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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2017 > The Victorian Seaside

The Victorian Seaside

Now a much-loved British tradition, the seaside holiday hasn’t always been the highlight of our drizzly summers. Anna Harris investigates its royal roots and enduring popularity

DID YOU KNOW?

In 1801, fewer than 500 people lived in Blackpool. By the beginning of the 20th century, the population had surpassed 50,000.

Always one to keep up with the latest technology, it was Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had a bathing machine installed for his wife, thereby putting the royal stamp of approval on sea bathing as a respectable activity. Recounting her inaugural dip at Osborne in her journal in 1847, Victoria wrote: “Drove down to the beach with my maid and went into the bathing machines, where I undressed and bathed in the sea… I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled.Her state-of-the-art machine, complete with changing room, plumbed-in toilet and curtained veranda, enabled the Queen to enjoy the salty delights of the Solent while preserving her modesty against any spyglass-wielding sea-goers.

ON THE PROM, PROM, PROM... Blackpool’s waterfront in 1890, as seen from the town’s North Pier

Osborne, purchased in 1845 as an escape from court life, was Victoria and Albert’s own private seaside resort and the royal family spent many summers there. At this Isle of Wight idyll, they enjoyed Punch and Judy, skittles and, in a nod to the growing Victorian fascination with natural history, the simple pleasures of rock-pooling and shell collecting. “Picking up shells is such a never ending joy to the children. How it pleases their young minds!” noted the Queen in 1851, depicting an idealised version of family life that fashionable Victorians bustled to imitate. A seaside holiday with the offspring was now de rigueur.

With its nostalgic connotations of innocent bucket-and-spade fun, donkey rides, fish and chips and strolling along the prom, the traditional British seaside holiday was, like Christmas festivities, essentially invented by the Victorians. Initially the preserve of the aristocracy, a combination of industrialisation (which provided a steady wage and more leisure time), changes in employment legislation, and the development of the railway meant that, by the end of the 19th century, going on holiday was a regular part of life for a great many Victorians.

ROYAL RETREAT Victoria, Albert and their children at the beach near Osborne
BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY X2
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About History Revealed

Discover the daring escapes and rescue missions of the Dunkirk evacuation, find out how the Victorians revolutionised British summers with the creation of the seaside holiday, and meet the exotic dancer-turned-World War I spy, Mata Hari.
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