Deck Chairs and Donkey Rides: Visiting the Seaside in Victorian Britain | History Hit

Deck Chairs and Donkey Rides: Visiting the Seaside in Victorian Britain

Photograph taken in the late 19th century of five women and a man at Seaton Carew Beach, with the lighthouse in the background. Late 19th century.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1871, the Bank Holidays Act decreed that certain days of the year were to be official holidays, when banks and offices closed. Simultaneously, 19th-century improvements in railway transport meant Victorians could now travel further and more cheaply for enjoyment. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the boom of the Victorian seaside holiday.

Suddenly, coastal towns such as Blackpool, Scarborough, Llandudno and Brighton became popular holiday resorts amongst all levels of Victorian society, complete with children wielding buckets and spades, revellers paddling in the sea, seaside food such as fish and chips, Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides. They could also be fashionable destinations, with promenades allowing Victorians to display their fineries.

But how did these strange and particular traditions – many of which we still enjoy today – emerge?

Seaside resorts became popular

The Victorian years were the first to see the popular expansion of both English and Welsh seaside resorts. The working class, in particular, journeyed to the British seaside for their holidays, with everyone from shopkeepers to industrial workers flocking to sites such as Blackpool and Southend.

So-called ‘pleasure palaces‘ in these locations were popular and offered attractions such as opera houses, zoos, aquaria, theatres, lagoons with Venetian gondolas, exhibitions and gondoliers. A striking example of this is Blackpool’s Tower and Winter Gardens.

However, even during their heyday, seaside resorts were vulnerable to changing fashions and fortunes, with examples such as the Tower at New Brighton – which was surrounded by lakes, zoos with lions and bears, an aviary and ballroom – being demolished shortly after World War One because it proved to be unpopular.

Punch and Judy was inspired by 16th-century theatre

This photograph is captioned: “That ‘Punch and Judy’ is still capable of amusing an audience of both old and young is plain from our picture, which represents a special ‘matinee’ given for the benefit of our artist by Mr J. Bland, of New Oxford Street, the lessee of the theatre, and the impresario of the troupe.” c. 1897-1899.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Seaside displays of Punch and Judy originated in 16th-century Italian street theatre known as Commedia dell’arte. String puppets – which came into existence to save on the cost of hiring actors – saw married couple Punch and Judy satirise popular culture, with impersonations of politicians being common.

Punch and Judy were also known for their marital strife, with Punch’s girlfriend Pretty Polly often being a source of their arguments. High-profile figures of the day such as Charles Dickens were known to be fans, and Punch was so popular that a namesake satirical magazine called Punch was created in 1841.

Punch and Judy even became popular among more ‘refined’ Victorians, with Punch shows appearing in smart living rooms throughout the country, albeit featuring a more ‘tasteful’ performance.

Deck chairs could be hired daily or even hourly

Deck chairs were another Victorian invention. Patented by John Thomas Moore in 1886, the first deck chairs, which were advertised as adjustable and portable folding chairs, were manufactured in Macclesfield. Moore manufactured two types: the Waverley, which was described as ‘the best ship or lawn tennis chair’, and the Hygienic, which was useful for those ‘with sluggish and constipated bowels’.

However, the use of a single strip of canvas, which was originally coloured bright green and later different coloured strips, is credited to a British inventor named Atkins. Sometimes known as the ‘Brighton beach chair’, the term ‘deck chair’ was first used by the author of The Railway Children, E. Nesbit in the 1880s.

By the early 20th century, it was commonplace to hire out deckchairs on piers and promenades on a daily or even hourly basis.

It became fashionable to be seen on the pier

Article from Brighton Argus newspaper in 1934 featuring the history of the Brighton Marine & Palace Pier and photograph of Mayor Samuel Henry Soper and other dignitaries at the inaugural ceremony and laying of the first pile, 7 November 1891.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Between 1814 and 1905, 100 piers were built in Britain, of which 60 remain today. Though originally built to accommodate the upper classes as a means of allowing them to alight from ships without getting wet, piers soon became attractions within their own right.

Piers such as Blackpool, Margate Pier and Brighton’s West Pier became destinations that facilitated strutting and promenading. Money restricted who could access certain areas, with turnstiles and pay kiosks dividing parts of the pier or its dance hall, for instance. Some pavilions could even accommodate large groups of up to 2,000 people.

Fish and chips became a seaside staple

Fish and chips existed as early as 1781, likely because of Sephardic Jewish populations emigrating to Britain from Portugal. By the 19th century, fried fish had taken hold as a fairly popular dish in London. In his famous novel Oliver Twist (1838), Charles Dickens mentions ‘fried fish warehouses’.

This translated to the seaside, where the portability and freshness of fish and chips quickly made the dish a favourite amongst holidaying Victorians and helped to cement it as a national dish that is still enjoyed today.

Bathing machines were used to preserve modesty

‘Mermaids at Brighton’ by William Heath, c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Invented in the early to mid-18th century at a time when men and women had to legally use separate parts of the beach and sea, bathing machines were designed to preserve a woman’s modesty at the seaside by acting as a changing room on wheels that could be dragged into the water.

They were normally entered from one side when on the beach and exited on the other when out at sea, thus allowing people to have a swim without being ‘indecent’. They were hugely popular: even Queen Victoria enjoyed a very luxurious bathing machine.

Ice cream became increasingly popular in the mid-19th century

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Ice cream was first made more affordable when Swiss immigrant Carlo Gatti set up his stand outside Charing Cross station in 1851, where he sold ice cream scoops in shells for a penny. Ice cream cones appeared in the 19th century and were of heightened popularity during the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

Legend has it that an ice-cream seller ran out of his normal containers, at which point a next-door Syrian waffle maker made the first version of cones by rolling up his waffles. It was a hit in Victorian Britain and remains hugely popular today.

Donkeys were originally working draught animals

Weston-super-Mare, in Southwest England, was the site of the first beach donkey rides in 1886, and was shortly followed by Bridlington in 1895. The donkeys in question were probably originally working draught animals in the cockle industry, and were well-suited to carrying humans since they are calmer than horses and normally walk at around human walking pace.

Donkey rides at Kilkee, Ireland, c. 1870.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Donkeys were notable for having their names on their nosebands to make them more easily identifiable: Daisy was one of the most popular Donkey names of the age. The tradition of donkeys on the beach is far less popular today.

Lucy Davidson