Have you noticed how an era that is despised by the following generation suddenly becomes of great interest to a third or later generation, just before the last remnants of living memory and its artefacts disappear? Take Victoriana, for instance. Everything Victorian was regarded as O T T in every way to a generation that grew up in the thirties, forties or fifties, but by the sixties Victoriana suddenly became extremely attractive to interior decorators and even fashion designers. To me, the fifties are like the memory of a nightmare: plastic furniture, plastic clothes, plastic tableware, plastic everything. Yet there are avid collectors of the stuff today and I have to admit that some of it wasn’t all that bad, but the memory of when it was new is best forgotten.
An unknown family holiday in 1913.
English Seaside traditions can perhaps be looked back on in a similar way. They fell into decline a few decades ago after developing through half century or more. Town councils of seaside resorts did all they could, in the late sixties, to pretend that their promenades, beaches and piers had ever sold a Kiss-Me-Quick hat or a Donald McGill postcard. In the case of Southend they appeared to turn their back on the front, if you see what I mean; rebuilding the town centre while totally ignoring the seafront and pier. Councils like Southend had every right to be ashamed of their seedy side, considering the levels to which they sank towards the end. Holiday camps closed – thank heavens – and families started taking their annual holidays abroad. Spain was top of the list for a while, until the British obliterated all traces of Spanish culture from the Costas, with "Tea like Mother makes it", chips with everything and binge drinking.
My favourite Uncle Ted and Aunt Bertha at Margate in 1933 together with four of their five children. Ted was an ex Grenadier Guardsman who lost a leg and an eye during WWI.
Then cheap air fares and a strong pound meant holiday makers started looking further afield, to the Continent, Greece and even Florida, and Thailand - but interest is waning. Anyone who has shuffled through the cattle pens of Stanstead Airport, carrying their shoes in one hand and holding up their trousers up with the other, will have wondered if it is really worth it. Even the flight itself, which used to be a luxury experience, has been turned into an Irish nightmare. The threat of terrorism and more recently serious illness is now making holidaymakers think again.
Not long ago the pier at Eastbourne caught fire and burned, as so many piers have done this past century. Usually there has been a wringing of hands and apologies for there not being funds available to rebuild. The difference this time, however, is that there was public mourning at the loss and a determination that Eastbourne Pier should be rebuilt and returned to its former glory, though ‘former’ is a loose term open to wide interpretation. Lottery Funds have made the restoration and rebuilding of many piers possible and a new generation is discovering the simple pleasure of a stroll along a pier. The downside is that many piers are privately owned and therefore do not qualify for public funding of any kind, but public interest is growing, which might attract investors.
Books have been written cataloguing the history of piers, seaside town architecture, holiday camps and seaside holiday traditions. More recently, entrepreneurs have even been considering the merits of rebuilding and reopening the big funfairs such as Dreamland in Margate and the Kursaal in Southend. Nobody can imagine that these could or should ever be restored to what they once were. Unless you want to visit museums of entertainment there would be little point, but perhaps a younger generation with new ideas can revitalise the English Seaside. On second thoughts, though, why not one or two museums? Piers restored to their genuine original, Edwardian grandeur with, perhaps, a theatre experience or quality restaurant, with a total ban on anything resembling a double arched fast-food outlet.
Brighton Pier in about 1890 (left) and 1980 (right)
I probably belong to the last generation that remembers burying his father in the sand at Margate, Clacton, Jaywick and several other seaside resorts. Somehow Dad always managed to dig his way out and give me a handful of pennies to spend on the slot machines that I loved playing on the piers. Those 1940s holidays were simple affairs that usually started with a long queue for the train at a London mainline station. Car ownership was still not common. The seaside B&B often had uncomfortable beds and a landlady who disliked children. Not infrequently there would be small notices dotted around the place telling you what you should or couldn’t do. One almost expected to see "Thou Shallt Not" above the bed head, but since sex wasn’t invented until 1963 it was unlikely in 1948.
My first camera was an Ensign FullView. I had one frame left when I took the train to Southend one evening in the autumn of 1952 to find a good picture.
This is was what I found.
Each day would be spent on the beach, weather permitting, with the parents in deck chairs and we children in front playing with the sand. I was a hole digger rather than a castle builder. I once dug a deep hole and found a half crown at the bottom, which wasn’t bad reward for the effort, considering that my pocket money was then 2d per week. I have often wondered if Dad threw it into the hole when I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t very keen on the sea though. I had a bad experience at the swimming baths in Barking when taken there by the school first time. I was told to jump into four feet of water when I was only four feet tall myself. The result was that I hated water for years and never learned to swim. That is until I was taken to Margate where I was taught to swim in two feet of water by a very friendly girl I met at the water 's edge. I bet she is a great grandmother now. Good old Margate.
My mother loved Dreamland and seemed to have remarkable luck at some of the stands that sold lottery tickets of some kind, though lotteries were illegal then and had to involve some sort of "skill" to win. To me Dreamland was a combination of Aladdin's Cave, an adventure playground and the annual Barking Fair all rolled into one.
Previous generations in the 1910s, 20s and 30s saw other aspects of seaside culture. Bathing huts, Punch & Judy shows, End of the Pier Variety Theatre and a whole host of other delights of the day. That was before things started to slide downhill and "Seaside" became a dirty joke.
It is all a distant memory now and will never be revived, but it is good to know that some of the buildings and piers may be restored to remind us of what was once an essential part of the British way of life for nearly 100 years. Perhaps one or two seaside towns will be encouraged, by the renewed public interest, to do something about bringing life back to the front.