1980s >> 1984 >> no-958-june-1984

Sun, sand, sea . . . and slavery

The holiday season is here again and for a short while workers can escape from the realities of life into the illusion of freedom. Thus ends a process which began last Boxing Day before that other great commercial event, Christmas itself, was half over, when the television screens, backed up by the newspapers and magazines—not to mention the glossy brochures— began to sell holidays. For today holidays are big business and the form which they take reflects the society of which they are a part.

The modern holiday is divorced from everyday life, for people drop everything and go away. This reflects the way in which life in industrial society is departmentalised with work, pleasure and personal interests all in separate packages. It was not always so, for holidays in the medieval world were different. They were numerous, but they fitted into normal life and were not the complete stoppages that we know today. Work had to be done, animals had to be fed and everyday tasks performed. What is more, holidays fitted into the natural pattern of the year. Christmas lasted for twelve days, but came at a time of year when very little work could be done on the land. Lent was a time of fasting, but by that time supplies were anyway running low and the new season’s growth had not yet begun. Holidays were mainly religious, often pagan with christian overtones—ancient rituals to placate the gods or earth spirits to bring clement weather and good harvests. Only the gods and spirits had been updated as saints or demons. Thanks for a good harvest, successfully gathered, were both offered to the same deities and it was a pretty rowdy affair. As early as the ninth century the Saxon King Edgar attacked the drunkenness and debauchery and commanded that all should pray devoutly. This cry was repeated down the ages, so it could not have had much effect. Every Sunday after mass was a holiday largely given up to sports, which were often cruel.

The growth of towns and cities gave holidays a new form which has some resemblance to the modern Bank Holiday. But they also had a serious purpose, were often centred around sheep and horse fairs, wool and cloth fairs— the mediaeval version of a modern trade exhibition. The greatest and most famous of these was the cloth fair of St. Bartholomew, held every year in London’s Smithfield which brought clothiers from all over Britain. Funfairs began as a sideline to the main show but as time passed the funfair took over as the main attraction. Games of all kinds were played but the most popular of all entertainments was a public execution and if it were of a famous person, such as Charles 1 or the Earl of Strafford, it would command vast crowds.

With the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution the old holidays were gradually whittled away until today only two ancient holidays—Christmas Day and Good Friday—remain. Puritan attacks on all forms of enjoyment spearheaded this, but the grim poverty produced by the new factory system made the taking of time off financially impossible for vast numbers of workers. Even Christmas declined. A favourite scene on Christmas cards and in magazines is the stage coach with snow-covered inns and jolly landlords by blazing log fires. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries the celebration of Christmas

reached its lowest ebb and it took the efforts of people like Charles Kingsley, Dickens and Prince Albert to reverse the trend. Dickens’ sentimental novel A Christmas Carol, with its servile hero Bob Cratchit, was pro-Christmas propaganda, promoting the idea that if people loved each other on this one day they would carry on throughout the year. There is no need to comment on the success of that one, but it did have the effect of restoring Christmas. Most of the ancient customs and ceremonies now celebrated actually died out in the last century, only to be restored when the world of which they were a part had completely vanished.

While the working-class holidays declined the wealthy began what was to become the modern holiday. First they went to the Spas, to take waters which were supposed to have medicinal qualities, successors perhaps to the holy wells of earlier times. The spa’s virtues were usually exaggerated, but the wealthy flocked there to drink and bathe in the waters, mainly in an effort to offset the effects of over-eating and over-drinking. As a result the spas boomed into fashionable resorts: assembly rooms, coffee houses, libraries, concert halls and, of course, shops, grew up around the pump rooms and baths. Elegant and expensive houses with parks and gardens were laid out. Fashionable society congregated there, followed by others hoping to cash in on the scene. The next step was the development of a new kind of spa. the seaside, with sea water taking the place of the medicinal springs. It was thought that to drink and bathe in sea water was beneficial to health and the sea, which had been shunned as hostile and dangerous slowly became attractive. Revolting concoctions like sea water mixed with milk, or with port, were advocated. The claims were even more exaggerated than those for spa water, but they were believed.

Today people go abroad to the Mediterranean or the Bahamas in search of the sun although it was not on sun-drenched beaches that the practice of sea bathing began but here, at Scarborough and Brighton, where the wind can cut like a knife—and not only in summer, for there was bathing as late as November. The original aim was not pleasure but health. (Sunbathing was not then popular; begun by the Italian Fascists in the 1920s, it has become a mania as great as any which has gone before. To the Georgian sunburn was vulgar.) Small ports and fishing villages, whose main industry until then had been smuggling, began to spread and expand. All the facilities to be found at Bath and Cheltenham began to appear in the new seaside towns.

The early seaside resorts were refined and expensive, but first the steamboat and then the railways began to change all that, as working class holidays became possible and workers in the rather better jobs could use Sunday to go to the sea. The day tripper arrived on the scene, much to the disgust of the wealthier visitors who moved on to other places. The rapid expansion of the seaside towns brought the inevitable rackets. It was in the mid Victorian period that the great landlady joke began, a godsend to comics everywhere, which was largely justified as conditions in boarding houses were often bad. The rapid expansion of these towns also brought sanitation problems, with raw sewage spewing into the sea. The more refined resorts fought back against the tripper; Bournemouth banned Sunday trains and Sunday steamer trips, and Bridlington put restrictions on street musicians and band concerts on Sundays, even considering closing public houses on Sunday. The early resorts had been refined but lively, but now they divided into two types—brash and vulgar but lively, and refined but dreary—a label many resorts later found it difficult to lose. The heyday of the seaside resort was in the years leading up to the First World War. The horror that was to begin on that Bank Holiday Monday in 1914 marked the end of an era.

After the war the seaside resort revived but by then the old boarding house set pattern of meals at regular times, with holiday activities in between, gave way to a more restless approach. The car and motor coaches enabled people to travel more widely. A rash of bungalow growth spread for many miles along once unspoiled coast, while miles of the River Thames were faced by cheap shacks. Farming was in a bad way and farmers were happy to sell off poor quality land for development and to go in for catering for holiday makers. The Thirties saw the rise of the holiday camp in which accommodation, catering, swimming pools, entertainment and sports facilities were in one establishment, usually at an all-in price. These were usually away from the old resorts and in competition with them. It was fashionable to sneer at holiday campers, as it had been to sneer at day trippers before them and is with the package tourists of today. The inter-war years slump were the time of expansion of the cheap recreations of hiking, cycling and camping; the Youth Hostel Association came into being as a result.

Since the last war the holiday trade—or tourism to give it its modern title—has become international. Greater planning powers, as well as public pressure, has prevented a further spread of cheap development and has cleared away a lot of it, but in its place has come the caravan sites which, although they can be ugly, arc generally better sited and better controlled. The holiday trade has grown out of all recognition of its origins. Longer holidays and the five-day week have enabled many more people to travel. Every town has its Tourist Information Office providing books, guides, maps, calendars and souvenirs. The recession has affected the trade but tourism today is not just big business: in line with the development of capitalism it is a major industry.

Les Dale