The Georgian Seaside: the English resorts before the railway came

The Georgian Seaside

Bathing in the sea, donkey rides on the beach, promenades along the pier – all the fun of the classic Victorian and Edwardian seaside holiday. But long before Victoria came to the throne England’s coast was dotted with seaside resorts from Scarborough to Blackpool by way of Cromer, Margate, Weymouth and dozens more. Large and small, they provided a seaside holiday, but not as we know it. Seawater was drunk with the addition of roasted crabs’ eyes, bathers were forcibly dunked in the sea by ‘dippers’ and the donkeys carried smugglers’ contraband by night while elegantly-dressed visitors attended balls at the Assembly Rooms. Before the railways came the seaside resort was the holiday destination of the upper classes and the wealthy middle classes, taking over from the inland spas as health resorts and marriage marts.

This book covers all aspects of life at these early seaside resorts from what the well-dressed gentleman bather wore (nothing) to the rise of the seaside landlady by way of Jane Austen’s caustic comments and the correct way to greet the monarch as he rose from the waves – with a rousing chorus of God Save the King!


Bathing Costumes

Throughout the 18th century, and well into the Victorian era, men generally bathed naked and any form of covering was often seen as effeminate, although there are descriptions of men wearing clothing to bathe at the inland spas.

The View of the ancient Town, Castle, Harbour, and Spaw of Scarborough, painted in 1735 by John Setteringham, shows the beach with one bathing hut. Men are disporting themselves naked in the shallows with fashionably-dressed women close to the water’s edge, apparently not at all offended by the sight, and unclad men are jumping into the sea from small boats known as cobbles.

Women also swam naked and numerous prints show them doing so while in view from the beach. Although some of these depictions are clearly meant to be satirical or erotic others appear to be simply recording the normal state of affairs.

On 29th August 1763 Gilly Williams wrote to his friend George Selwyn from Brighton where he was taking to the sea on a daily basis. “It would astonish you to see the mixture of sexes at this place, and with what coolness and indifference half a dozen Irishmen will bathe close to those whom we call prudes elsewhere, such as Charlotte Tufton etc; and can you imagine Lady Catherine [Tufton] will ever appear on the beach when there are such indelicacies staring her in the face?”

Although as the 18th century progressed men continued to bathe naked many women began to wear some sort of garment. The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough has an illustration by Rowlandson showing naked women bathing, but the verse accompanying the illustration mentions one version of early female bathing dress, a sort of simple flannel shift or chemise, tied around the neck. “The ladies dressed in flannel cases, Show nothing but their handsome faces.” Generally women seem to have left their hair flowing loose.