Take a journey through the classic railway seaside posters of the 1930s courtesy of the National Railway Museum
The ‘staycation’ continues to enjoy a surge of popularity in the UK as cash-strapped holiday-makers rediscover the delights of the traditional resorts their parents and grandparents enjoyed back in the glory days of the seaside holiday. But those interested in the origins of the seaside holiday should make tracks to the National Railway Museum (NRM), where the ‘rail’ story of the Great British Getaway can be found in the NRM’s priceless poster collection housed in its public archive centre, Search Engine.
The railway was instrumental to the development of the traditional seaside holiday. The seaside town was born in the late 19th century when the railway network reached the small fishing villages which peppered the UK coastlines. With carriage loads of workers from the city looking for fresh air and recreation, these sleepy coastal towns soon transformed into thriving and busy resorts.
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In the twenties and thirties on bank holiday weekends trains would be packed and people would pour out of the cities into seaside towns. By the end of the 1930s around 15 million people were going on holiday to the coast.
Butlin’s holiday camps, founded at Skegness in 1936, were extremely popular, and had the sort of reputation that Disney parks enjoy today. In their heyday Butlin’s along with counterpart Pontin’s epitomised the family seaside holiday as thousands flocked to their camps to be entertained by the redcoats and bluecoats.
Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Skegness
The popularity of Butlin’s and Pontin’s waned in the 1970s as air travel expanded and trips to exotic destinations became more affordable. However, nearly 80 years on since Billy Butlin’s first holiday camp opened, the bucket and spade break is enjoying a revival; with bookings taken by the two firms surging by nearly a quarter as families opt to holiday in Britain rather than abroad.
This reversal in fortunes reflects the efforts of the parks to move upmarket. Health spas, luxury rooms and fine dining restaurants have been added to attract middle-class visitors.
At the updated resorts, events such as knobbly knees competitions are distant memories. Instead there are performances from X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent stars such as Stacey Solomon, Danyl Johnson and George Sampson.
East Coast Delights
Although Billy Butlin put Skegness on the map in 1936 with his flagship holiday park, it was not the only resort on the East Coast that was pulling in holiday makers by the train load.
London and North Eastern Railway were quick to capitalise on the success of coastal resorts, and produced posters advertising the delights of seaside destinations on the East Coast line from the late nineteenth century through to the second half of the twentieth.
Although travelling by car was now more commonplace, the majority of people still travelled to their holiday destination by rail and in the 1930s war clouds had not yet gathered to rain on the parade of the nation’s holiday plans.
In the 1930s the London & North Eastern Railway ran its ‘Quicker By Rail’ campaign to remind people that the speediest way of getting to their favourite resorts was by train.
East Coast by rail
Scarborough by LNER
Bridlington – it’s quicker by rail
The family friendly aspects of the seaside holiday was the focus of this campaign with a large proportion of posters showing children enjoying traditional activities such as paddling, building sand castles and exploring rock pools.
Filey for the Family
Whitley Bay by LNER
A West Coast Story
The recent report by academics at Sheffield Hallam found that the Blackpool area had the largest single concentration of seaside tourist jobs at more that 19,000.
Blackpool first rose to prominence as a tourist destination in 1846, with the completion of a branch line to Blackpool from Poulton. A sudden influx of visitors, arriving by rail, provided the motivation for entrepreneurs to build accommodations and create new attractions, leading to even more visitors for the town.
The growth was intensified by the practice among the Lancashire cotton mill owners to close the factories for a week every year to service and repair machinery. These were known as wakes weeks, a title which had its origins in annual medieval holidays to celebrate the dedication of churches. Each town’s mills would close for a different week, allowing Blackpool to manage a steady and reliable stream of visitors over a prolonged period in the summer.
By the end of the 19th century Blackpool was the only town in the United Kingdom to boast three piers and the Opera House was said to be the largest outside of London. Visitor numbers continued to boom in the first half of the 20th century although they started to decline with the advent of the package holiday in the 1970s. Blackpool fought back with bigger and better attractions such as the first modern looping coaster in the UK in its Pleasure Beach amusement park.
Blackpool – Always Merry and Bright
The Sunny South
Although it was mainly the northern resorts that enjoyed the boom associated with the industrial revolution, with workers from the Northern mills making tracks for their nearest seaside destination, the story of the Southern resorts also features in the National Railway Museum collection.
Some southerly resorts such as Bournemouth and Brighton, were built as new towns or extended by local landowners to appeal to wealthier vacationers. Southern Railways used the character of ‘Sunny South Sam’ to entice holiday makers down to the south coast.
Sunny South Sam of Southern Railways
Devon and Cornwall
Devon and Cornwall used outstanding views and superior weather to tempt holidaymakers to their shores. Torbay in South Devon became the ‘English Riviera,’ a name that promised continental weather and a realistic alternative to European travel.
Torquay – Devon’s Riviera
Newquay by GWR
From the last quarter of the twentieth century, the popularity of the British seaside resort has declined. The greater accessibility of foreign holiday destinations, through package holidays and, more recently, European low-cost airlines, affords people the freedom to holiday abroad.
Despite the loyalty of returning holiday-makers, northerly resorts such as Blackpool have struggled to compete against the favorable weather of Southern European alternatives. However the South with its warmer temperatures has been more successful in reinventing itself. Brighton is repeatedly held up as the model of a modern resort.
Although it has neither holiday camps nor end-of-the-pier shows it has still grown considerably due to its reputation for broadminded hedonism. Newquay in Cornwall, popular with surfers since the thirties has set itself up as global mecca for those catching the waves, hosting international surfing events on its shores.
As people look for ways to escape from their constantly beeping mobiles and ever-full inboxes, holiday choices are definitely going back to basics. The posters of the past, housed in the National Railway Museum’s Search Engine could become the advertising inspiration of the future with the public hankering after the traditional delights of the seaside holiday.
The National Railway Museum poster collection including the 1930s holiday posters featured is housed in Search Engine at the National Railway Museum. Appointments are essential if you want to view original material, although you can view copies. Please call 01904 686235 or email email@example.com ahead of your visit.
All posters © National Railway Museum Pictorial Collection
National Railway Museum
York, North Yorkshire
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