Holidaying by the sea became popular in the mid-18th century when doctors began recommending seabathing as a cure for various health concerns.

Seaside resorts were originally reserved as a luxury escape for society’s elite. But developments in public transport and the introduction of paid annual leave transformed them into the earliest example of a holiday for the masses.

Today, while many of us head abroad for our holidays, the Great British seaside is a tradition still treasured by all – and one that can feel particularly nostalgic. From Mr Whippys to windy walks along the promenade, come rain or shine, we continue to flock to the coast.

Here, we take a trip down memory lane to explore six facts about the Great British seaside holiday.

1. The royal family set the seaside trend in the 18th century

The Great British seaside holiday can be traced back to the late 1700s, when the practice of bathing in mineral-rich waters as a cure for disease – popular in spa towns – extended to the sea. Doctors began prescribing seabathing for the treatment of various health concerns, from gout and rabies to tuberculosis and even depression.

King George III visited Weymouth, Dorset, in 1789 while recovering from a bout of porphyria (a disease affecting the skin and/or the nervous system). His physicians had recommended seawater as part of his treatment – and, as a result of this royal visit, Weymouth became regarded as Britain’s first seaside resort.

King George III spent 14 summers here between 1789 and 1805, and this seaside tradition caught on. His son, later King George IV, built the grand Royal Pavilion at Brighton; and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert enjoyed many seaside holidays on the Isle of Wight.

2. People were originally rolled into the sea in bathing machines to preserve modesty

Among the strange contraptions invented by the Victorians, bathing machines have to be one of the most bizarre.

Essentially a changing room on wheels that could be dragged into the water, bathing machines were designed to preserve women’s modesty at the seaside – hiding the user until they were submerged in the water.

Bathing machines were invented in the early to mid-18th century, at a time when swimming costumes weren’t yet common and most people bathed naked. At the peak of their popularity, bathing machines were dotted across British beaches and used by everyone from everyday beach-goers to Queen Victoria herself. Men sometimes used bathing machines too, though there was less emphasis on their modesty compared to women.

By the 1890s, the popularity of bathing machines began to wane. Many remained parked at the top of beaches and were used as changing huts, which soon evolved into beach huts.

Like their earlier counterparts, beach huts were first used as private changing rooms for the upper classes. However, they became more commonly used as holiday homes for the working classes during the early 20th century.

After World War Two, there was a huge resurgence in popularity for the Great British seaside holiday and, as demand increased, beach huts became purposely built. In 1909, Bournemouth Council’s borough engineer designed and built 160 new beach huts. Today, there are now 520 council-owned huts and a further 1,200 privately owned at this site.

In some areas, you can still find former bathing machines in use today as beach huts – for example, in Whitby, North Yorkshire.

3. The first pier was built in 1814

As the popularity of seaside trips grew, piers were constructed. The first purpose-built pier opened in Ryde, a small town on the Isle of Wight, in 1814.

Southend Pier followed this in Southend-on-Sea in 1833, which, after its extension in 1898, became the world’s longest pier at 7,080 feet. By the 1860s, 70 piers had been built across the UK.

Piers were intended to attract wealthy holidaymakers from across the country, bringing tourism to boost local economies. For one, they offered a novel thrill of ‘walking on water’. After visiting Brighton’s Chain pier, Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray documented, “Here for the sum of twopence you can go out to sea and peace this vast deck without the need of a basin.”

They also offered a practical landing place for boat trips, which took place mainly in the south of England.

As more and more people flocked to the coast for their holidays during the late 19th century and 20th century, piers developed to become complex entertainment venues – offering everything from shops and kiosks to bandstands and musical performers.

The majority of piers were closed and breached during World War II to prevent enemy forces from landing on them. Some never recovered, but a few were restored. Today, there are 55 seaside piers across England and Wales.

4. A growing railway network and the introduction of Bank Holidays put British seaside resorts on the map

A growing railway network and the introduction of Bank Holidays put British seaside resorts on the map

Royals might have been the first to enjoy seaside breaks, but improvements to the country’s transport system during the Industrial Revolution put them on the map for the wider population too.

In particular, the arrival of railways in the 1830s and 1840s made travel to seaside resorts much quicker and more accessible. Quiet, unassuming fishing villages were transformed into must-visit tourist attractions as families, keen to escape their industrial cities, ventured to their closest seaside resorts for a break. Crowds in Brighton, for example, increased so rapidly that, in 1841, the British Royal family abandoned the town as their resort of choice.

However, train fares to seaside resorts could be expensive. According to Findmypast, a return trip from Leeds to Whitby or Scarborough in 1860 would cost you 19 shillings – which, using the National Archives calculator, translates to roughly £56 in today’s money. So initially, the majority of Victorian holidaymakers were society’s wealthy – for example, the families of accountants, managers, and shopkeepers.

But, keen to get more people to the coast to boost tourism, rail travel gradually became less expensive, and the families of skilled manual workers began to join too. The introduction of bank holidays in 1871 also meant that those who could afford it could spend more than one day by the sea.

By the turn of the 20th century, over 100 popular resorts had come into existence in England and Wales. In the north, Blackpool was one of the most popular seaside resorts; Yorkshire boasted Whitby and Scarborough; Rhyl and Llandudno were popular in Wales; and people in the south flocked to Margate, Brighton, and Eastbourne.

Popular beachside entertainment included donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows, penny machines, and visits to the pier.

5. The Holiday Pay Act of 1938 brought the seaside holiday into its own

Despite gaining popularity for years since it first began as a concept in the 19th century, the Great British seaside holiday as we know it today can be traced back to the post-war years of the 1950s and 1960s.

The introduction of paid annual leave through the Holiday Pay Act in 1938 meant that seaside holidays became more accessible and affordable to the wider society.

In August 1938, a Coventry factory worker took his family on holiday to the British seaside and wrote to his local newspaper, the Midland Daily Telegraph. He said, “My wife, two children, and myself have just returned home after enjoying our first ‘holiday with pay’.

“We have had a good holiday, feeling for the first time that we could afford to pay for it without having to apologise to the butcher and baker for being unable to meet his bills the week after. I feel I am justified in saying ‘thank you’ to whoever it was who did the trick.”

The Holiday Pay Act caused an explosion in tourism and, as visitor numbers increased for both day trips and longer breaks, resorts were forced to expand to provide accommodation and entertainment.

The need for new forms of mass accommodation led to the birth of Holiday Camps – of which Butlin’s was the pioneer in 1936. These camps, which offered basic accommodation and catering for a fixed price, along with activities and amusements, were revolutionary for their time.

Butlin’s camps opened across the UK, with the first in Clacton in 1938. Families could get a week’s full board holiday with free entertainment and three meals a day included from as little as 35 shillings a week (equivalent to around £99 today).

6. The arrival of holiday packages abroad

By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, around 200 holiday camps had been built across different locations on the British coast. In the post-war years of the 1950s and 1960s, these camps thrived.

However, at the same time that well-established train routes were making the British coast more accessible, foreign holidays were being put on the map too.

By 1975, the majority of UK workers had two or more weeks paid holiday and providers like Thomas Cook began offering holiday packages abroad. The idea of a week-long break in sunny Majorca for around £50 became increasingly attractive.

In 1979, for the first time in history, Britons spent more money on overseas holidays than on holidays at home. Nevertheless, the Great British seaside remained popular – particularly as cars became even more relied on for travel – with 40 million Brits heading to the seaside in 1975.

Final thoughts…

From piers and donkey rides to beach huts and penny machines, there’s something nostalgic about the British coast. And while many of us jet abroad for a break these days, the Great British seaside holiday remains a beloved part of our history.

For further reading, head over to the history section of our website. Here, you’ll find information on everything from American history to historic sites you can visit in the UK and abroad.

Do you have any fond memories of Great British seaside holidays that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.