You may have thought that in the 19th century, the beach was all about bathing. A quiet, rather elegant place where people were sedately taking the waters for their health. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As the century progressed, visitors of all kinds placed growing importance on time spent by the coast, seeking an escape from the smog of factory chimneys, the incessant noise of the looms and the choking coal dust of the mines. Just being there and feeling the spray on your face was something to be treasured. But by the late Victorian era they were engaging in many of the beach pursuits we now take for granted.
“Colourful, noisy, busy and brash”
Even as early as 1803, poet and historian William Hutton describes a scene that would be familiar to the modern-day visitor. It was a treat for him to see the children at play and “to observe the little animals in the greatest degree of health and spirits fabricating their pies and castles in the sand”. By the end of the Victorian era beaches were, as historian Kathryn Ferry wrote, “colourful, noisy, busy and brash”.
The thousands of trippers pouring out of the excursion trains had to be entertained and fed, so the beach and the foreshores were the perfect place to do just that. It was home to bathing machines, ice-cream (often called hokey pokey) sellers, photographic tests, tea and coffee stalls, all manner of food vendors, Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides. Hawkers paraded their wares up and down the sands, whilst minstrels and later the Pierrots performed on specially constructed stages.
Treats from the food vendors
The Scarborough Gazette in 1863 reported girls with apple baskets, a Mr Bland crying “Fish, fresh cockles”, competing with Mrs Hicks and “Any fish today”, whilst an Italian ice cream man was to be heard bellowing “Hokey pokey, a penny a lump, that’s the stuff that makes you jump”.
Ice cream had once been an expensive luxury but became the family favourite it is today. In the early days it was sold in a glass container which was then washed (not always very well!) before the next customer used it. Concerns about hygiene led to the development of the ice cream cone and to be honest nothing better has yet been invented.
Photographs to take home
Beach photographers were first seen around the 1850s, but it was the end of the century before they became popular. At a time when virtually no one owned their own cameras it was possible to return home with a record of their day. At first, the photographers were tied by the sizeable plate cameras that they used and by the portable booths or tents that they set up on the beach or nearby. As photographic equipment became more manageable, the photographers roamed the beaches. Prints were quickly made and sold to the customers.
Punch and Judy shows
Love them or hate them Punch and Judy shows were for many years a popular beach attraction. It is believed that one of the first performances in this country took place in Covent Garden in London in 1662 and was witnessed by Samuel Pepys. He wrote in his diary:
“Thence to see an Italian puppet play which is within the rayless there, which is very pretty, the best I ever saw, and the great resort of gallants.”
Based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte figure of Pulcinella, the character evolved into Mr Punch. His wife was initially named Joan before changing to the catchy Judy. Starting out as marionettes, the puppets became gloved versions as the shows became more mobile and were operated by one person from inside a booth. Originally aimed at an adult audience, it was in the Victorian era that the show changed to one for children.
Minstrels and Pierrots
Minstrel shows were popular from the mid-19thcentury. These all-male shows featured performers whose faces were blackened with the aid of burned cork. They sang songs, played instruments, told jokes, and generally entertained the crowds. Until just before the turn of the century, the minstrels had a virtual monopoly on beach entertainment. Then Clifford Essex introduced the Pierrots to this country.
The total antithesis of the minstrels, faces whitened with zinc oxide, and spotlessly dressed in pure white ruffled costumes with black pom poms, the Pierrots had a romance and elegance that was missing from the minstrels. First performing on the Isle of Wight, they quickly gained popularity and troupes developed throughout the country. Pierrots and concert parties were extremely popular on the Yorkshire coast.
The Victorian beach: a hive of activity
The beaches were a hive of activity and in many ways far more so than they are today. They provided the visitors, especially those who were just at the resort for the day, with a constant stream of refreshment, amusement, and entertainment.