the georgian experience
We’ve all visited the seaside for day trips, weekends away, or for longer leisurely breaks. Accommodation choices are plentiful, from cosy caravans and bargain B&Bs to budget and boutique hotels, to the grand hotels which dominate the seafront (whether faded grandeur or restored splendour). But it was not always thus. Early seaside accommodation was restricted, rough and ready, but as resorts grew in popularity, so did choice and comfort.
Before the 18th century visiting the coast for leisure purposes was unheard of- there were simply no resorts. The coast was a place for ports, fishing villages, and associated settlements. And smugglers. But this began to change when a desire for improved health and a belief in the therapeutic and curative nature of the seaside led to the development of the first coastal resorts.
As inland spa resorts had become fashionable amongst the upper echelons of society, so too did sea resorts, where the medicinal cure-all properties of sea water were promoted by prominent physicians. Sea bathing in particular was popular in the pursuit of health and leisure by wealthy, fashionable society, and by the 1730s sea bathing seasons were emerging at Scarborough, Margate and Brighton. The relatively remote locations of these small, early resorts and the often hazardous and long coach journeys required to reach them made accommodation essential. Existing private dwellings were used at first, often small cottages renovated for the purpose, sometimes no more than hovels.
In 1736 a Buxted cleric visited Brighton and gave an account of delightful days spent taking morning seabathes, buying fish, sunning on the beach, and evening pursuits taking rides out and viewing Saxon remains. His accommodation, however, was less agreeable. He described the two-storey hovel he was lodging at as being almost underground, and around twelve feet high. But he noted that the lodgings were at least cheap, at five shillings a week for two parlours, two bed chambers and a pantry.
Seeing the potential to accommodate the ever-growing number of visitors, inns began to spring up at Brighton, Scarborough, Weymouth and Ramsgate. These early inns were often small, dirty, uncomfortable and unsuited to long stays. Fortunately the idea of comfortable purpose-built establishments began to take hold and from the later 18th century fine houses were purpose-built as seasonal accommodation. These were either for the use of their owners and their friends and acquaintances, or were leased to the fashionable set, offering suites of rooms or the entire residence for the very wealthy.
Royalty were also party to this trend. In 1780 the Duke of Gloucester commissioned a house to be built in Weymouth, later known as Gloucester Lodge. His brother George III stayed there in 1789 when he visited the resort to recuperate from a severe bout of incapacity. It was a modest building (it has since been much enlarged), and could not comfortably accommodate the Royal party, and so neighbouring buildings were also used. This and subsequent visits helped grow the town’s popularity as a seaside resort.
Changing attitudes and perceptions towards the coast heavily influenced resort architecture and seaward facing buildings to accommodate panoramas, especially sea views became popular. Dr Richard Russell, who popularised the curative properties of seawater in his 1750 publication Dissertation On The Use Of Sea Water In The Affections Of The Glands, relocated to Brighton shortly afterwards. In 1753 he had a house built on the corner of Old Steine and Kings Road, with a very pleasant vista; the sea-facing front room was apparently a favourite with visitors. The house was later leased to various members of the aristocracy, including the Duke of Cumberland who was visited by his nephew the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent/ George IV).
Isolated locations away from existing settlements were also favoured. Between 1810 and 1812 a small mansion with considerable grounds was built on a deserted part of the Dorset coast with ‘magnificent seaview prospects.’ The location was specifically chosen for its remote and attractive situation and the house was enjoyed as a summer residence by its builder, retired army officer Lewis Tregonwell and his wife Henrietta. By 1820 it was being let as a holiday home to wealthy acquaintances who delighted in visiting the coast. Gradually the area around the house developed as the popular resort of Bournemouth, and Tregonwell became known as the ‘Father of Bournemouth,’ his mansion being the town’s first purpose-built resort house. It was later incorporated into the Royal Exeter Hotel and its grounds were built upon as the town developed.
Lines of elegant private houses were constructed by speculative developers for seasonal lease at the popular Regency resorts, including Brighton, Weymouth and Ramsgate. One of the most famous developments was Regency Square in Brighton, conceived by Joshua Hanson and built between 1818 and 1824. By 1837 Ramsgate had several elegant crescents, and squares fronted by fine bow-fronted houses, many rented out on a monthly basis during the Ramsgate season, August-October. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a regular visitor to the town, although he preferred cheaper late autumn stays.
Inns began to raise their standards to better rival the swathe of private homes being leased. As the word ‘hotel’ came to be used for these higher quality inns, establishments advertising themselves as such began to appear at resorts including Blackpool, Margate and Brighton. By 1785 Lawrence Bailey of Blackpool was regularly advertising his Bailey’s Hotel in the Manchester Mercury, and by 1791 the London Hotel, Ramsgate, was proudly proclaiming itself as being ‘furnished in genteel stile all entire new furniture and beds the best quality.’ Early resort guidebooks providing details of accommodation allowed reservations to be made in advance, thus avoiding the predicament of making do with what was available upon arrival.
A hierarchy of accommodation developed as a wider spectrum of visitors from all sections of society began to visit resorts and there was a flourish of cheap lodging houses, all-inclusive boarding houses and private hotels. Despite crowding in cheaper lodgings, which were often rented by the day, lodgings generally were much improved from earlier hovels, with a wider array of establishments. By 1797 much of Scarborough’s accommodation comprised rooms within houses at the cliff, and in Harding’s Walk, Newborough Street, Long Room Street, Tanner Street and Queen Street. Guests could expect to pay half a guinea each week per room, although entire houses could be rented with advance notice for considerable extra cost.
As the middle and working classes began to visit the coast there was a very real need for ever more exclusive and luxurious accommodation for the elite, and specialist establishments were built for those who could afford it. These provided a suite of rooms or apartments for wealthy patrons and their servants, often with private sitting rooms and coffee rooms. Unlike coaching inns there was no early rising requirement, and they were for the exclusive use of guests; the general public were not permitted inside. Resorts had no eateries or other facilities in the modern sense, and meals were eaten in private; visitors either brought their own food to be prepared, else a full board alternative would be provided.
Sometimes accommodation at fashionable resorts was provided within assembly room complexes which often resembled terraces or grand houses. They were a central part of social life, hosting functions and property auctions, as at Margate’s Royal Hotel, Tavern and Assembly Rooms, built by 1794. In the 1770s Weymouth entrepreneur Andrew Sproule built Stacie’s hotel and assembly rooms. Opening in 1773 the hotel was one of the first purpose-built seaside hotels, with separate rooms for families and small groups, and connecting dining rooms and bedrooms which ensured privacy.
The neoclassical Royal Hotel, Plymouth, of 1819 was a far grander affair. It was part of an impressive complex with a theatre and assembly rooms, and due to its absence of inn-like characteristics, it is regarded as the first luxury coastal hotel. Collonaded stables and coach houses ran along two sides of a large central courtyard and there was a main building range for public functions. Facilities included a Large Dining Room or Room for Assembly, a Commercial Room, Coffee Rooms and small dining rooms; separately accessed hotel accommodation comprised five en suite bedrooms, and private dining and sitting rooms on the two upper floors.
The costs of building entirely new premises could be high, so some enterprising individuals converted houses into bona fide hotels. In 1819 the first large-scale hotel in Brighton with an impressive one hundred beds, was formed from the conversion of three houses known as Steine Place by a Dr Hall. It was named the Royal York Hotel after the Duke of York, brother of the Prince Regent and soon became the town’s most fashionable venue, holding balls, concerts and recitals in the public rooms.
By the end of the Georgian period lodgings and cheaper hotels were abundant, but the era of the purpose built hotel providing comfort and luxury was gathering pace. These ever-larger and grander buildings were not only transforming the accommodation experience of the wealthy, but the landscape of the resorts they inhabited, a trend which really came into its own in the 1860s, with the rise of the truly grand seaside hotel.
If you fancy reading more on the history of seaside hotels, my book, the aptly named Seaside Hotels (Amberley Publishing, 2018) provides a good introduction`.