From Victorian men in suits to a good ol’ ice cream in the sunshine: Fascinating seaside photos reveal the changing beach habits of Britons over past 150 years

  • Forgotten seaside holidays in Whitstable and Victorian trips to Blackpool have been captured in an exhibition
  • Stunning images chronicling the rise and fall of life on Britain’s coast are being displayed in Margate, Kent
  • Once a staple British holiday, the coast was abandoned by tourists following the advent of cheap air travel 

Stunning images from long forgotten seaside holidays in Whitstable, wild festivals on the Isle of Wight and modern boarded-up seaside shops chronicle the rise and fall of the British coast over almost 200 years. 

Displayed in the seaside resort town of Margate, Kent, the exhibition charts the beginning of the Great British Beach holiday, when people flocked to the now almost forgotten towns of Blackpool and Southend, among others, in droves for the perfect summer holiday.

Gaudy projects like the Blackpool tower, built 1891, and the Brighton piers, built before 1889, stand as testament to this era.

Fast-forward and exhibition visitors enter the second age, when heading to Butlins in Whistable or the raucous Isle of Wight festival was the ideal. In 1949, it is estimated that as many as five million headed to the crowded coastline for their summer holiday.

By the 1960s, however, the British coast would be brought to its knees by cheap air travel.

On the 5 May, 1962, the first flight bound for Spain’s Palma de Mallorca took off from Manchester’s Ringway airport, laden with working-class passengers on an all-inclusive holiday.

Before that moment, the British coastline had been the ‘ultimate’ summer destination. In 2013, a government report branded the once glamorous coastal town of Skegness Britain’s most deprived town, followed by Blackpool, Clackton-on-Sea, Hastings and Ramsgate.

The exhibition, called Seaside: Photographed, is currently at the Turner Gallery, Margate, but will be moving around the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, and Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall, next year.

Its curators, photographer professor Val Williams and photographer Karen Shepherdson, said: ‘The British seaside has always been a metaphor for the state of the nation. Decline and regeneration have become seaside descriptors.’ 

Entry to the exhibition is free.

Britain heads to the beach: The Victorians heralded the start of the seaside holiday when they began heading in droves to the resort towns of Blackpool and Southend, among others. This photo shows a fully dressed woman on the beach with her husband, in a suit, and two young sons. It may have been taken in 1850

Soaking up the sun: A mother tries to munch an ice cream in Whitstable, Kent, in 1959. As many as five million people are estimated to have headed down to the UK’s coasts 10 years earlier, in 1949, before the advent of cheap air travel

Down to the coast: A photograph by British-Jamaican born ‘godfather of Black British photography’ Vanley Burke shows a family out on the coastline in Skegness. It was taken in 1974 for the series ‘Day Out’

Getting a great snap: A family poses clutching ice creams on Hastings’ beach in 2005. The image was taken by British-Chinese photographer Grace Lau who has been credited with helping to revive the seaside resort

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Victorian beach days: A father and son photographed on a beach in 1870 and a mother takes her daughter for a donkey ride by the sea. Once a popular family activity, donkey rides on the British coast are not regularly seen

The height of fashion: Victorian men were expected to wear suits, even when on the beach, while the women had to wear long dresses covering most of their body. Their beach fashion was focused on the evening promenade along the seafront, as swimming in the water was not often the primary objective of the visit. When women decided to go for a swim, however, they would get in a small portable hut, called a cabana, to change. While they were doing this they were then wheeled into the sea. She would then be assisted out, facing away from the beach to ensure privacy

Beachy days: A couple sit together on the beach, resting against a boat (left) while a young family gathers together for a photograph of their day on the beach (right). They were taken between 1850 and 1920

Taking the sun: Composer Benjamin Britten, a central figure in 20th-century music, pictured with his lover tenor Peter Pears at a beach hut at the Old Mill, Snape, in 1943. Letters recently published between the two show them writing ‘Much much love to you dear honey’ and ‘I love you with my whole being’, reports The Guardian. Their relationship was not public at the time this photo was taken as homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until 1967

On the sandy beach: A group of ladies sunbathe while one sleeps during their relaxing holiday to the British coast in 1967. In 1949 it was estimated that as many as five million people headed to the British seaside for their summer holiday

Going for a swim: Two men pictured before taking a tip at the men’s enclosure in Highgate Ponds, London, in 1935. When Brits weren’t able to head to the shoreline for a summer holiday or dip in the sea, they would use ponds like those in Highgate instead

Getting a snack: A child beams as it sips some ice cold occo crush at a stand on the beachfront (location not known). This picture was taken in 1959. Families used to head to the coastline for the perfect summer holiday

Down to the beach: A family enjoy ice creams on the beach in 1959. After heading to the coast was popularised by the Victorians, it remained a favourite way to spend the summer until the advent of cheap air travel. This brought the coastal towns of the UK to their knees

When at the hotel: British tourists relax and soak up the rays on the 1979 British coast. These people were photographed inside Butlins in Minehead, near Bristol

Food time: A happy child munches a sandwich on the beach front while another peers out of its pram on the coast. Popular towns to visit for a summer beach holiday included Ramsgate, Clacton-on-Sea and Blackpool. In a 2013 government survey each were named among the most deprived areas in Britain

Ice cream?: A woman serves a swarm of children ice cream in New Brighton, England. This photo was taken between 1983 – 5. The town near Liverpool went into decline after tourists decided to spend their holidays elsewhere. It used to have a large tower, even bigger than the Blackpool tower, that was demolished after the first world war when it turned into a financial disaster

Getting a snack: A couple walks away from Beachlands cafe and amusements on Hayling Island in 1986. The British seaside declined after cheap air travel appeared. The first flight, from Manchester to Palma de Mallorca, in 1962 heralded an end of an era for Britain’s beach businesses

Ghosts of summers past: Following the advent of cheap air travel tourists began to head abroad and the coastal economy spiralled into decline. It is yet to recover. Pictured here are boarded up shopfronts in Margate, Kent, where the photo exhibition is being held, and Ramsgate, which was named Britain’s most deprived town in 2013

Long Gone: This former restaurant on Northdown Road, Cliftonville, has now been boarded up. Based near Belfast, the shop reflects the decline of the British coastal town

To launder no more: This Ye Olde Town Lauderette on King Street, Margate, has also closed down due to not being able to bring in enough business

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