The Great British beach holiday has gone from droves of people flocking to the once glamorous coastal cities of Blackpool, Whitstable and Margate to barely a handful arriving for the summer break.
The Victorians began the British seaside holiday, steaming down on trains to towns like Blackpool, Scarborough and Llandudno to enjoy long weekends after bank holidays were created by an 1871 act, and their summer holidays. Britain’s seaside towns quickly grew into major tourist attractions.
Brighton saw the construction of an aquarium (1872), museum (1874), first telephone exchange (1882) and electric railway (1883) as it became a popular tourism destination.
Its famous piers were also built in this period. The West Pier, now destroyed, was erected in 1866 as a bandstand and then extended in 1893 to hold a concert hall while the second pier, known as Palace Pier, was opened in 1899. It played host to Charlie Chaplin at the beginning of his career alongside some of the first performances by Stan Laurel.
This trend continued into the 20th century, as Britain’s coastal towns continued to lure in weekend and summer visitors by offering holiday park packages, while Trade Unions began building resorts on the coast for their members.
Butlins opened its first resort in Skegness (1936), and quickly followed it with a resort in Clacton-on-Sea (1938), Filey Holiday Camp in North Yorkshire (1945) and Ayr in Scotland (1947). They proved popular as affordable attractions where everything a holidaymaker needed was in the same place.
Trade Unions such as the powerful Transport and General Workers Union also headed to the coast, constructing hotels to give their members holiday destinations. In 1974 they constructed the Transport and General Workers Union centre in Eastbourne for their members.
However, the bustling British coastal towns would be brought to their knees by the advent of cheap air travel.
It was first heralded in 1962 when the first flight bound for Spain’s Palma de Mallorca took off from Manchester, laden with working class passengers off for an all-inclusive holiday on the coast.
Although it would take another three decades for low cost air travel to arrive, with the appearance of Ryanair and easyJet in 1995, planes gradually drew people away from the British coast, exchanging it for the Mediterranean shoreline.
Marking the rapid decline a 2013 government report branded Skegness, once a glamorous seaside resort, Britain’s most deprived town. It was quickly followed by former holiday hotspots Blackpool, Clackton-on-Sea, Hastings and Ramsgate.
A photography exhibition in Margate, called Seaside: Photographed, chronicles the rise and fall of Britain’s coastal towns moving from the Victorian coastal holidays of the 1950s right the way to the boarded-up seafronts of today.
Britain heads to the beach: A Victorian family sit on what is believed to be a British beach in 1850. One of the young sons is brandishing a spade. The Victorians heralded the start of the Great British beach holiday era when they began heading in droves to the resort towns of Blackpool and Southend, among others
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 on British beaches. Gaudy projects like the Blackpool tower, built in 1891, and Brighton pier, built before 1889, are relics of this tourism period – when the idea of the perfect summer holiday was a visit to the beaches of Britain
The height of fashion: A family sit together on what is believed to be a British beach. The mother and two daughters are wearing large boots and dresses while the man has worn a three-piece suit. Victorian’s wore these clothes to the beach because their visit was focused more on the evening promenade, rather than taking a dip in the sea. If a woman wanted to swim on a Victorian beach holiday she had to enter a small hut, called a cabana to change. This was then wheeled into the sea where she could clamber out facing away from the beach in order to protect her modesty
Beachy days: A couple sit together on the beach, resting against a boat (left) while a young family gathers for a photograph of their day on the beach (right). Both were taken between 1850 and 1920. The Victorians headed down to the beach on the newly constructed railway lines that connected the UK
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
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 Bioreports. Their relationship was not public at the time this photo was taken as homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until 1967
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
Getting a snack: A child beams as it sips some ice cold occo crush at a stand on the beachfront 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
Food time: A happy child munches a sandwich on the beach while another peers out of its pram in 1967. 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
On the sandy beach: A group of ladies sunbathe while one sleeps during their relaxing holiday to the Isle of Wight in 1967. In 1949 it was estimated that as many as five million people headed to the British seaside for their summer holiday
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’
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, Somerset. Butlins, a large chain, was first set up to offer British families affordable holidays. It still has hotels at Bognor Regis, Skegness and Minehead. Its Barry Island and Clacton branches have closed, among others
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
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
Ghosts of summers past: 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. Following the advent of cheap air travel tourists began to head abroad and the coastal economy spiralled into decline. It is yet to recover
Long Gone: This former restaurant on Northdown Road, Cliftonville, has now been boarded up. Based near Margate, Kent, 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 as it did not get enough business. It is not yet clear how coastal towns will be rejuvenated