The history of holidays: Part Two

The Great British Seaside Holiday actually began as the Great British Seaside Daytrip.

45th Anniversary History of holidays Part twoTo coincide with our 45th Anniversary we are publishing a short series of blogs about the history of holidays in the UK. Our thanks to writer and supporter Catherine Randall @Crr1Randall for contributing these articles.

The middle classes were the first to take advantage of the marvellous new railway network spreading like a spider’s web across Britain in the 1840s, whisking them from the cities to seaside towns around the coast. Genteel resorts which had previously attracted the well-to-do, like Weymouth, Scarborough and Brighton, now saw an influx of new visitors while resorts such as Blackpool and Llandudno, Cromer and Minehead all grew up in response to the growing demand for a jolly day out in the healthy sea air.

William Powell Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside

William Powell Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside gives us a fascinating insight into how these Victorians approached their seaside holidays. Everyone is fully dressed, the women in shawls and bonnets, and even the children seem almost drowning in the layers of frilly clothes they are wearing. There are bathing machines in the background on the right but no one seems interested in using them. There are no deckchairs – it looks rather as if they have brought their own dining room chairs with them. But all the same, they generally look happy. One of the frilly children has a bat and a ball, another is digging with a spade and a third in the centre is paddling, although its mother is getting her long skirt wet rather than hitching it up and risk showing a stockinged ankle. This picture, also known as Ramsgate Sands, was bought by Queen Victoria in 1854 so it’s a very early representation of a seaside holiday.

Railways in England Wales 1898

Railways of England & Wales 1898

It wasn’t long before the working classes too were jumping on trains and joining their more affluent contemporaries at the beach. The increasing popularity of the seaside among all social classes can be seen in the building of the piers in Blackpool. Blackpool began as a middle-class resort. It opened its first pier – North Pier – in May 1863 as an attraction for middle-class Victorians to stroll along while taking the health-giving sea air. By 1868, a new influx of working people led to the construction of Central Pier (originally called South Pier), which boasted opportunities for dancing, music and drinking.

Blackpool was at the very forefront of seaside entertainment for the working classes. After Blackpool station opened in 1846 its easy accessibility from the Lancashire mill towns, coupled with the northern tradition of ‘wakes weeks’, led to thousands of holidaymakers taking the train to Blackpool each year to enjoy the wide beaches, the fresh air, and the increasing number of entertainments that the enterprising town businesses provided for their amusement.


Sunday, being the Sabbath, had always been a holiday, and by the middle of the nineteenth century most working people could also expect to get at least Saturday afternoon off. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 provided for four official annual holidays in England, in addition to Christmas Day and Good Friday: Easter Monday, Whit Monday (the Monday after Whitsun in the church calendar which falls at the end of May), the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. 

Remarkably it wasn’t until 1938 that the Holidays with Pay Act provided for one annual week of paid holiday for working class employees.


Wakes weeks are often considered to be the origin of the British Summer Holiday. They began as religious festivals celebrating the feast day of the saint to whom the local church was dedicated. Many of the popular saints had feast days in June, July and August, so these holidays were traditionally in the summer. After the Industrial Revolution, it became increasingly common for wakes weeks to be the week in which the factories and mills of northern England shut down, the factory owners taking advantage of the traditional holiday to close the factories for maintenance. The owners probably got fed up with trying to keep their businesses going when most of their employees were absent enjoying themselves. Once the railway arrived, thousands of working-class families took advantage of the wakes week holiday to spend the day at the seaside. Towns took it in turns to close their factories for a week so that resorts weren’t overwhelmed with more visitors than they could cope with at any one time.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the seaside day trip did gradually become a week away, but families had to budget carefully, often joining a Wakes Savings Club, as wakes weeks were unpaid.

Blackpool North Pier

Blackpool North Pier opened on 21 May 1863. Originally called Blackpool Pier, the name was changed when a second pier was opened in 1868.


As a charity whose mission relies on travel, COVID-19 will significantly affect the Family Holiday Association in 2020 – as it will many areas of our national life. Yet we know that we will be needed more than ever once things get back to normal. Your support now will help us be ready.

Please donate

Click here to return to the blog home page.

45th Anniversary