Britain's First Seaside Resort

As the first seaside resort in Britain, 50 years before Brighton, Scarborough pioneered "bathing machines" for women, who entered the ocean clad in vast garments, helped by servant women, from horse drawn sheds on wheels. Men swam naked from boats or the sands. When the railways came, in 1845, far more trippers crowded onto the beach. A wealthy visitor complained of the "discreditable jumbling together of the sexes and the absence of proper hoods on the bathing machines". She saw a dozen "Goths" from a cheap day train eyeing the sands with glee. There were cries of "South Sea Islandism".

The Corporation quickly produced rules specifiying bathing areas, distances to be kept between men and women and the bathing clothes to be worn, from 7am to 9pm. Respectability was enforced and paddling became the poor man's pastime. Attittudes would change. The "Graphic" in 187 stated that "It is absurd that a house, a horse and an attendant are necessary to get someone into the sea". By 1904 Scarborough had bathing tents beyond the spaw and on the North Bay sands.

Women's bathing costumes remained a problem. A common garment was cut high to the neck, with knickerbockers of ample dimensions at the other end and a skirt which fell below the knees, almost invariably worn with stockings . It gave a soggy result. Hastings allowed mixed bathing in the sea under regulation and claimed it had become a happy family pastime, although "the better class and couples from boarding houses did it but the cheaper kind of visitor wasn' t partial to it". Scarborough clung to tradition. A Leeds man staying at the resort said "mixed bathing is the half way house to mixed sleeping and might be a plank on the river leading to the Niagara of eternal damnation".

Scarborough had a major fort, since the 12th century. The great rock of the headland between the twoo bays carried a Norman castle, visited by the medieval Kings from Henry II to Richard III. They made the port their base for war against Scotland. The castle was capable of withstanding long sieges, especially in the 17th century Civil War between King and Parliament. It was also garrisoned by soldiers in the long wars against Napoleon.

Inland from the castle, the Kings 'chartered' a borough of free men, the only royal borough on the Yorkshire coast until the founding of Hull. Palace fishmongers bought their fish at preferential prices for centuries. The old borough over flowed west of its wall into a second new borough and on to the sands in to an Undercliff port with a staith, a quay and piers. The fishermen were at the Dogger Bank before 1189. They sailed up the Yorkshire rivers, supplying York and Wakefield with fish. Many monasteries bought Scarborough Saltfish and Herring. There has been a significant fishing community ever since. Without the fishing, there would have been no borough.

Scarborough was the fourth largest town inYorkshire from the 13th to the 16th century, after York, Beverley and Hull. Merchants exported wool, barley, malt and fish. From the 17th to the 19th century, in the great days of sail, this was a major ship building port. The harbour was sustained by a levy on the Newcastle and Sunderland coal trade to London and Europe. Here was a "nursery of seamen", Some were pirates, some were smugglers, and more were traders, going the world over, many as sea captains in the 19th century.

A coastal spring of medicinal water was discovered in the early 17th century. Scarborough spa became the nation's first seaside resort, attracting the country aristocracy. Tea and silk were cheap in Georgian Scarborough, because of the smuggling. Seabathing was pioneered here and a hundred other novelties which entered the heart of the British people, as holidays spread more widely. There were trips to sea, sand castles, donkey rides, sand races, bathing machines, pierrots, "rock with letters right through" and "boarding houses". Dozens of other coastal places followed the Scarborough example.

Legend gives Scarborough an even longer story. Viking raiders are said to have founded a pirate's base on the shore in 966. The Norse King Harald Hardrada fought local men below the cliff in 1066. An old ballad says that Robin Hood was here to try his hand at fishing, without success. When the herring moved to the offshore waters, from Baltic breeding grounds, the Dutchmen followed them, for many centuries. The American captain, Scottish by birth, John Paul Jones, attacked the collier fleet off the coast. It was the first and last American ship to do so. The ship was stolen from the French and called the 'Bonhomme Richard'. It still lies on the seabed off Flamborough Head.

Everybody came to the seaside resort, from the Marquis of Granby to William Smith, the founder of modern Geology. The pioneer of aviation Sir George Cayley was born here. The railways took the fish further afield and brought trippers and holiday makers from ever more distant places.

Scarborough has a rich maritime heritage. The town and the Yorkshire coast deserve the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre to conserve the records, to display something of that rich history, and to provide a focus for activities that will preserve and celebrate that heritage for our generation and others yet to come.

John Rushton MBE 1929 - 2013 (co-founder of the SMHC)


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