Nice and the English Seaside
A celebration of architecture and pleasure.
Historic England has been investigating seaside heritage since 2002. In October 2015 we were invited to give a paper on the relationship between the English seaside resort and the Promenade des Anglais as part of the campaign for Nice’s two hundred-year-old seafront to be given World Heritage Site status. This article looks at some of the links between Nice and the English seaside.
As an early 20th century observer put it:
‘in the matter of seaside promenades of the present day we only know of one which can claim equality with Brighton, and that is Nice, where the Promenade des Anglais is also some four miles in length, and is similarly lined with a number of imposing hotels and shops. In drawing a comparison between Brighton and Nice, it would be difficult to find any other two pleasure resorts which are so alike and yet so different in their general character (Clunn 1929, 58).’
Nice and early English visitors
Bathing in the sea took place regularly in England from the 1730s. Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker describes how 'all our gay birds of passage have taken their flight to Bristolwell, Tunbridge, Brighthelmstone [Brighton], Scarborough, Harrowgate, &c' (Smollett 1995, 65) and amusingly portrays life at these spas and seaside resorts.
Smollett had visited Nice between November 1763 and April 1765, and recorded life there in his book Travels through France and Italy. He had been attracted to Nice for his health, the mild winter climate and the pleasantly warm sea water, which aided his recovery from respiratory complaints and fevers. Sea bathing may have been common around the English coast by the 1760s, but at Nice it seems to have been a puzzling sight, undoubtedly ascribed to English eccentricity.
Smollett was important to opening up Nice to English visitors, but interest from a senior member of the Royal family was also significant. Prince William Henry (1743–1805), a brother of George III, came to the Côte d’Azur during the 1760s. This was at the same time as he was visiting Brighton, leading to the rapid transformation of that small, struggling coastal port into England’s most prestigious seaside destination.
Other English Grand Tourists came to the Côte d’Azur, particularly to enjoy the mild winters. The botanist Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828), stayed in Nice in 1786 and likened it to an English seaside resort, while the agricultural reformer Arthur Young (1741–1820) in 1789 noticed that many houses seemed to have been built to accommodate foreigners. Edward Rigby (1747–1821), a physician, stayed in an English-style hotel that served ‘plain roast beef and boiled potatoes, with some special good draughts of porter’.
The origins of the Promenade des Anglais
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the English were soon back and among them was Reverend Lewis Way (1772–1840), a religious activist on a mission to convert believers in Judaism to Christianity. Way had set out on a trip to the Holy Land to spread his message but instead in 1822 he ended up in Nice where he acted as chaplain in the newly-built Anglican church. Struck by the poverty he witnessed during a harsh winter, he created what was effectively an early public works programme by approaching rich English visitors to subscribe to a fund for the construction of the first seafront promenade. Later known as the Promenade des Anglais, this opened in 1824 and was further extended in 1844. This early promenade was just a modest, narrow walk, but was widened to 10 metres in 1856.
The creation of new man-made seafronts was also taking place at English seaside resorts. The first sea wall at Weymouth had been constructed by about 1800; it was replaced after a major storm of 1824. The same storm prompted the creation of Sidmouth’s first 550 metre-long sea wall and promenade, which was completed in 1838. At St Leonard’s, which was established in 1828, a sea wall and promenade was a critical element of James Burton’s substantial investment in this new resort near Hastings. At Blackpool a small parade had been established by the 1780s, but due to cliff erosion there was a need for reconstruction and realignment of the seafront road in the 1820s.
During the 19th century substantial promenades developed at English resorts. These were lined with boarding houses, lodgings and a number of ‘grand hotels’. These huge, luxury hotels were inspired by French examples, including an early one at Nice. L’Hôtel de la Pension Anglaise at Nice in 1856 offered a level of comfort beyond anything that was available in England, but English seaside resorts were soon matching such hotels in quality and outstripping them in size. Brighton’s 260-room Grand Hotel (opened 1864), was the first English seaside hotel to adopt the name that associated it with the Grand Hôtel du Louvre in Paris (opened 1855).
The Grand Hotel at Scarborough (opened 1867) contained 300 bedrooms, and was reputed when it was built to be the largest hotel in Europe. However, it would be eclipsed by other continental hotels including Nice’s most famous, the Hôtel Négresco (opened 1912). This palatial building had 400 rooms with en-suite facilities, as well as lifts, electric lights and telephones.
Large seaside hotels, like earlier large residential developments such as Kemp Town and Brunswick Town at Brighton, served as retreats for the wealthy from the busy centres of resorts. However, prosperous holidaymakers were increasingly also being driven from popular resorts like Brighton to quieter, more remote seaside towns in Cornwall or Wales – and also, increasingly, to the south of France, especially in winter.
The life of Queen Victoria illustrates the changes taking place at the upper end of the British holiday market. She holidayed in at St Leonards in 1834, the 15-year-old princess staying at the hotel that was later renamed in her honour. When she became queen in 1837, she inherited the Royal Pavilion in Brighton but hated being in the busy heart of the resort and sold it. Instead she chose to have family holidays at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where she had her own bathing machine, and in Scotland at Balmoral Castle.
Towards the end of her life, Victoria spent winters in the south of France. After staying at Menton and Grasse she finally settled on Nice. The Empress of India and her staff took over the entire west wing of the Hôtel Excelsior Régina Palace. Her entourage consisted of between 60 and 100 people, and included chefs, ladies-in-waiting, a dentist and Indian servants, as well as her own bed and food.
With the influx of English tourists a number of distinctive English features appeared in Nice, most notably a seaside pier, a feature that is rarely seen in Europe. La Jetée-Promenade, its design inspired by the Crystal Palace in London and by English seaside piers, finally opened in 1891. It was sadly destroyed during World War II.
The English and Sunshine
While there is much to recognise in Nice that can be related to the English seaside, the French resort does have at least one major advantage prized by modern tourists: reliable sunshine. We have seen how Harold Clunn, writing in 1929, found Nice to be almost as alluring as Brighton. However, he found an amusing if unconvincing way of setting to one side the natural advantage that the south of France enjoyed over the south of England:
‘In actual fact, perpetual sunshine can prove exceedingly boring to the average Englishman, particularly when it is accompanied by a close and oppressive atmosphere; and nobody really cares a brass farthing whether one seaside place enjoys a little more or less sunshine in the course of a twelvemonth than another. … (Clunn 1929, 59)’
Allan Brodie MA FSA is a Senior Investigator for the Historic Places Investigation Team (West). He is the co-author of Seaside Holidays in the Past (2005) and England’s Seaside Resorts (2007) and has also published books on the seaside heritage of Margate (2007), Weymouth (2008) and Blackpool (2014). He has co-written a four-volume history of Travel and Tourism 1700‒1914 (2014). Allan is currently working books about the English seafront and the history of tourism in Britain.
Aillagon, J-J (ed) 2015 Promenade(S) des Anglais. Paris: Lienart
Brodie, A and Winter, G 2007 England’s Seaside Resorts. Swindon: English Heritage
Clunn, H 1929 Famous South Coast Pleasure Resorts Past and Present, etc. London: T Whittingham & Co.
Smollett, T 1995 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Ware: Wordsworth Editions
Smollett, T 1776 Travels through France and Italy. London
Also of interest...
Historic England’s initiatives to understand and protect England’s distinctive seaside heritage.