The first visitors to the Norfolk coast were the aristocracy and gentry during the mid 18th century. At this time, it was a common belief that sea water, like the spa waters of Bath and Buxton, had medicinal properties and could benefit those of a delicate constitution. Great Yarmouth attracted visitors for this reason, and the Bath House was opened in 1759 where guests could partake of seawater baths or take tea amongst fine company in the assembly room. A very brave few would also take a dip in the North Sea - but just for a few moments as swimming in the sea was not considered something one did for fun!
In 1844 the railway arrived in Great Yarmouth. It transformed the resort. By 1846, 80,000 people were visiting Great Yarmouth by rail each summer. Before the coming of the railway Yarmouth was a haven for a small number of wealthy visitors. They enjoyed leisurely holidays which revolved around socialising with one another. The railways changed all this. For the first time the town was open to mass tourism. In the summer season the town thronged with huge numbers of visitors from factory towns in the Midlands and the North. The Great Yarmouth seafront was transformed as hotels, piers and entertainment venues sprang up along the promenade.
People began to swim in the sea for fun, albeit there were certain etiquette rules to master. In Victorian Britain swimming was considered risqué as it was thought that swimming in the sea could encourage men and women to behave indecently and it also allowed rich and poor people to mix together as equals. Until the 1850s many men bathed naked. However, attitudes changed as more people visited the seaside. Men and women were forced to bathe on separate beaches and were fined if they were caught swimming in the wrong areas. Bathing became a complex attempt to protect swimmers from the gaze of onlookers. Bathers rattled down to the sea in horse-drawn bathing machines. They changed into swimming costumes which were designed to conceal every curve of the body and could then step out into the safety of the water.
Many of the visitors arriving by rail could not afford to stay at expensive seafront hotels. They found cheaper accommodation in guesthouses and private houses. The first guesthouses had a reputation for being dirty places, ruled by tyrannical landladies. Their lists of draconian rules and regulations provided much material for the comedians of the time. Fortunately, standards soon improved. Families returned to the same Great Yarmouth guesthouse year after year. Many landladies were thought of like members of the family.
Other visitors rented rooms in private houses. This was an important source of income for many local families, however it could be inconvenient. Many families were forced to live in a tiny box room during the summer months. In some cases this room was entered by a ladder to avoid disturbing the guests.
During the early 1900s large companies like Bass Breweries organised day trips to Great Yarmouth. Entire factories were transported to the seaside in fleets of trains. Great Yarmouth was taken over by thousands of workers and their families.
Meanwhile, a new type of holiday accommodation started to emerge during the late Victorian era - the holiday camp. The first holiday camp in the UK was opened in 1906 at Caister-on-Sea. By today's standards the camp was very basic with holidaymakers staying in tents and assisting with camp chores. Now a far cry from its humble beginnings, the camp still thrives today, run by Haven with three additional camps nearby in Great Yarmouth and Hopton-on-Sea. Another very popular holiday camp opened in 1924, Potters, which boasted of facilities such as brick chalets, running water and electric lights! However, the Second World War brought about dramatic changes with many of the holiday camps being used as bases by the military.
The introduction of annual paid leave after WWII allowed many working-class people to go on holiday for the first time. Holiday camps and caravan parks provided self-catering accommodation at a reasonable price. The camps quickly became self-contained with all the facilities and entertainments that guests needed provided at the holiday camp.
From the 1950s, following the end of WWII, holiday camps really had their golden era. People hadn't been on holiday for many years and some children had never seen the sea. Life had been incredibly hard and the public were in need of fun and entertainment. The holiday camp could provide all this and more. With swimming pools on site, entertainment in the evenings, competitions including ‘Glamorous Granny' and ‘Knobbly Knees' plus plentiful food the camps offered all the right ingredients for an excellent and affordable family holiday. By 1977 holiday camps provided more than two-thirds of the holiday accommodation in Great Yarmouth.
The 1960's saw a new kind of invasion. Parading on the prom took on a new angle as hordes of ‘Mods' descended on the town.
The economy was booming. Young people had money in their pockets. They showed their independence by the way they dressed and the music they listened to. The ‘Mods' rode to Great Yarmouth in convoys of scooters. They wore parkas to protect their sharp Italian suits. They gathered on the seafront and danced at all-nighters. There were occasional scuffles with rival gangs of bikers but most ‘Mods' just wanted to have fun.
During the 1970's the seaside holiday boom began to slow down. The promise of guaranteed sunshine abroad meant many people abandoned the British coastline in favour of new destinations. By the late 1980's many seaside towns around the country had entered a period of decline.
In recent years, Great Yarmouth has seen huge regeneration projects to breathe new life back into a town that never stopped being a popular destination but which needed modernisation and refurbishment. With perfect timing, the British seaside holiday has recently come back into vogue, so come and visit now for a totally revitalised, fun seaside holiday!