How you can date photos
We all have beachside photographs in our family archive. Jayne Shrimpton explains how you can decipher the clues to work out when they were taken
Many factories and other companies closed for a week in August, when all of their staff took annual leave
Visiting the seaside, originally an elite pursuit, gained momentum in Victorian Britain as expanding railway networks offered fast, affordable travel to burgeoning coastal towns, while shifts in working hours and the 1871 Bank Holidays Act gave many workers more leisure time.
Increasingly, ordinary people could enjoy day trips and longer breaks by the sea, a chance to unwind and try out diverse amusements and entertainments. Promenades formed spacious walkways along seafronts and impressive piers led pedestrians out across the water, to admire the view, take boat trips, and visit theatres and dance halls. The introduction of modest swimming costumes and wheeled wooden huts in which to put them on – known as bathing machines – encouraged bold tourists to take a dip, while on the beach families hitched up clothes to paddle, took donkey rides or watched Punch and Judy shows.
By the early 20th century, millions of holidaymakers headed to the coast every
summer, from Bournemouth to Blackpool, Littlehampton to Lowestoft, and Margate to Morecambe. Many factories and other companies closed for a week in August, when all of their staff took annual leave.
Between the wars sunbathing became fashionable, as reflected in more streamlined swimwear and minimalist sundresses and shorts. Antiquated bathing machines gave way to beach huts and bungalows and more families acquired motor cars after the Second World War, enabling exploration of further stretches of coast. British beach resorts remained popular until the 1960s, when cheap package tours began to lure holidaymakers towards foreign destinations.
The expansion of seaside resorts coincided with the rise of portrait photography, prompting tourists to sit for souvenir photographs recording their experience. One of the UK’s first commercial studios opened in Brighton in 1841, and from the 1860s, when carte de visite photographs gained mass appeal, studios flourished along Britain’s coasts, meeting rising demand for holiday mementoes. Late Victorian and Edwardian seaside studio photographers often contrived picturesque indoor sets evoking a marine theme, featuring painted backdrops depicting sea, beach or bay, and complementary studio props: a boat, rocks, ropes, deckchairs or buckets and spades.
Open-air beach photographers also operated by the 1860s: outdoor practitioners who pitched canvas tents on the sand or pushed hand-carts onto the foreshore, vying for business alongside vendors of ice cream and drinks, fancy-goods stalls and seafood traders. These ‘instantaneous’ photographers produced ‘while you wait’ photos of customers leaning against boats or posing on donkeys – glass ‘collodion positive’ or ambrotype photos, or images on enamelled iron called ‘ferrotypes’ or, popularly, ‘tintypes’.
Glass ambrotypes were a Victorian format that was obsolete by the 1890s, but tintypes enjoyed enduring popularity in Britain for many years, from the 1870s through to the 1940s and 1950s. Later tintypes might be set into postcard mounts, contributing to the vast body of light-hearted, more casual photos expressing the gaiety and modernity of British holiday resorts in the decades before their decline.
Among 20th-century beach photographs, postcards predominated and millions survive in today’s family collections. Divided-back postcards were first used by portrait photographers in the early 1900s, and enjoyed enormous popularity between the 1910s and 1940s, finally dying out around 1950. Seaside studio photographers producing postcard portraits continued, ironically, to create illusory sets conveying a beach scene or the local bay complete with pier, while the sun shone and wheeling gulls could be heard outdoors.
As social conventions relaxed during and after the First World War, postcards began to portray more diverse, even humorous
Late Victorian and Edwardian studio photographers often contrived picturesque indoor sets with a marine theme
themes, such as the vision of a head protruding through a hole in a cartoon figure, transforming respectably dressed ladies into voluptuous bathing belles.
Epitomising the seaside photo for our early 20th-century relatives was the spontaneous street scene or ‘walking picture’ depicting apparently unsuspecting pedestrians as they strolled along the pier or esplanade, heading for the shops or beach, or returning to their lodgings.
Known as ‘walkies’, these evocative images were the work of seasonal or local photographers employed by popular chains like Sunny Snaps, Sunbeam Photographs and other regional companies that together covered the major holiday resorts throughout the summer.
After an individual or group were snapped by a waiting photographer, they were handed a docket bearing the negative number and details of the kiosk where they could collect a print of their photograph that afternoon, or on the following day. Surviving ‘walkies’ are unmistakable: introduced around 1919, they commonly date to the 1920s through to the 1940s, although a few late examples from the 1960s/ early 1970s survive.
Many are postcards, but others vary – some are presented as narrow strips of sequential images, like frames of a film.
Professional photographers who competed for holiday trade faced even stiffer competition following the launch of userfriendly box and folding cameras. Home photography began to advance during the early 1900s and 1910s, and many people acquired personal cameras between the wars.
As the ownership of cameras became widespread, our parents and grandparents enjoyed taking casual snapshots at seaside locations – a trend reflected vividly in surviving collections of holiday photographs.
This picture of the East Beach at Bournemouth dates from the 1890s