The Victorian origins of seaside traditions

From donkey rides to the deck chair, discover the history of our summer holiday staples

A
a
-
The Victorian origins of seaside traditions

Donkey rides

First offered in 1895 in Bridlington and 1886 in Weston-super-Mare, it’s likely that the donkeys were originally working draught animals in the cockle industries around the coast. Typically, the donkeys had their names on their nosebands so they could be identified by children and parents alike, with Daisy being one of the most popular donkey monikers.

Fish and chips

The first fish and chip shop was opened in London in 1860 by Joseph Malin who sold ‘fish fried in the Jewish fashion’. A stock working class meal that could be eaten on the hoof straight out of the wrappings, it was hardly surprising that chippies began springing up in every coastal town to feed the hordes of hungry trippers who had not brought a picnic.

Seaside rock

Originally sold at fairgrounds in the 19th century, enterprising ex-miner Ben Bullock from Burnley, began manufacturing sticks of brightly coloured, lettered candy at his Yorkshire- based confectionary factory in 1887 after conceiving the idea while holidaying in Blackpool. Bullock sent his first batch of lettered rock to retailers in Blackpool, where it was well received, and seaside rock was born. The craftsmen (who still make it by hand today) are called ‘sugar boilers’ and getting the lettering correct is a skill than can take up to 10 years to master.

 

Blackpool's North Pier, circa 1900

Ice-cream cornets

Ice-cream became affordable when Swiss émigré Carlo Gatti set up the first stand outside Charing Cross station in 1851. He sold scoops in shells for a penny. Gatti built an ‘ice well’ to store ice that he cut from Regent’s Canal. When his business expanded, he imported ice from Norway. Ice-cream cones also appeared in the 19th century, becoming increasingly popular during the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The story goes that an ice-cream seller ran out of cardboard dishes and, in the next booth, was a Syrian waffle maker who offered to make cones by rolling up his waffles. This sweet duet sold well and was quickly copied by other vendors. 

The deckchair

John Thomas Moore took out a patent for adjustable and portable folding chairs in 1886 and started manufacturing them in Macclesfield. Moore made two types: the Waverley, described as ‘the best ship or lawn tennis chair’, and the Hygienic, which was a rocking chair ‘valuable for those with sluggish and constipated bowels’. The use of a single broad strip of canvas, originally olive green in colour but later usually of brightly coloured stripes, has been credited to a British inventor named Atkins. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Brighton beach chair’, the term ‘deck chair’ was used in the novels of E Nesbit (author of The Railway Children) in the 1880s. The hiring out of deckchairs on promenades and piers on an hourly or daily basis became established in British seaside resorts in the early 20th century.
 

Deck chairs on the beach, 1900-1910

 

The seaside pier

Piers were first built to accommodate upper-class travellers, allowing them to alight from steamers without getting their feet wet, but they soon became attractions in their own right. In true stoic Victorian style, holidaymakers had to keep up appearances in restrictively formal dress – and what better place to strut your stiff crinoline than along the pier? To keep the riff-raff at bay, there were turnstiles and pay kiosks: a halfpenny to get on to the pier, a penny to sit down, sixpence to get into the dance hall at the end and so on. 

Between 1814 and 1905, 100 piers were built in Britain – including the celebrated North Pier in Blackpool, Aberystwyth’s Royal Pier, Margate Pier and Brighton’s West Pier – 60 of them remain today. One at Hastings became the first purpose-built ‘pleasure pier’, with a built-in entertainment complex incorporating a 2,000-seat pavilion, which opened on the first ever August Bank Holiday in 1872. 

Punch & Judy

This legendary puppet show has its origins in the Commedia dell'arte street theatre of 16th Century Italy. At some point, string puppets replaced the actors to keep costs down. In the Victorian era, Punch & Judy shows using hand puppets could be seen in all major cities across Britain, with Mr Punch mocking politicians of the day in his distinctive voice. This was created by a swazzle, usually made from bone or ivory, that was tricky to master and easy to swallow. 

The shows were not just for children. The marital strife between Punch and his wife Judy, and the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, struck a chord with many adults, including Charles Dickens, who was a big fan. Punch was such a well-known celebrity that he even had a satirical magazine named after him in London in 1841. Punchmen began to perform in private homes, where they modified their show to suit a more refined audience. Another place that Punch found an appreciative crowd was at the seaside, where the Punch & Judy show became a standard part of beachside entertainment. 

 

Read the full article in the August 2017 issue of History Revealed magazine, available to buy now from all good newsagents, or why not subscribe and save 33% on the newsstand price? 

 

 
 
 
 
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here