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

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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.

Vic­to­rian pho­to­graphs

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.

Walk­ing pic­tures

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.

Am­a­teur snap­shots

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

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