Essex history: Picture-perfect postcards part II – Southend-on-Sea
PUBLISHED: 17:28 03 September 2018 | UPDATED: 17:28 03 September 2018
In this second instalment of a postcard mini-series, Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office showcases some of the ERO’s picture postcard collection of Southend-on-Sea
Southend’s origins are as the ‘south end’ of the ancient parish of Prittlewell. For centuries it was occupied by isolated farms and from the early 18th century by oystermen’s cottages.
Later in the 18th century a fashion took off for visiting the seaside for the supposed health benefits of bathing in and drinking sea water.
Southend, being relatively easy for London’s fashionable gentry to reach by road or river, was the subject of various proposals for developing a resort town to rival Margate, Brighton and Weymouth.
From the 1790s hotels, houses and roads were built, with ‘New South-End’ situated to the west of the fishing village of ‘Old South-End’. Its popularity as a place to visit was bolstered in the early 19th century by visits from royalty and Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton.
Visitors could enjoy clifftop walks and swimming (having changed in a bathing machine), as well as games of billiards and cards, and dancing at the Assembly Rooms at the Grand Hotel.
River travel was more comfortable than travelling by carriage, but the visitor arriving at this new resort faced the problem of how to get from ship to shore.
The wide mud flats at Southend meant that larger boats could not get to the beach to deposit their fashionable passengers, so they had to be transferred onto smaller boats, or carried on the backs of fishermen.
The first pier at Southend was built to solve this inelegant transport problem. When it opened in 1830, however, it was still not quite long enough for boats to reach at low tide.
It was not until the pier was extended to 1¼ miles in 1846 that the problem was fully solved. A horse-drawn tram was installed to carry visitors’ luggage and later, the visitors themselves.
Southend’s reputation as a resort for fashionable, wealthy visitors would all change with the arrival of the railway, which reached the town in 1856. This drastically reduced journey times and costs, and meant that a trip to the town was, for the first time, within the reach of ordinary people.
New entertainments and accommodation was built to cater for the masses of tourists who now flooded Southend every summer. In 1889 a new iron pier replaced the original wooden one. It included an electric railway, the first of its kind on a pleasure pier.
Visitors might still come for their health or to enjoy a quiet retreat, but people after noisier entertainments could avail themselves of donkey rides or boat trips, or take in a performance by a brass band or pierrot troop, perhaps while enjoying an ice cream.
Through these postcards, we can peer back through time into a world of bandstands, bathing machines and boating.