Looking back: Scarborough – Britain’s first seaside resort

THE North Yorkshire coast is one of Britain’s most visited destinations. Despite the trend of millions of Britons moving abroad, Scarborough remains a popular seaside resort.

In fact, the city can lay claim to being Britain’s premier seaside resort. But how did it all start?

The discovery of mineral waters by Elizabeth Farrar in 1626, said to have medicinal powers, attracted mainly well-to-do visitors to sample the waters. Scarborough became a “spa town”, steadily growing in the 18th century. Dr Whittie of Hull published a book in 1660 explaining the health benefits of Scarborough water, claiming half a pint mixed with port or milk was a cure for gout, scurvy, gonorrhoea and jaundice.

George III visited Weymouth and Ravenscar near Whitby, confident that the waters would cure his madness; George IV plunged into the sea at Brighton; but it was Queen Victoria who bathed for pleasure. In her diary of July 30, 1847, she wrote: “I drove down to the beach, with my maid, and entered the washing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea ( for the first time in my life). I thought it was delicious, until I put my head under water, when I thought I should be smothered.

A few enthusiastic 17th century aristocrats frolicked in the sea at Scarborough, and gradually it became a popular seaside resort. It was the first place to introduce bathing machines in 1746, and by the start of the 19th century most resorts had them. They cost between sixpence and a shilling to hire and were dragged along the water’s edge on horseback. No respectable lady would have bathed without this device. In large stations, there were waiting lists to use them. It was advisable to show up early, not just because of the demand, but because they tended to be humid, poorly lit and poorly ventilated, and covered in sand and seawater. The bather had to change in a confined space, and the machine shook as it was pulled towards the beach. Apparently, they weren’t so popular with men, who preferred to throw themselves into the sea naked. There have been complaints and restrictions have been introduced to limit nude bathing to certain times and areas of the beach. The Scarborough Gazette of 1851 suggested the town should follow Hastings’ example where men “were not permitted to bathe without a pair of underpants”.

Many men oppose the “French style” of mixed bathing, but it quickly becomes mandatory to cover the torso as sea bathing becomes more popular. A Dr. Alexander of Scarborough in 1880 advised the bather, “after taking sufficient exercise to produce general heat, to choose a dry machine, drawn to a sufficient depth in the water to enable him to descend the steps leisurely, to squat down so as to submerge his whole body under water, after which return to the machine, and be well rubbed down with a towel, then hastily dress, then he should walk slowly towards the house and , when he arrives, can take a bowl of soup, or a drink of coffee or tea, but if he has nausea in the stomach or a feeling of cold, a little hot sherry and water can can – be useful replaced.” He suggested that overdoing it could cause weakness and headaches, palpitations, rapid breathing, nausea, tremors, numbness and loss of circulation.

This did not prevent the growing interest in sea bathing, which led to the establishment of swimming clubs. But as the Scarborough Gazette reported in 1886, there were accidents and drownings. This led to lifesaving equipment and warnings of dangerous high tides and currents.

Scarborough Beach offered a variety of Victorian entertainment: musicians, acrobats, peddlers, photographers, ice cream parlors, donkeys, Punch and Judy shows, fortune tellers, horse racing, boating. An iron bridge was built between the Spa and the St Nicholas Cliff to access the sea. The spa was extended by Sir Joseph Paxton who designed the gardens of Chatsworth House and the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The much improved spa opened in 1858 and included shops and a bandstand.

The arrival of the railway in Scarborough in 1845 brought hordes of day trippers and vacationers. People of all classes came from afar, including cotton workers from Lancashire. Due to the demand for accommodation, some slept in bath cabins. A Spa Cliff Lift, opened on 6 July 1875, was the first vurnicular railway in Britain.

Residents complained about the influx of day trippers who, when they included drunks, tarnished the city’s image. Some must have dreamed of the “good old days” before the mass visits. Nevertheless, the seaside had become a place of escape far from the daily grind. The working classes took advantage of cheap rail fares on Sundays and holidays. The city’s economy began to boom. The postcards reflected that it was fun by the sea. James Balmforth of Holmfirth set up a portrait photography business in 1870 and began printing popular cheeky postcards in 1903. The promenade along the front became popular, showing the best clothes and the latest fashions. Assembly halls, landscaped parks and theaters offered leisure activities, with the simple pleasures of sitting on the beach, collecting seashells, building sandcastles, paddling with pant legs rolled up and walking around eating fish and chips.

The Grand Hotel in Scarborough was built in 1863, with magnificent views over the South Bay. It originally had four rounds for each season; 12 floors for each month; 52 fireplaces for weeks of the year; and 365 rooms for every day of the year. A blue plaque commemorates the death of Anne Bronte, who is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church.

At the end of the 19th century, the seaside was accessible to all social classes. Scarborough, once a busy fishing and trading port, paved the way for other seaside resorts, and millions could brag, “Oh, I love being by the sea.”

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