The Enduring Appeal of Blackpool

In Chapter 13 of After the War is Over, Charlotte spends a day at the seaside with her friends. More to the point, she travels to Blackpool, that most iconic of seaside resorts, and takes in every delight it has to offer. If you happen to be British, or have spent any amount of time in Britain, Blackpool will likely be familiar, even if you’ve never holidayed there yourself. But I suspect there will be a number of you who will have read this chapter and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Today, many of us think nothing of hopping on a plane for a week’s holiday, or jumping in the family car for a road trip to the nearest beach or national park. In 1919, however, the days of cheap overseas travel were still a half-century away, and only a wealthy few could afford to journey by ship to glamorous destinations such as Biarritz or Saint-Tropez. As well, while automobile ownership became far more widespread in the 1920 and 1930s, in the immediate post-war period only a small percentage of families had access to a car.

This didn’t prevent ordinary Britons from enjoying their holidays: by 1911, historian James Walvin has observed, a little more than half the English population was visiting the seaside on day excursions and a further twenty percent was taking holidays that required overnight accommodation. Their destination was the scores of seaside resorts in England, Wales, and Scotland that grew and flourished from the mid-nineteenth century onward.

Of the many seaside resorts that flourished in Britain in the early twentieth century, Blackpool was by far the most popular. Other resorts—among them Margate and Torquay in the south, Scarborough and Skegness in the north—attracted middle-class holidaymakers, but Blackpool was happy to cater to its working-class visitors, and determinedly fostered a jolly, old-fashioned, and often somewhat low-brow atmosphere.

In the early 1920s, despite post-war unemployment and economic malaise, Blackpool attracted as many as eight million visitors a year. By the height of its popularity in the 1950s, nearly 17 million visitors flocked to the resort each year. These numbers were boosted considerably by the phenomenon of Wakes Week, when the mills and factories of Lancashire closed and gave their workers a week’s holiday. (The closures were staggered across different municipalities, so as to avoid the disaster of hundreds of thousands of families all trying to go on holiday at once.) Although most workers received no pay for their week off, many families saved their pennies for the rest of the year in anticipation of a week by the sea—for it was often the only vacation they received, apart from Sundays and bank holidays.

While train fares from the industrial heartland to Blackpool were relatively cheap, the charabanc was an even less expensive option, though a decidedly dangerous one. Little more than an open-topped wagon bolted to the frame of a heavy-goods vehicle, the charabanc had a high center of gravity, no protection for passengers if the vehicle tipped over or was in a collision, and of course it had no seatbelts. But charabanc fares were cheap, and it was common enough for smaller workplaces, or large family groups, to hire one for the journey to Blackpool.

Once at the resort, most families stayed in a boardinghouse; the hotels in Blackpool, relatively few in number, catered to a more middle-class clientele. It was customary for guests to be locked out for nearly the entire day, ostensibly so the landlady (often of a fearsome and unyielding disposition) could clean, which meant that from mid-morning to early evening families thronged to the beach and the many amusements on offer.

At high tide, the beach at Blackpool was immensely wide and flat, and while it was pleasantly sandy the water was never especially warm. Most visitors contented themselves with a quick paddle, rolling up their trousers or holding their skirts high, and set their sights on other pastimes. It’s worth noting that, in the early 1920s, people were just beginning to feel comfortable wearing bathing suits in public; the bathing machines that once sheltered people from censorious eyes had only recently fallen out of use. It helped that most suits were extremely modest in design, covering their wearers, female and male alike, from neck to knee, and (this was before the advent of stretch fabrics) were typically made of thick serge, knitted cotton, or wool.

While Norma’s less modest suit would have raised eyebrows, it wouldn’t have been considered scandalous as such, although she and anyone else wearing a bathing suit would have been in the minority. While Charlotte and her friends had enough disposable income to pay for such an inessential garment, many of Blackpool’s holidaymakers would not have been able to afford their own suits, nor even the fee to rent one. While younger children were often clad in home-made knitted suits—which could make for a miserable paddle once the wool became sodden with seawater—contemporary photographs reveal that most people on the sands of Blackpool beach were wearing their street clothes; indeed, many seem to have been clad in their Sunday best. Today we might think it odd to be by the sea and never go for a swim, but for many it was enough to be in the sunshine, to smell the salt air, and be away from the factories, traffic, noise, and smoky air of the cities where they lived.

Of course there was more to Blackpool than its beach. There were donkey rides for the children, the rides and games of Pleasure Beach, the Winter Gardens with its Opera House, and the genteel offerings of the great piers stretching out over the sea, though the fees charged by all these attractions meant only better-off visitors could partake. Each autumn, as well, the Blackpool Illuminations drew many thousands of visitors with a dazzling display of electric lights, though the shows were halted during both world wars.

Greatest of all the attractions, however, was the Blackpool Tower. It resembles (and was inspired by) the Eiffel Tower, but where the latter stands alone on the Champ de Mars, Blackpool’s tower rises from a large and rather squat brick building which houses its admissions hall, ballroom, circus, and, for many years, a menagerie and aquarium.

Today Blackpool’s glories are somewhat faded, although its Tower is being expensively restored, and increasing numbers of families are traveling there rather than abroad. Vacant storefronts dot its waterfront, but its beach still welcomes thousands of visitors each summer, the donkeys are patiently waiting to offer rides to children, and sticks of Blackpool Rock may be bought and savored, just as they were a century ago.

To learn more about Blackpool and its history, I recommend Beside the Seaside by James Walvin, The British Seaside Holiday by Kathryn Ferry, and The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century by J.K. Walton.