An archive photograph of a seaside resort beach scene with crowds in 1920s clothing.
A postcard view of South Sands, Scarborough, 1924. Walter Scott. © Historic England Archive, image reference WSA01/01/05779.
A postcard view of South Sands, Scarborough, 1924. Walter Scott. © Historic England Archive, image reference WSA01/01/05779.

I Do Like to See Beside the Seaside

Exploring 150 years of seaside photography in the Historic England Archive.

Historic England Archive’s seaside photography offers insights into what we love to see beside the seaside.

Seaside tourism and photography go hand-in-hand. The Historic England Archive offers a wealth of photographic collections that record England’s seaside resorts, including images from every decade from the 1850s to the present day.

The Archive’s collections are a valuable resource for researchers and students of architecture, urban development and tourism. They also reveal how seaside resorts and the activities taking place in them have appeared in the eyes of photographers who have been influenced by a variety of motivations.

This article features a selection of photographs created by a range of photographers and photography firms over the course of the past century and a half. From paper negatives to born digital images, for commercial gain, private memory and official record, the Historic England Archive’s seaside photography offers insights into what we love to see beside the seaside.  

Our earliest seaside photographs

John Urry and Jonas Larson have dated the birth of the modern tourist gaze in the west to around 1840 – Daguerre’s and Talbot’s photographic processes were announced to the world in 1839, Thomas Cook’s first excursion took place in 1841, and ‘railway mania’ was about to take off.

Of course, people with sufficient free time and disposable income had been visiting the seaside to improve their health and to enjoy leisure for more than a century before the first seaside photographs were taken. However, once photography had taken root, seaside resorts became a popular subject and a source of income for commercial photographers, and the seaside holiday experience proved to be a source of inspiration for both professional photographers and keen amateurs.

The earliest known seaside photographs in the Historic England Archive were taken in the 1850s.

In a collection of 327 paper negatives attributed to the Godalming chemist Henry Taylor (born 1814), around 15 were taken at seaside towns. Only four of these feature anything remotely ‘seaside’: two are of a thatched cottage next to sand dunes in or near Bournemouth, one shows houses on Marine Parade, Eastbourne, and one is a view along the seafront at Hastings.

Commercial giants

The developments in sea, road, and rail transport during the mid-19th century, followed by greater opportunities for the urban working class to take time off work – after the 1871 Bank Holidays Act introduced four additional holidays – stimulated the growth of existing resorts and the creation of new seaside towns. At the same time, photographic technology evolved to a point where it became a viable commercial profession and an industry that could produce and supply masses of affordable images to a growing customer base.

A number of photographers, such as Francis Frith, James Valentine and George Washington Wilson, grew from individual practitioners to commercial giants, publishing tens of thousands of views of tourist destinations, including seaside resorts. Their works, and that of their teams of photographers, were produced in many forms, including stereocards and albumen prints.

Photographs of the English seaside were even an attractive subject for overseas audiences.

This stereocard of a beach scene at Brighton…

…has translations of its caption printed in different languages on its reverse.

Railway marketing

In 1840 Great Britain’s railway track measured 1,500 miles; sixty years later, this had increased to nearly 20,000 miles, providing easy access to scores of tourist destinations. The railway companies recognised the value of marketing resorts that could be reached by their trains. The Historic England Archive holds over 1,600 negatives created for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and its predecessors, dating from the mid-1880s to the mid-1930s. Among the collection are photographs of seaside resorts and the kinds of facilities and activities that railway travellers could expect to experience during this heyday of seaside holidays.

The picture postcard

The first picture postcards appeared in 1894

The late 19th century saw the introduction of the picture postcard, which could rapidly visually connect the recipient with the holidaymaker. The first picture postcards appeared in 1894, and in 1902 one side of the card was divided into two to provide space for a message and an address, while the other side was given up to one or more pictures. Established photograph publishers took up the medium and new firms were formed to exploit what has become one of the most enduring forms of popular pictorial representation of the seaside.

The view from above

The early 20th century witnessed something altogether new; aerial photography from fixed-wing aircraft could wow viewers with birds-eye perspectives of seafronts and resort buildings, which up to that point could only be imagined (unless you count the photographs taken from the top of the Blackpool Tower!). As Edward Carpenter’s article in this issue describes, the Aerofilms Collection is filled with stunning views of England’s seaside resorts, showing oblique views of beaches, piers, hotels, entertainment buildings and street layouts taken by this pioneering commercial firm.

Combined with more recent aerial photography, the view from above provides us with an excellent resource for seeing how seaside resorts have evolved over time, for example below Blackpool in 1920...

....and a detail of the Pleasure Beach in 2002.

The amateur view

From the 1880s, further developments in photographic processes and equipment increased the popularity of photography as an amateur pastime, resulting in the kinds of hand-held camera holiday ‘snap’ that most of us are familiar with today.

Until fairly recently, relatively little attention has been given to amateur photography, meaning that this substantial and varied resource has been generally overlooked.

Much of this kind of amateur photography can resonate more closely with the general public than professional, commercial photography, and so its value as a means of communicating the historic environment and social history should not be underestimated.

It is photography created for the photographer and his or her immediate circle of family and friends and is not intended generally for the eyes of others.

However, over the years, the Historic England Archive has acquired photograph albums and collections that include this kind of intimate and revealing photography, like the 1920s group holidaying in what appears to be a converted railway carriage...

...and this 1950s  'snap' of men tending boats on a beach in Devon.

Nostalgic photography

The return to ‘normal’ seaside holiday activities after the Second World War witnessed a return to ‘normal’ seaside resort photography. Much of the commercial and personal photography produced during the second half of the 20th century has an added resonance as it can connect with us on a nostalgic level – today’s living generations may have personal connections with what is contained within, and beyond, the frames of the photographs they are looking at. This greater familiarity with the recent past can underpin our collective image of the classic English seaside resort and seaside holiday. Ironically, it is perhaps the Archive’s collection of photographs by the German émigré John Gay that most clearly exemplifies this perception.

Project photography

We are all familiar with the oft-repeated narrative of affordable foreign holidays influencing the decline of domestic seaside resorts, and the subsequent threat to historic seaside buildings due to lack of use, dereliction and even arson.

In recent years, English Heritage and Historic England have undertaken several local and national projects to research the historical development of the seaside resort and its impact on the built environment, and to highlight the wealth and variety of resorts, their buildings and infrastructure. Much of this record photography has been dictated by project investigators, via fieldwork and documentary research. However, a valuable addition to Historic England’s collections has been the creative and highly personal seaside photography of staff photographers, such as Peter Williams, whose astute eye for contemporary culture and the social aspects of the seaside has resulted in a unique seaside photography collection.

The new photography, both terrestrial and aerial, produced for these research projects has added significantly to the visual record of seaside resorts and their historic buildings. Together with the historic photograph collections in the Historic England Archive, they have helped to raise awareness of our seaside resort heritage and have helped to influence public perceptions and government thinking to provide brighter futures for these photogenic communities by the sea.

About the author

Gary Winter

Exhibitions and Images Officer

For a number of years, Gary investigated the nation’s seaside resorts with Allan Brodie, contributing to several English Heritage books on the subject. In recent years, Gary has delved into the treasure trove that is the Historic England Archive, helping to produce exhibitions based on its collections and co-authoring Picturing England: the photographic collections of Historic England. Gary now works in Historic England’s Public Programming team.

Further information

Brodie, A, Sargent, A and Winter, G 2005 Seaside Holidays in the Past. London: English Heritage

Brodie, A and Winter, G 2007 England’s Seaside Resorts. Swindon: English Heritage

Evans, M, Winter, G and Woodward, A; edited by Graham, M 2015 Picturing England: the photographic collections of Historic England. Swindon: Historic England

Urry, J and Larson, J 2011 The Tourist Gaze 3.0. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Williams, P 2005 The English Seaside. Swindon: English Heritage

Some of Historic England’s archive photographs can be seen online at thorough the archive website and in  our England's Places section.