Beside The Sea by Lee Jackson


Bathing Machines

Bathing machines were an eighteenth century invention to protect female modesty, which to this end could even have an extendable canvas hood, as visible in the background in this cartoon. ‘A judge by appearance.’
New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 3, 2018. © New York Public Library

Many people believe that the Victorians invented the British seaside holiday in the second half of the nineteenth century. They built iconic buildings, such as the ironwork pier, with amusements ranging from grand theatrical pavilions to slot machines, as well as winter gardens and even amusement parks. Large working-class resorts, like Blackpool, Scarborough and Great Yarmouth, expanded at a rapid rate, fed by the burgeoning railway network. But the seaside boom did not begin with the Victorian railway revolution and the pleasure pier. An earlier transport innovation, on the cusp of the Victorian era, created the first mass-market resorts: namely, the passenger steamboat. And this is reflected in Dickens’s earliest work, Sketches by Boz, first published as a collection in 1836. For steamboat travel had a profound impact upon the Kent resorts of Margate and Ramsgate, i.e. the very resorts popular with the Londoners whose lives Dickens so expertly chronicled.

Meeting at Margate

Isaac Cruikshank’s 1803 cartoon, ‘A Meeting at Margate’.
Image Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Margate, admittedly, already served as a resort but its customers in the eighteenth century were ‘select’, the upper-middle-class and aristocracy. They came to bathe in the sea, a supposed cure-all, and the town served as a coastal equivalent to inland spas like Bath and Tunbridge Wells. There were not only elegant bathing facilities but assembly-rooms, ball-rooms, libraries and reading-rooms, and a theatre. Merchants and tradesmen, however, began to ‘invade’ this upper-class preserve at the turn of the nineteenth century. Isaac Cruikshank’s 1803 cartoon, ‘A Meeting at Margate’ shows an aristocrat mystified by a vaguely familiar face on the promenade. The man in question turns out to be his wealthy tailor, wearing equally fine clothing as his lordship. Tourist ‘cabins’, little more than curtained bunks, were introduced in the cargo-laden sailing ships known as ‘hoys’, making the trip to Kent considerably cheaper and easier. Then, finally, in 1815, steamboats began to ply the route between London Bridge and Kent, heralding something of a tourist revolution.


Steam Excursion_Concert_on_deck

Live entertainment was provided on the decks of steamboats travelling to seaside resorts. ‘Steam Excursion plate 1’ in Sketches by Boz, 1836. Charles Dickens Museum, London.

These new pleasure-boats were incredibly popular. The annual number of steamboat passengers to Margate rose from 40,000 in 1820 to almost 100,000 in 1830. Steamers became a regular means of amusement for lower-middle-class Londoners. Hence, they feature prominently in Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. One article, ‘The River’, describes the confusion and chaos at a steam-wharf as a family struggle to find the right boat.  The careworn musicians at ‘A Bloomsbury Christening’ turn out to have been ‘engaged on board a Gravesend steamer all day.’ This was not remarkable, as tourist boats routinely attempted to amuse passengers. A band played; and food and refreshments could be purchased. Backgammon tables, draughts and chess boards were typically provided, presumably rather challenging in choppy waters. The tale of ‘A Steam Excursion’ also documents a rather queasy steamboat ride along the Thames. Most importantly, ‘The Tuggs’s at Ramsgate’ describes not only a trip to Kent but a typical seaside holiday.


Steam Excursion_Seasickness

Food and drink were available in a dining cabin on passenger steamboats but seasickness was a notorious hazard. ‘Steam Excursion plate 2’ in Sketches by Boz, 1836. Charles Dickens Museum, London

The Tuggs family are precisely the sort of tourists whose appearance drove away the snobbish gentry from the Kent resorts. They are grocers who have just inherited a little money. Simon Tuggs, the son of the house, full of social pretension, declares he will henceforth be called ‘Cymon’. Choosing their holiday destination, they dismiss Gravesend as ‘low’; Margate as ‘nothing but tradespeople’ (i.e. their own social class) and settle on Ramsgate as somewhat more genteel and aspirational. They land at Ramsgate to find it full of fellow pleasure-seekers:

The sun was shining brightly; the sea, dancing to its own music, rolled merrily in;
crowds of people promenaded to and fro; young ladies tittered; old ladies talked;
nursemaids displayed their charms to the greatest possible advantage;
and their little charges ran up and down, and to and fro, and in and out,
under the feet, and between the legs, of the assembled concourse,
in the most playful and exhilarating manner.

There were old gentlemen, trying to make out objects through long telescopes;
and young ones, making objects of themselves in open shirt-collars;
ladies, carrying about portable chairs, and portable chairs carrying about invalids;
parties, waiting on the pier for parties who had come by the steam-boat;
and nothing was to be heard but talking, laughing,
welcoming, and merriment.

But they then spend hours trying to find accommodation, obliged to take on over-priced rooms, ‘with a bay window from which you could obtain a beautiful glimpse of the sea – if you thrust half your body out of it’.

We read about their time on the beach, where they sit in ‘rush-bottomed chairs’ (folding deck-chairs not yet being a seaside staple) and watch, with disapproval,  male and female bathers, who emerge from their bathing-machines (portable changing rooms designed to protect one’s modesty) and flagrantly swim together. They undertake a hazardous donkey-ride to nearby Pegwell Bay; dine on shrimps and ale; and play dice, slightly out of their social depth, in the subscription library, where ‘Mrs. Tippin, of the London theatres’ entertains with comic songs. The whole experience lasts six weeks, terminated by the discovery of Cymon Tuggs ill-conceived dalliance with a conniving married adventuress, whose husband feigns moral outrage and milks the family for fifteen hundred pounds in damages.


By the end of the nineteenth century, Margate, pictured, was a thoroughly working-class resort. ‘Margate, the beach.’
New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 2, 2018. © New York Public Library

What is, perhaps, most interesting is how much of this world, as sketched by Dickens in his writing, would remain part of the archetypal seaside experience. Day-trips to local beauty spots; children making sandcastles; donkey-rides; entertainers on tour; trying to find a room with a sea-view; even holiday romances – all these elements would remain part of the appeal of the seaside resort throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. We have, therefore, in ‘The Tuggs’s at Ramsgate’ a glimpse of the very beginning of the modern British seaside, only awaiting the coming of the railway and the working-classes.


Lee Jackson is an author and historian, well-known for his website of primary sources, his guide to 'Walking Dickens’ London' (2012), and 'Dirty Old London' (Yale, 2014). His forthcoming book 'Palaces of Pleasure' (Yale, 2019) examines nineteenth century mass entertainment. He is currently pursuing a PhD on ‘Dickensland’.

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