It was in 1909 that the popular music hall artist Mark Sheridan recorded the song “Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.” He was riding the crest of a wave at the time because by then everybody was heading for the coast. The affluent had already established the idea of a gentile, relaxing summer season by the sea. But the proliferation of the railways and the introduction of works’ wakes weeks meant they were having the share the promenades and beaches with rest of us. For by 1900 fishing had been replaced by tourism as one of our biggest coastal employers. On August Bank Holiday Monday 1913, 48 thousand of us descended on the Mumbles alone.
So step inside the gallery at Shrewsbury Music Hall and you step into a station platform environment with several of those lovely artistic railway posters on the wall beside a tuppeny ticket machine. There are recreations of coconut shies and hoopla stalls (with hoops slightly too small to go over the prizes), a flock of stuffed seagulls and a specially reconstructed stripy bathing machine on four large cart wheels that conveyed ‘ladies’ to the water’s edge – so they could bathe without having to hobble over the shingle, in sight of the common people.
But the real purpose of the exhibition is to show off a large collection of glass lantern slides made by a man whose name no-one knows. Our photographer friend (or possibly friends) toured the perimeters of Britain capturing images of Edwardians enjoying themselves in Scarborough, Hastings, Wales and beyond.
What immediately strikes one is the clothing we all wore back then. Our grandparents dressed ‘up’ to go to the seaside; wearing layer upon layer of their finest. Ladies wore ankle length skirts and white gloves on the beach. Gentlemen promenaded in their bowler hats, watch chain and medals. And when they reclined on deckchairs, they pulled a striped canopy over their heads to protect against the sun. Even children were woefully overdressed in white sailor suits – made popular by the royal princes – to sit stiffly in the water. Bare flesh had been banned in 1860….so the one distant shot of a naked man (hand modestly placed) changing on the beach comes as an outrageous shock.
So what did we do? Well, in serried ranks, we watched Punch and Judy on the beach or military bands on the Prom; with rapt attention in both cases. The regiments had originally taken up residence on the South Coast to repel Napoleon. But whilst waiting, they entertained the crowds on newly built, ornate bandstands, illuminated by electric light bulbs, no less.
Alternatively, the crowds would circle a troupe of Black and Black Minstrels singing plantation songs on the pavement, or eat penny licks from reusable glass cones (till the health implications were noticed), or take advantage of the local corporation’s pier…extended into the sea to reach deep water for passing steamers and to cock a snook at neighbouring towns with shorter protrusions.
But just as you begin to think there’s little of real excitement at the seaside, suddenly the pictures move. Someone else was also visiting our seaside towns – but with an early cine camera. At some point he was reckless enough to strap it onto the front of a new-fangled big dipper. Here were the adventurous Edwardians, riding a wooden roller coaster with gay abandon and – judging by their expressions – just a modicum of fear. The carriage plunges up and down the timber track in a straight line; out and back. Cornering had yet to be invented but, alarmingly, there were points in the track work. Brake attendants, like bellboys, stand at the back as the carriage glides to a halt.
The adventurers disembark, straight faced and serious – as if they’d witnessed a scientific experiment (which, I suppose, they had). Then, frustratingly, the cameraman stops filming…so we never do discover how they get the passenger car back to the top of the ride again.
It’s an exhibition of brief glimpses into the holiday habits of our ancestors and it’s fascinating on two counts; how little the archetypal holiday treats have changed – and how much we have.