From humble beginnings in fishermen’s cottages to the luxurious sea-view bedrooms of our hotels today, accommodation for coastal visitors has been a long-standing British tradition.
From humble beginnings in fishermen’s cottages to the luxurious sea-view bedrooms of our hotels today, accommodation for coastal visitors has been a long-standing desirable British tradition. Grand seaside hotels are visually dominant within the coastal landscape, characterised by bold, large-scale buildings which reflect changing trends in architectural fashion, society, and holidaying. Karen Averby, architectural historian and author of Seaside Hotels tells us more about the history of how our multi-million pound seaside hospitality and leisure industry has evolved.
UNTIL THE 18TH CENTURY the coast was primarily the domain of fishermen and other sea-faring folk, but this changed when the pursuit of health, leisure and pleasure amongst wealthy, fashionable society grew from a belief in the therapeutic and curative nature of seawater. The first coastal resorts developed as the practice of sea bathing and related activities gained popularity, but their relatively remote locations and often hazardous and long coach journeys meant that accommodation was essential. Existing cottage dwellings were initially converted and inns sprang up, although as these were often cramped and unsuited to longer stays, purposebuilt houses offering greater comfort were built and leased as seasonal accommodation to the fashionable wealthy set. As resorts grew, inns raised standards to compete with private accommodation, and cheap lodgings, boarding houses and private hotels appeared, necessitating a very real demand for ever more exclusive accommodation. At fashionable resorts, high-status accommodation was incorporated within new assembly room complexes, and the neo-classical Royal Hotel, Plymouth (1819) built as part of such a development is regarded as the first luxury coastal hotel. Several exclusive speculative developments, with imposing sea-facing hotels as the focal point, included St Leonards-by-sea, with its dramatic Classical-inspired hotel. The hotel was named the Royal Victoria following a visit by Princess Victoria in 1834, part of a long tradition of naming hotels from royal associations, although often with more spurious links. The Victorian era was a golden age for the grand seaside hotel, as the presence of a large, purpose built architect-designed grand hotel influenced a resort’s size, wealth and importance. Typically large and dominant, often gothic, and always luxurious, with sumptuous décor and facilities, they attracted some of the era’s most distinguished architects, entrepreneurs, and guests. Exclusivity remained paramount, and monumentality, design and materials set these hotels apart from other resort buildings, as did accommodation costs and strict societal codes dictating dress and behaviour. Their proliferation was aided by the expanding railway network which opened up the coast from the 1840s, and the 1844 Joint Stock Companies Act which encouraged private enterprise to fund new hotels. Amongst the most magnificent hotels of this period were Palace Hotel, Southport (1866), Imperial Hotel, Blackpool (1867), and the ornate French-gothic Ilfracombe Hotel, Devon (1867). Torquay’s Imperial Hotel (1866) was even more lavish, attracting several Royal and European dignitaries, but the exemplary hotels of this period were the monumental and elaborate Grand Hotels at Brighton and Scarborough, with monumental and elaborate costs to match.
The vagaries of the British weather influenced prosperity, and a good summer season was necessary especially in northern regions, where limited summer openings were common, although resorts with milder climates had a ‘season’ from October until Easter. The winter market was soon embraced, as hotels installed innovative ‘warming apparatus’ for the colder months, thereby lengthening their seasons and profits. The statement hotels of the Edwardian period were characteristically showy, reminiscent of French and Italian Riviera architecture. They often commanded isolated clifftop locations, and were equipped with all modern conveniences, including electric lighting and heating, as at Lowestoft’s imposing Empire Hotel (1909), then Britain’s largest seaside hotel. Many existing hotels were modernised to compete with their newer counterparts and several grand hotels were created by converting existing residences. Paignton’s Redcliffe Hotel (1903) was converted from an Indian-inspired Gothic residence, and the former Villa Syracusa, Torquay, opened as the luxurious Torquay Hydro. Times were rapidly changing, however, and as most seasides attracted hordes of folk from all walks of life, resorts such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and Bournemouth rapidly lost their appeal amongst the higher echelons of society and the traditional grand hotel clientele removed their custom to quieter locations. The First World War had far-reaching consequences for the hotel industry as staff enlisted and hotels were requisitioned for military and hospital use. Many grand hotels did not recover post-war, struggling to compete with smaller, cheaper privately-run hotels. Fortunately the seaside holiday regained popularity, especially at traditional resorts such as Blackpool and Bournemouth where new grand hotels were built, some in Georgian revival and Baroque styles. But it was the new, Modernist Art Deco hotels such as the iconic Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1933) and Ocean Hotel, Saltdean (1938), which dominated the era, offering modern facilities of solariums and sun terraces and embracing social changes, such as dinner, dancing and cabaret, which were also often open to non-guests. This golden period ended abruptly in 1939 when the Second World War proved more catastrophic for seaside hotels than the First, as beaches closed and countless seaside hotels were requisitioned. Postwar seaside recovery was slow, and many grand hotels never reopened. In time visitor numbers steadily rose as holiday seasons expanded, although the clientele had again shifted. The introduction of annual paid leave allowed many working-class people to take holidays, although many flocked to the popular holiday camps and caravan parks. Conversely, holiday camps resurrected some grand hotels; Butlins acquired and refurbished run-down statement hotels including Margate’s Cliftonville, and Saldean’s Ocean Hotel. But generally, the old-fashioned, ageing Victorian and Edwardian hotels were vulnerable to changes in popular taste and economics, and as modernisation proved difficult and costly, standards declined, and in many cases closure and sometimes demolition followed semi-dereliction.
The 1960s heralded a new era as increasingly dominant hotel chains began to acquire and renovate hotels, and a Government Hotel Development Investment Scheme provided new hotel subsidies, leading to a spate of boxy hotels built at minimum cost for maximum profit, ignoring opulence and grandeur in favour of practicality and functionality. By the late 1970s an excess of hotels with hundreds of rooms meant that competition was fiercer than ever, especially as changes in holiday habits saw a decline at resorts as low-cost package holidays abroad became popular. This greatly impacted the fortunes of grand seaside hotels, and by the 1990s and 2000s, many were no longer viable. Many grand hotels are long vanished, but for those that remain the future is perhaps now less bleak. Many are fully booked at high season, although accommodation is often affordable due to budget coach parties, mid-week specials, and ‘tinsel and turkey’ and Twixmas breaks. In contrast, a burgeoning niche market for smaller luxury chic boutique hotels away from the seafront, commands higher prices. To address old-fashioned perceptions, and to attract a new clientele, several iconic grand seaside hotels have undergone largescale multi-million pound refurbishments with new high-end leisure facilities such as champagne bars and spas. Local authority regeneration and investment in seafront projects help stem decline and reinvigorate seaside towns. New hotels built at key seafront locations are often part of hotel chains and consortiums, and although some receive criticism for ‘modern’ designs, there is a discernible trend towards more interesting and sympathetic design proposals, which consider existing environs and prevalent local building materials. Heritage is also significant, and importantly, many historic hotels now enjoy listed status, and are recognised as being integral to an area’s architectural and social history. Holidaying at grand seaside hotels has changed over time, and although spending whole seasons at one hotel is a thing of the past, they are no longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. They are now widely accessible, whether for a traditional hotel holiday, a spa weekend, an overnight business stay, or briefer visits for a special dinner, an afternoon tea treat or a fancy cocktail.
Below: Rival hotels, The Metrople and The Grand, Brighton. Right: Imperial Hotel, Torquay Left: Nineteenthcentury wood engraving from Sea-side Sketches published by F.knott.
A gaily painted Butlin's Hotel in Cliftonville, Kent Left: Blackpool Imperial Hotel Right: Boscombe Spa Hotel, later renamed The Chine Hotel
Images this page left-bottom: The Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth; Empire Hotel, Lowestoft and Metropole Hotel, Brighton
Images this page above left-right: The Ballroom at the Palace Hotel, Torquay and old-fashioned advertising for the Palace Hotel, Torquay