- The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century
Resorts in the twentieth century were big business, and resort life, both for residents and visitors, was and is a highly significant part of lived experience for much of the British population, making an important contribution to British culture. Even in the 1990s, “at least half of all British holidays were still taken in seaside resorts” (p.3).Yet their sustained analysis on a broader canvas by social and cultural historians has been sadly lacking, leaving the field to the more discursive discussions of leisure sociologists, economists, or those inhabiting the more present-minded disciplines of Tourism or Cultural Studies. It is therefore doubly welcome that John Walton, whose definitive study of The English Seaside Resort: A Social History 1750–1914 (Leicester, 1983) and painstaking analysis of Blackpool, the leading British popular resort, have established him as the leading social historian in the field, has now turned a more focused attention to [End Page 234] the twentieth century. The complex paradoxes of the seaside resort experience for visitors, trippers and residents do not lend themselves to simple summary, and Walton’s easy mastery in a relatively short compass has been hard won over many years of study. He shows too, that he is moving from more conventional social history towards a more culturalist approach, especially in his discussion of sexuality and gender, but always attempting to explore the meanings and values implicit in Britain’s long-term love affair with the seaside.
This is a thorough and judicious work, well-structured, elegantly written and rich in detail, and therefore an important contribution to our existing knowledge. It is based on solid scholarship, with careful reading of the existing secondary historical material and a carefully chosen selection of national and local primary sources, coupled with an impressive grasp of relevant literature from related disciplines. Following an introduction which looks at representations and debates, the main body of the book is divided into seven chapters, each developing a key theme. Walton begins with an analysis of the British, and more especially the English resort system, which developed early and was large in its scale and complexity, with subtle gradations and hierarchies, catering in its popular and select manifestations for a varied visiting public, and with clear regional differences. He traces the pattern of growth, stagnation or decline, and the reasons associated with resort success. The next six chapters cover the holiday makers, travel, seaside pleasures, environments, economics and politics. The role of local government is a particularly strong theme, since local government expanded its role significantly during the twentieth century, spending heavily on promenades, parks, pavilions, sea defences, bathing and sporting facilities to meet new visitor expectations, and getting increasingly involved in marketing and entertainment. Walton shows the distinctions among and within the different classes of holiday makers, and the changing composition of the holiday market over time. In the twentieth century leisure patterns were increasingly affected by mobility and suburban living, and the varied resort response to the internal combustion engine, and the change from rail to road transport, provide another fascinating theme. He also brings out clearly the special nature of the seaside resort, a form of almost a single-industry town which provided a wide range of pleasures and pastimes, but whose occupational profiles, demography, and seasonal economic fluctuations created changing annual and medium-term patterns of poverty and affluence. There is also an important and hitherto neglected political dimension to the seaside. Walton shows that while most resorts were strong supporters of the Conservative party, resorts were not without their internal conflicts over image, resources, levels of taxation and policing.
The seaside holiday or day trip has been of enduring importance to the British over the twentieth century, and was a major social occasion for a majority of the British population up to and even after the second World War, when the resorts enjoyed a short-lived boom. But from the 1960s onwards the increasing...