters, for example, were delighted to run into their neighbours and seemed to spend much of their time at the seaside exchanging visits with them. Once again we can turn to Mr. Punch for his view of such meetings.

Wearied by London Dissipation, the Marjoribanks Browns go, for the sake of perfect quiet, to that picturesque little watering-place, Shrimpington-super-Mare, where they trust that they will not meet a single soul they know.

Oddly enough, the Cholmondeley Joneses go to the same spot with the same purpose.

Now, these Joneses and Browns cordially detest each other in London, and are not even on speaking terms; yet such is the depressing effect of "perfect quiet" that, as soon as they meet at Shrimpington-super-Mare, they rush into each other's arms with a wild sense of relief!

The seaside holiday, although not a Victorian invention, was brought to fulfillment by the middle-class throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. And while much changed - for example the growth of municipal orchestras which took the place of the military band concerts in many of the seaside resorts - much remained the same although a certain more relaxed attitude seems to have emerged as the working class moved into many of the seaside resorts for their holidays.

To download Mr Punch at the Seaside, click here.


Hels said...

Great material :)

In my memory, all the elements that the English introduced into their summer holidays during the second half of the C19th were still in place in Australia into the 1960s.

Families moved to Frankston or Rosebud (just outer suburbs of Melbourne) and rented for 2 or 3 weeks: a holiday home, if they had money, or a caravan/tent, if they didn't. Families looked forward to meeting families they knew from Melbourne already, or families they met every year at the holiday town.

Keeping the children active was the primary concern, so on days not hot enough for the ocean and samd, other entertainments had to be found. Games, rides, dodg'ems and fishing off the jetty were critical to parental sanity.

We laugh at the Victorians, but the only difference in Australia was a constant parental concern about sunburn, jelly fish and blowflies.

One thing just occurred to me. Christmas was a short but quite separate holiday for the English. In Australia, it seemed to be incorporated into the long summer holidays, a never ending time of freedom from school or work.


piermaster said...

Boscombe Pier loves Hobart!!

The Pier Master