Holidaying by the sea first became fashionable in the mid-18th century when sea bathing for health reasons became popular. However, this was only affordable to the wealthy in society, and it wasn’t until the Victorian era that a day out to the seaside became affordable for working people.

A Product of the Industrial Revolution

This change came about thanks to the engineers of the Industrial Revolution who, with their roads, bridges, and railways, made accessing the coast much easier for those who lived inland and therefore laid the foundations that allowed seaside holidays to become a reality for the masses. In particular, the arrival of the railway in the 1830s and 1840s made travel to seaside resorts much quicker and easier and transformed quiet fishing villages into tourist attractions. As the 19th century progressed, rail travel became cheaper and therefore affordable to more people.

Initially most Victorian holidaymakers at the seaside were the families of tradesmen and white-collar workers, such as accountants, shopkeepers, and managers. They bathed, walked along the promenade, rode donkeys, collected shells, visited ancient monuments, and spent time relaxing on the sands. As rail travel became cheaper, they were joined by the families of skilled manual workers. The introduction of bank holidays in 1871 also meant that, if they could afford it, they could spend more than a day or two at the seaside. By the end of the 19th century, some ordinary manual workers could also afford a day trip to the seaside.

Railway Station, at Wellington, Shropshire, lithograph, 1849 [AE185.290]

Where did they go?

Some of the most popular seaside destinations were Blackpool, Scarborough and Whitby to the north, Rhyl, Aberystwyth and Llandudno in Wales, and Margate, Brighton, and Eastbourne to the south. The people of the East Shropshire Coalfield most frequently visited Llandudno, Blackpool, Southport, and Aberystwyth.

Business owners in seaside resorts also tried to draw visitors from the East Shropshire Coalfield by placing adverts in the local newspaper advertising their services. For example, in 1903 a Mrs Meech of Blackpool was advertising her apartments which she let for 2 shillings per night – she noted the apartments were just one minute from the sea. Meanwhile Mrs Jones, the proprietress of the Bryn Private Hotel & Boarding Establishment in Llandudno, advertised her newly furnished, electrically lit rooms with magnificent views, first class catering, motor accommodation, and a cycle house, for six shillings and sixpence per day to the residents of the East Shropshire Coalfield.

These hotels were likely out of the financial reach of the working-class people of the area, but many still managed to visit the seaside. Oral histories in the museum’s collection reveal local people’s memories of their visits. Dora Lloyd  (1900-1992), who grew up in Oakengates, remembered:

“…they only used to have one day off a year from the Lilleshall works. They went to Blackpool. My sister and I went with them. Dad took us, and that was the first time we saw the sea.”

Elizabeth Davies (1904-2006), recalled her first trip to the seaside during a Horsehay Works outing:

I went to Blackpool from Horsehay station with the Horsehay Works Trip and I went with two uncles. How I got on the trip I don't know because neither of them worked at Horsehay Works. I think we must have taken sandwiches for our lunch but I remember going into a café and having sausage and mash for a meal before I came back.

Charles Hoggins (1893-1988) described in more detail the process of organising outings to the seaside:

[The Shropshire Miners’ Federation] had an annual trip, the venue was either Blackpool, Southport or some of those seaside places and they used to arrange to have a day off on a Monday, a mass meeting they used to call it and they'd vote on to which was their choice and they used to run two trains, one would leave at 4 a.m. and the other about half past five - probably this one to Blackpool.

What did Victorians do at the seaside?

Relax on the Sand

Most working people who visited the beach might bring a blanket to sit on, or perhaps sit directly on the sand itself. They would remain fully dressed and wouldn’t sunbathe – in fact many would avoid the sun possible. For those who could afford them, Victorian seaside visitors might bring along a deckchair to sit on. Deck chairs are a Victorian invention, patented by John Thomas Moore in 1886, and were originally made with olive green canvas. The brightly coloured stripes that they are well known for came later in the late 19th century.

Watch a Punch and Judy Show

Punch and Judy shows were one of the many entertainments that made their way to the seaside as it became more accessible and affordable. By the second half of the 19th century, Punch and Judy could be found entertaining huge crowds at the British seaside. However, these shows could often lead to ‘rowdy behaviour’ from spectators causing authorities in seaside towns to restrict when and where shows could be held.  

A busy Ramsgate beach with visitors relaxing on the ands and paddling in the sea, 1899.


The character of Punch has existed since the 16th century, originating in Italian street theatre known as ‘Commedia dell’arte’. A puppet play featuring a version of Punch was first recorded in England in May 1662 by the diarist Samuel Pepys. String puppets were initially used but these were very expensive and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead. By 1825 Punch's wife, who was originally called Joan, went by the name of Judy.

Ride a Donkey

The earliest record of donkeys working on beaches in the Britain dates back to 1780. They were used because of their quiet disposition and gentle nature, and were usually ridden side saddle. They became particularly popular as seaside holidays became more affordable to working class people. Some donkey ride ‘stands’ were in the same family for generations and cared for their donkeys. However, there were also many cases of cruelty towards the animals. Today, many seaside towns have regulations setting out the donkey's daily working hours specify the maximum age and weight of the riders. All of the UK’s beach donkeys also require, by law, an annual vet check in order to certify them as fit to work.   

Go Seabathing

Swimming in the sea was thought to be good for a person’s health and was one of the reasons why seaside holidays first became popular. However, getting in and out of the water in a suitably modest way could be tricky. Those who were wealthy enough would hire beach huts on wheels, known as Bathing Machines, to help them access the water. These were invented in the mid-18th century and first appeared on Margate beach, but could soon be found at seaside resorts across Britain.

Beachgoers would hire the bathing machine for half hour periods and would get into the hut at the top of the beach. Once they were in the hut they would get changed into their swimming costume whilst a horse pulled the hut into the sea. The beachgoer could then lower themselves into the sea without being seen in their bathing suits. Sometimes there would be attendants to help with getting in and out of the sea called ‘dippers’. This was how most bathers experienced the sea for over 150 years. Queen Victoria had her own personal bathing machine built at Osbourne on The Isle of White.

A replica of a woman's bathing costume dated to 1864. The replica was made by the Trust's Costume Project team.

The swimming costumes that Victorians wore were very different to those worn today. Initially women’s bathing dresses were long, loose sack-like garments but from the 1860s most consisted of long trousers covered by a blouse or tunic. By 1890s bathing caps were coming in and it was at this time that some resorts accepted mixed bathing. Meanwhile, men sometimes swam naked, although from the 1860s they were increasingly encouraged to wear drawers. Throughout the 19th century, sea bathing was typically segregated by gender. When mixed-gender bathing was adopted in some resorts in 1890s there were some who thought men should wear more than just drawers, and some resorts banned any swimming costumes that didn’t cover body from neck to knees.

Visit the Pier

Piers could once be found at more than 100 seaside resorts in Britain. The first pier was opened at Ryde, Isle of White in 1814 stretching 1200 feet, but most were built from the 1860s onwards. Early piers were constructed as landing stages for boats and as promenades where visitors could enjoy the sea air without the danger of getting wet. Most were built by local entrepreneurs who made money from the pier by charging an admission fee. However, as the number of piers increased in the 1860s and competition increased, piers became places of amusement to draw more visitors. They played host to refreshment rooms, concerts, bands, dances, sideshows, and in some cases amusement rides, most famously at Blackpool.


If you would like to experience the Victorian seaside for yourself, from 26 July until 3 September Blists Hill Victorian Town in landlocked Shropshire will be hosting its first Victorian Seaside Experience. You can find out more here.