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The History of Holidays: Part Two

The Great British Seaside Holiday actually began as the Great British Seaside Daytrip.

The middle classes were the first to take advantage of the marvellous new railway network spreading like a spider’s web across Britain in the 1840s, whisking them from the cities to seaside towns around the coast. Genteel resorts which had previously attracted the well-to-do, like Weymouth, Scarborough and Brighton, now saw an influx of new visitors while resorts such as Blackpool and Llandudno, Cromer and Minehead all grew up in response to the growing demand for a jolly day out in the healthy sea air.

A child and her family walk away across a beach. The child is holding hands with they're Mum and Dad on either side.

It wasn’t long before the working classes too were jumping on trains and joining their more affluent contemporaries at the beach.

The increasing popularity of the seaside among all social classes can be seen in the building of the piers in Blackpool. Blackpool began as a middle-class resort. It opened its first pier – North Pier – in May 1863 as an attraction for middle-class Victorians to stroll along while taking the health-giving sea air. By 1868, a new influx of working people led to the construction of Central Pier (originally called South Pier), which boasted opportunities for dancing, music and drinking.

Blackpool was at the very forefront of seaside entertainment for the working classes. After Blackpool station opened in 1846 its easy accessibility from the Lancashire mill towns, coupled with the northern tradition of ‘wakes weeks’, led to thousands of holidaymakers taking the train to Blackpool each year to enjoy the wide beaches, the fresh air, and the increasing number of entertainments that the enterprising town businesses provided for their amusement.

A young girl wearing sunglasses and armbands splashes in the sea. She has a big smile on her face.

Sunday, being the Sabbath, had always been a holiday, and by the middle of the nineteenth century most working people could also expect to get at least Saturday afternoon off. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 provided for four official annual holidays in England, in addition to Christmas Day and Good Friday: Easter Monday, Whit Monday (the Monday after Whitsun in the church calendar which falls at the end of May), the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. 

Remarkably it wasn’t until 1938 that the Holidays with Pay Act provided for one annual week of paid holiday for working class employees.

Wakes weeks are often considered to be the origin of the British Summer Holiday.

They began as religious festivals celebrating the feast day of the saint to whom the local church was dedicated. Many of the popular saints had feast days in June, July and August, so these holidays were traditionally in the summer. After the Industrial Revolution, it became increasingly common for wakes weeks to be the week in which the factories and mills of northern England shut down, the factory owners taking advantage of the traditional holiday to close the factories for maintenance. The owners probably got fed up with trying to keep their businesses going when most of their employees were absent enjoying themselves. Once the railway arrived, thousands of working-class families took advantage of the wakes week holiday to spend the day at the seaside. Towns took it in turns to close their factories for a week so that resorts weren’t overwhelmed with more visitors than they could cope with at any one time.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the seaside day trip did gradually become a week away, but families had to budget carefully, often joining a Wakes Savings Club, as wakes weeks were unpaid.