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Tourism In Seaside Towns

By Lucy Marin, author of A Matter of Prudence

The intermediate month was the one fixed on, as far as they dared, by Emma and Mr Knightley.--They had determined that their marriage ought to be concluded while John and Isabella were still at Hartfield, to allow them the fortnight's absence in a tour to the seaside, which was the plan. –Emma, Vol. 3, Chapter XIX

The seaside is a regular feature in Jane Austen’s works, and its attraction as a site of tourism was of growing importance during the Georgian period and beyond into the Victorian era and to modern times. Jane herself visited the seaside and sent many of her characters to it. In Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana Darcy visits Ramsgate and Lydia Bennet and George Wickham go to Brighton; in Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill enter their secret engagement in Weymouth; and the young people in Persuasion are all wild to go to Lyme. Her unfinished novel, Sanditon, revolved around the development of a fishing village into a seaside resort.

In my new book, A Matter of Prudence, I mention three of the many popular seaside resort towns in England in the early 19th century: Caroline is fond of Brighton, Mr Bingley goes off to Weymouth, and Miss Darcy, as in canon, travelled to Ramsgate.

There were two main reasons for the burgeoning number of seaside resorts in the late 1700s and into the early 1800s. The first might be the one we are most familiar with—the purported health benefits of the sea. In the late 18th century, the medical community commonly claimed sea bathing, breathing sea air, drinking seawater, and even having seaweed rubdowns could prevent or cure certain conditions. They had few other alternatives to offer, given the state of medical science in the era. Spa towns, such as Bath, were already quite popular, with people travelling to them to ‘take the waters’, but over time, interest in them shifted to the seaside and sea bathing. Repeated outbreaks of the plague left many people, specifically the elite, very health conscious, and they could afford the time and money to travel.

Over time, the purported health benefits became somewhat less important and a more general interest in tourism drove the ongoing development of seaside resorts. In other words, people went to the seaside for the purposes of leisure and luxury—the same reasons people travel today. With the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, travel to the continent became difficult if not impossible, and England’s wealthy upper class sought other places to visit. Their attention turned inward, thus they would go to explore the landscapes of Scotland, Wales, the Lake District—which Elizabeth Bennet hoped to tour with the Gardiners—and coastal areas. Tourism ‘at home’ would continue to grow after the end of the war.

In addition, the establishment of the turnpike road system in the second half of the 18th century greatly improved the transportation system and provided easier access to places such as Weymouth. The era’s romantic interest in nature also increased the attraction of the seaside, and people went to witness its beauty.

While some seaside resorts could be purpose-built in areas largely uninhabited—as was the case with Eastbourne—many grew out of existing fishing villages. By the early 1800s, the number and extent of seaside resorts was rapidly expanding. It was expensive to develop them, which explains why they were largely built to attract those with large incomes—people who would afford to rent lodgings and take advantage of the many amusements on offer.

What did people do at the seaside? The simple answer is a lot of what we might do today when we go to beach. People swam, although how they went about it would not look like modern swimming, of course, especially for women. Ladies relied on uniformed attendants known as ‘dippers’ to help them exit and enter bathing machines which were pulled into sufficiently deep water by horses. The machines were like small dressing rooms, and the purpose was to shield ladies from the sight of people on the shore.

Visitors to the seaside would stroll on beaches, collect shells and other interesting items, and enjoy local entertainments, including promenading, shopping, and attending events at assembly rooms. Seaside resorts might also boast circulating libraries, indoor seawater baths, public gardens, theatres, and card and billiard rooms—all wonderful ways for those with sufficient leisure time and funds to occupy themselves. Donkey rides were popular, and there were recreational donkey races on hard sand as early as the 1770s. Landscape painting ‘en plein air’ (in the open air) became popular. By being outside, artists could more readily capture the effects of light and weather. Over time, the development of portable easels and oil paint tubes aided this hobby, and this technique became fundamental to the mid-19th century Impressionist movement.

And, of course, there was romance to be found in seaside resorts, which could be excellent places to meet eligible marriage partners. After all, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill found love in one, and Anne Elliot’s quality is noticed by both her dastardly cousin and the heroic Captain Wentworth in Lyme.

Interest in seaside holidays had an impact on the fishing villages that were reimagined into resort towns. The primarily small, lower-class populations were, understandably, influenced by the influx of wealthy visitors. As can happen today, local people and their ways of life—so different from those of the tourists—could become a source of ‘entertainment’, as outsiders observed them going about their lives. Some locals might find new sources of income through catering to tourists. Fishers might sell excursions in their boats or interesting shells or rocks, which would later be used as decorative pieces.

A number of books sprang up to aid potential tourists. In 1815, John Feltham published a Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places. Earlier guidebooks dating from the 1780s and later were not dissimilar to modern tourism guides, listing local amusements, accommodations, and so on. There were a large number of pocket itineraries and traveller’s companions, all of which were designed to help tourists find the best views, easiest routes, and important historical sites. For those that wished—or could afford them—there were also colour-plate books on different regions of the country.

I’ve mentioned several towns already, and I thought I would end by telling you a little about some of the places Austen and our beloved characters might have gone. It’s important to keep in mind that the Napoleonic Wars had an impact on coastal areas—not only in increasing interest in tourism, but also in terms of the need for coastal defences and the fears of invasion from France. For some areas, this meant the development of seaside resorts only truly began once peace was secured.

Scarborough is an interesting example. It has the distinction of being both a spa and a seaside resort. People have bathed in the sea on the Yorkshire coast for hundreds of years, and as a spa, Scarborough attracted visitors in the 17th century. Sea bathing for health reasons appears to date to about 1730. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy mentions Bingley and his family going to Scarborough, but despite what many of us write in JAFF, we do not know if his family hails from Scarborough or even Yorkshire; Austen simply told us he was ‘from the north’.

Another seaside town that deserves special mention is Weymouth, which features in Emma (and briefly in A Matter of Prudence). Weymouth, in Dorset, was naturally well-suited for tourism development thanks to its sheltered bay and fine, golden sands. The building of a turnpike road increased access to it, and new work for bathing houses and other improvements to attract tourists began in the mid- and late-18th century. The Duke of Gloucester commissioned the building of Gloucester House in 1780, and lent it to his brother, King George III, in 1789, when he required a place to recuperate from a severe bout of illness. The king liked the town and returned repeatedly until 1805. Being popular with notable personages, such as those in the royal family, could do much to draw other tourists.

Ramsgate, in Kent, is well-known amongst us Austen lovers, but while it was certainly well-established and appreciated, it was not as commonly visited by people in the 1800s. Margate, also in Kent, was one of the leading holiday destinations of the Regency years. Londoners could easily reach it by taking a small ship called a hoy down the Thames, thus escaping the city and enjoying the fresh air for a while. Margate was popular amongst the rising middle class and the fashionable, but it also appealed to those lower on the social ladder, given the relatively low cost of the journey. Austen was suspicious of towns such as Margate that had become too fashionable and too developed; she considered them full of superficial acquaintances and moral temptations. In Emma, Mr Knightley comments that seaside resorts could result in as much sickness as they cure, because of the focus on leisure and lax social mores. The latter is well demonstrated by Lydia Bennet and George Wickham’s behaviour in Brighton.

Dawlish and Teignmouth in Devon were also popular seaside towns. Both saw improvements to support leisure visitors, particularly in the early 1800s. Teignmouth is particularly notable for two reasons. The town was a fishing port associated with the Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) cod fishery; I found this interesting, given I am in Canada. Second, Fanny Burney was an early tourist in the area.

Sussex was home to new seaside resorts at Worthing and Bognor Regis. Others, such as Hastings—site of the Battle of Hastings at the start of the Norman Conquest—and Eastbourne emerged in the post-Napoleonic Wars period. A Londoner named John Luther built a large lodging house in Worthing around 1760. It was subsequently bought and renamed Warwick House by George Grenville, 4th Earl of Warwick, in the 1780s. Worthing became a destination for a number of royal women, including the Princesses Amelia (1789) and Charlotte (1807), and Queen Caroline (1814). The Prince Regent visited his sister Amelia in Worthing from his beloved Brighton. There were notable non-royal visitors too. Ann Radcliffe stayed in Worthing in the 1800s, our own dear Jane Austen was there in 1805, and Lord Byron a year later.

Finally, Bognor Regis was converted from what had been a fishing and smuggling village into a seaside resort in the late 1700s by a man named Sir Richard Hotham. Bognor Regis is worth a mention because it is speculated that both Hotham and Bognor Regis were portrayed by Austen in Sanditon.


Brodie, A. (2015). 10 Great Seaside Resorts in England. The Historic England Blog.

Hogya, A. (2016). British Seaside Resorts.

Knowles, R. (2012). How Weymouth became a Georgian seaside resort fit for a king. Regency History.

Morrison, R. (2019). The Regency Years. During which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern. W. W. Norton & Company

Olsen K. (2008). All things Austen A concise encyclopedia of Austen’s world. Greenwood World Publishing

Multiple Wikipedia pages on various towns.

Image Sources:

Watercolour illustrations for Persuasion by C.E. Brock

Royal Dipping, by John Colley Nixon

Margate Harbour, Kent Historical Society

Teignmouth Sea, Painter Unknown: Wikipedia

From the Kennaway Tunnel Dawlish to Langstone Sands. View North of the Line, by William Dawson

The Marine Parade, Historical Society

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