Relive the heyday of the British seaside

3rd June 2014 - 14:42

The lost films of Mitchell & Kenyon capture a golden era of English seaside towns

Undiscovered until 1994, some 800 rolls of decaying film were found in a Blackburn basement. After extensive restoration and development by the British Film Institute, the positives revealed an unprecedented record of the early 20th century. The discovery not only rewrote the history of filmmaking, but placed pioneering Blackburn film company Mitchell & Kenyon at the forefront of social reportage.

While the footage bursts with bustling street scenes, parades, marches and home time at the factory gates, its most endearing films are arguably those showing Edwardians at the seaside, in all their pomp and pageantry.  

During the Industrial Revolution, Londoners flocked to the coast seeking the respite of the ocean. Their city was in a state of rapid development, causing over-crowding and smog to linger in the air like a malignant veil. But thanks to the advent of the steam engine, city-weary folk were able to escape to fresher climes.

At the time, medical professionals considered the ocean therapeutic, so whether it was a bad case of rickets or a bout of hysteria, 18th and 19th century doctors prescribed sea-bathing as a treatment for all manner of ills. However, it wasn’t until King George III was spotted in a purpose-built bathing machine that it became highly fashionable. And just like that, a new British tradition was born.

Mitchell & Kenyon’s 1903 film of Blackpool’s prestigious North Pier (above) shows this history with a remarkable clarity. Blackpool’s three piers were built in quick succession after the tourist boom, joining over 90 piers around the UK that sprung up to cater to coastal appetites. They played host to an eclectic mix of entertainment, from Punch and Judy shows to oom-pah bands and theatrical productions. Later, grand hotels, elegant pavilions and state of the art leisure parks would follow suit. At the end of the footage, note the big wheel at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the famous Blackpool Tower – built to rival the Eiffel.

Note, too, the public’s bemused fascination with the camera. Hundreds if not thousands of people stream past in a sea of top hats, feathers and cigarette smoke. It’s hard to know whether they’re just innocently meandering on a pier in their Sunday best, or for the rare opportunity to appear on film. Indeed, at the beginning of the footage, a desperately nonchalant fellow in a top hat does all he can to stay in shot. This kind of comical behaviour can be perceived throughout the collection - Edwardians were anything but camera shy.

Another film, showing New Brighton, Egremont and Seacombe Promenade in 1904 (above), clearly shows the strict class structures of Edwardian society. Refined, somewhat stoic ladies and gentlemen exit a horse and carriage with the help of a policeman while poor children watch on from behind a wooden barrier.

Later, in footage from the stone jetty at Morecambe (below), this Edwardian stoicism is cast off as we catch holidaymakers forgetting themselves on the beach. Jubilant men tip their bowler hats at jaunty angles. Two little boys in matching boaters playfight in front of an advert for a kinetoscope promising ‘a Good Laugh.’ A promiscuous woman (by Edwardian standards) blows a kiss. This playful atmosphere comes to a head when a man wearing a ladies’ hat quickly removes it upon noticing Mitchel & Kenyon filming. These scenes are incredibly charming and show Edwardians in their absolute element: at leisure.

In the Victorian era, down time would have been reserved for the elite and even then, it would have been a staunchly formal and contrived act of folly. But thanks to the Industrial Revolution, working men had access to disposable income. They had vacation time (albeit unpaid) and a tourist industry that catered to them as well as to the gentry. Leisure was a new concept, and Edwardians took to it very well indeed, carving out fashions and pastimes that came to define an era. 

Today, globalisation and package holidays have made ghost towns of many of these once bustling resorts, and the heyday of the British seaside holiday is captured in the weathered architecture of the coast. As such, the discovery and preservation of these fascinating films not only contextualizes the bowling greens and the bandstands, but brings these places back to life – ensuring that the pursuit of leisure is always at the heart of the British coast. 

Emily Buchanan is a freelance writer and editor for the British Film Institute.

You can see the full collection of Edwardian archive footage on the British Film Institute's online player.

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