A Brief History of the British Summer Holiday


The development of the beach-side town as a popular leisure resort began in the 18th century when members of the aristocracy were encouraged by doctors to visit the seaside often for restful recreation and for the benefits that sea air gave to their general health.

One of the earliest of these resorts was Scarborough in Yorkshire. Although it had been a popular spa town for some time, where the wealthy had “taken the waters,” in 1720 the beach also started to become a popular location for seaside visitors. And in 1735 its sands became the site of one of the first bathing machines (large machines on wheels in which the wealthy could sit and bath in the seawater in safety and privacy).

It was with the dedicated opening of a seaside resort at Brighton, under the patronage of King George IV, that the seaside stopped being a place just to improve health but also a destination to escape daily worries and enjoy a holiday.  It wasn’t just King George who endorsed the seaside resort, either; Queen Victoria also established the Isle of Wight as a popular holiday destination during her lifetime.

The development of the railways in the 1840’s meant the seaside holiday industry grew further, and this time they were within the means of the middle classes. Cheap and affordable rail fares alongside low cost guest houses meant more people could escape to the beach for a few days a year. This development saw Blackpool’s rise, becoming one of the fastest growing resorts in Britain. As more visitors arrived by rail each year, so too did a huge demand for new accommodation and entertainments on the beachfront. By the 1850’s, a multi-million pound holiday industry was born. Hence came the statement from writer John K. Walton in his paper The Seaside resort: a British cultural export, that “The seaside resort became the fastest-growing kind of British town in the first half of the nineteenth century…”

After the development of the seaside resort came the rise of the holiday camp. The first holiday camp had in fact been built back in 1894, on the Isle of Man. Called the Cunningham Camp, it only allowed men to stay and offered merely basic tent accommodation with a little food. Not something which would have much to recommend it, you might think. However, in the years after the Second World War, people craved open spaces and the freedom to travel wherever they liked, so the affordable and now much improved holiday camp idea gained popularity; it bridged the gap between the resort holidays the wealthy and middle classes could afford and what the working class could afford. The new camp’s prices were reasonable, food was good, and entertainment was provided, even when it rained.

Billy Butlin, possibly the name most associated with holiday camps, opened his first camp at Skegness in 1936. Unlike the popular seaside boarding and guest houses, where visitors had to stay out of their accommodation during the day whatever the weather, he built camps where people could come and go. Far bigger than any holiday camps that had come before, he could accommodate up to two thousand guests at a time; not only providing holiday locations, but a huge number of job opportunities for those in the area as well.

Over eighty years later, the British still enjoy a seaside holiday, even with our highly erratic weather. And despite the easy availability of flights abroad, camps such as Butlin’s remain very popular.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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