Weston-super-Mare: a Victorian Seaside Town
New historical research and an Informed Conservation book are underpinning the work of the Heritage Action Zone.
This article was first published in August 2019 and updated in February 2020 for the publication of a new research report on the architecture of the town.
In March 2017 Historic England selected Weston-super-Mare as one of the first ten Heritage Action Zones, a new initiative designed to reinvigorate historic places. Since then we have been working in partnership with North Somerset Council and other organisations to stimulate growth in a way that is sustainable and sympathetic to the historic fabric of the town.
As part of the first phase of work, Historic England investigators carried out a historic area assessment of Weston to highlight its special character and distinctiveness. This research has resulted in the publication of Weston-super-Mare: The town and its seaside heritage, a volume in Historic England’s Informed Conservation series. While the fact that Weston largely originated during the 19th century is well known, the book hopes to raise awareness and enhance the public’s appreciation of what is distinctive about the town’s Victorian buildings.
The early resort
During the 19th century Weston grew from a small coastal village into a well- established seaside resort. Early Weston was a cluster of cottages around ‘the Street’ (later the High Street), with the medieval parish church slightly further north on higher ground.
During the second half of the 18th century the settlement’s potential for curative seaside holidays began to be noticed and the first seaside cottages were built, including Reverend William Leeves’s thatched cottage of about 1791.
The first hotel, the Royal, was built between 1807 or 1808 and 1810, and despite a faltering start proved to be a timely investment.
Shortly afterwards, the development of the fledgling resort was initiated by Richard Parsley and William Cox, the main proposers of the Enclosure Act of 1810. As a result of the ensuing auctions of development sites, new roads, such as Oxford Street and Carlton Street, were laid out, and the first seaside villas were built.
Sea bathers used either bathing machines during high tide, or a ladies-only location at Anchor Head, and from 1820 a bathhouse and pool on Knightstone Island.
The latter location became synonymous with bathing, particularly during the ownership of the Quaker physicians Dr Edward Long Fox and his son, who built the surviving bathhouse in 1832. Other key institutions of a typical Georgian resort followed, such as circulating libraries, reading rooms and assembly rooms.
The Victorian boom
These early developments were accelerated by the arrival of the railway in 1841. This was a branch line of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, initially with horse-drawn carriages. Weston’s new accessibility vastly increased the number of visitors; in 1844, 23,000 were estimated to have arrived by rail.
The railway facilitated the first organised excursions, such as the day trip made in June 1849 by 1,600 workers from the Great Western Cotton Factory in Bristol.
The permanent population also increased, particularly during the 1840s and 1850s, when the total number of residents nearly doubled each decade. By the end of the century, the number of residents had increased almost ten-fold, from 2,103 in 1841 to 19,018 in 1901. Such rapid population growth required new buildings and new roads. Census figures reveal that the increase in the number of houses paralleled the increase of the number of residents: the total number of houses grew from only 379 in 1841 to 3,323 in 1901.
From the 1840s, prestigious new housing developments aimed at wealthy residents and visitors spread northwards from the historic core
These expanded towards Knightstone Island and Birnbeck Island, and then along the hillside. They initially took the form of terraces and crescents, from the relatively modest Victoria Buildings (1838-41) to the elegant Royal Crescent of 1847 and the two Atlantic Terraces (1859-61).
Grand set-piece developments such as these were soon overtaken in quantity and popularity by large-scale villa estates.
The villa, whether semi-detached or detached, was the preferred building type for many of Weston’s estate developments, including the Smyth Pigott Estate, the Whitecross Estate, the Shrubbery Estate and the Montpelier Estate. These new villa estates had to be quickly provided with their own amenities, from places of worship such as Christ Church, Montpelier (1854-5), to means of water supply.
The architectural form of the new villas was significantly shaped by the local architect Hans Fowler Price (1835-1912).
He developed a type of gabled villa, which was built using the local carboniferous stone from quarries on the hillside, together with dressings of Bath limestone. The gables were frequently decorated with carved stone or plasterwork.
This type of villa was also designed by other architects and percolated down to middle-class developments such as those in the southern half of the Whitecross Estate. By contrast, working-class terraced cottages in the town centre and close to the railway line were smaller and considerably plainer.
By 1842, Weston had outgrown its previous parochial government and in that year an Improvement Act established a body of 18 commissioners charged with ‘paving, lighting, watching, cleansing and otherwise improving the town’. The new status and the dignity of its administrators were underlined by the construction of a town hall designed by James Wilson of Bath, which opened in 1859.
Other improvements followed: the first gasworks opened in 1841, the waterworks at Ashcombe were completed in 1854.
In the 1860s Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the renowned civil engineer responsible for the creation of London’s sewer network, designed a sewage system for Weston.
During the 1880s, sea walls and a promenade were built along the seafront. Schools for local children were mainly provided by the Anglican churches until a school board was established in 1893. Private schools also thrived as it was considered fashionable and healthy to send children to attend a school near the sea.
Pleasure was not forgotten among these necessities: after a false start in the 1840s, Weston’s first pier opened in 1867.
Designed by engineer Eugenius Birch, Birnbeck Pier is unique as a pier that terminates at an island.
As well as providing leisure facilities including refreshment rooms, the pier also provided lifeboat houses and jetties for steamers.
Weston’s second pier, the Grand Pier, opened in 1904.
Many of the new public buildings in Weston were designed by Hans Price, who dominated the local architectural scene between 1860 and 1912.
They include the Hospital (1864-5), the Sanatorium (1871-3), the School of Science and Art (1892-3, 1899-1900), the Library (1899-1900), the Gaslight Company stores and workshop (c 1912), several church schools, and the board schools in Walliscote Road (1895-7) and Locking Road (1905).
Weston in the 20th century and beyond
The interwar years witnessed a number of popular additions to Weston’s leisure facilities, including the Winter Gardens pavilion, the Marine Lake, and the open-air pool.
During the Second World War, the presence of the airport, industry, the transatlantic cable office, and a naval weaponry research establishment on Birnbeck Pier all made Weston the target of several major air raids, resulting in the loss of lives and damage to many buildings, as shown in Edward Carpenter’s article in this issue.
Post-war developments were largely piecemeal, such as rebuilding on gap sites and implementing the long-planned widening of the southern end of the High Street, while two master plans remained unexecuted. By the 1960s, profound changes in transport options made themselves felt in Weston, with more tourists arriving by car than by train, and the number of steamers from Wales dwindling after the opening of the Severn Bridge. From the 1960s onwards, British seaside towns also faced significant competition from holiday resorts in the Mediterranean.
Today, Weston is grappling with many economic issues, largely related to seasonal tourism. However, Historic England’s recent research project and ongoing work as part of the Heritage Action Zone clearly emphasise that the town’s historic environment, and particularly the buildings from the Victorian period, are central to its character and distinctiveness, and can play a crucial role in reinvigorating it. So far, our research and the resulting book have informed the activities of the HAZ initiative, including the creation of a single, large conservation area which now also includes the commercial and civic centre.
About the author
Architectural Investigator, Historic England
Johanna joined Historic England in 2017 after working in the commercial sector for seven years. She has contributed to several historic area assessments, including for the Heritage Action Zones at Weston-super-Mare and Rochdale. She is a co-author of the recent Historic England publication Weston-super-Mare: The town and its seaside heritage, which is available from the online bookshop of Liverpool University Press.
Brodie, A Roethe, J and Hudson-McAulay, K 2019 Weston-super-Mare: the town and its seaside heritage Swindon: Historic England