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The History of Holidays

The George and Pilgrim hotel in Glastonbury High Street, founded in 1470 as accommodation for pilgrims

In 1947 a senior civil servant with an interest in history wrote a wonderful book about the history of holidays. At the beginning of The Englishman's Holiday J.A.R.Pimlott said:

"...this migration of holiday makers to the sea, the countryside, and the mountains... is as typical of Western European culture... as were bread and circuses of ancient Rome and the pilgrims of the Middle Ages" (P9).

Before the sixteenth century people did not go on holiday. There were religious festivals, with which many of our bank holidays still coincide, and on those days no work would be done. But people did not travel for the sake of it. Up until the sixteenth century people travelled to pursue their living, or because they were on official state business. It was only people on pilgrimage who could really be described as travelling for reasons other than work. As we know from the portrayal of fourteenth century pilgrims by Chaucer, there could be a certain holiday atmosphere on a pilgrimage, and in a very limited way provision for accommodation was made for pilgrims along the routes they travelled, and at their popular destinations. A few inns even survive from those times, examples include the Eastbridge Hospital in Canterbury, and the George and Pilgrim in Glastonbury. See our History of Hotels for more details.



Roman Bath

By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, opportunites for travel and tourism widened a little, when sons of rich families began to take tours of Europe, traditionally at the end of their education. This was known as the Grand Tour. The tour was initiated by Elizabeth I, aiming to broaden the minds of promising young men who might later serve in government. This early form of tourism was a purely foreign affair. Tourism in England was still non existent. There were no places for visitors to go, so no one travelled; and because no one travelled there were no places for visitors to go. If tourism was to develop something had to change. And this cultural shift, when it came, arose out of an idea in medical circles that mineral water had healing properties. This wasn't a new notion. The spa at Bath had been popular during Roman times, but when the Romans left Britain early in the fifth century, spas went with them. It wasn't until the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that interest in ideas of the ancient world revived. It was as a result of a revival of ancient medical ideas that spas were recreated. The spa towns of Bath and Buxton were mentioned in the Poor Law Act of 1572 as places popular with the sick. Slowly provision was made for the amusement of patients visiting these spas. Top London acting companies started to visit Bath, games were organised, and by the late sixteenth century spas were beginning to develop into pleasure resorts. The healthy as well as the sick started to visit. It might be wondered why healthy people would want to spend time in what amounted to hospitals. Pimlott muses that "the borderland between health and sickness is narrow". There is much truth in this. Healthy people still go on holiday because they think in some vague way that "it will do me good". Very few of us are perfectly happy and perfectly healthy. If we needed an excuse to get away to relax at a Spa, go for a nice walk and take in a show, then no doubt a good reason could be found.



Bath was preeminent amongst spa resorts, but it was a long way from London. Bath also lacked a summer season, since it was not considered beneficial to take the water during summer months. To fill the gap Tunbridge Wells and Epsom developed as popular spa towns in the vicinity of London. They quickly became popular, their prestige enhanced by royal patronage. Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, visited Tunbridge Wells in 1630, which was an important event in the development of the town. But then just as the spa holiday business was really getting into its stride, Civil War broke out in 1642 between the supporters of the king, and the supporters of Parliament. A puritan dominated Parliament won this struggle, which ushered in an era in which all pleasure seeking and leisure was frowned upon. Fortunately for spa towns they retained an association with the relief of illness. If there had been too strong a suggestion of fun and pleasure the puritan governments of the 1650s would have stepped in and closed the spas, just as they closed the theatres. As it was the new resorts survived, disguised as resorts for the sick, marking time until the monarchy's restoration in 1660. Once Charles II took the throne, the social atmosphere loosened and spa towns began to recover. Then in the eighteenth century spa towns reached their zenith under the influence of Richard "Beau" Nash. Here was a man who probably contributed more than any other individual to the development of holidays as we know them today. After a patchy career at Oxford, in the army, and in the law profession, Nash finally found his niche in 1705 when he was appointed Master of Ceremonies at Bath. Nash was in charge of entertaining guests at Bath, and his influence is felt in Butlins red coats, 18 - 30 holiday reps, Disney theme park managers, and in every cruise ship captain who comes to have dinner with his passengers. Nash turned Bath into a first class tourist resort. He improved facilities, installed street lights, improved roads and organised top quality entertainments. All spas looked to his example. In 1735 he was made Master of Ceremonies at Tunbridge Wells. The spas were at the height of their popularity. It is tempting to say that the original function of spas was abandoned in favour of pleasure and enjoyment. But certain elements of the healing spa carried over into later pleasure resorts. Many women having difficulty conceiving would take the waters. A Dr Marden is supposed to have said that the Tunbridge Wells' waters rendered those who drank them "fruitful and prolific; by reason of their spiritous ferment, they enliven, invigorate and actuate the whole mass of blood... which naturally incites men and women to amorous emotions and titillations". The atmosphere of an 18 - 30 holiday suddenly doesn't seem so far away.



Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The spa of Scarborough in Yorkshire was near the sea, and it was here that the next stage in the development of holidays took place. There had been earlier seaside resorts. The Romans had them, organised around summer residences of the rich. There is also a long history of occasional summer gatherings at the shore to bathe, and even sometimes to drink sea water. Festivals of this kind would usually occur around the time of the August spring tide, which in Catholic countries closely coincided with the Feast of Assumption (see Seaside Holidays in BBC History Magazine August 2011). But widespread popularity of the seaside was limited, partly due to an ingrained prejudice which went back to a riotous reputation gained in Roman times. All this began to change after Sir John Floyer published a History of Cold Bathing in 1722 which suggested that bathing in the sea was beneficial to health. By the 1730s there were regular bathing sessions at Scarborough. Bathing also began at Brighton at this time. In 1752, another doctor, Dr Richard Russell, also suggested that sea water was beneficial to health, and this lent momentum to the rise of the seaside. New seaside resorts aimed at respectability by modelling themselves on the established fashionable spas. Brighton looked to Tunbridge Wells for its lead, and even shared the same Master of Ceremonies with Bath. Brighton, being close to London, and being favoured by Dr Russell, became Britain's premier seaside resort. The Prince Regent, later George IV, came here, and had the Royal Pavilion built.







The Traveller's Club (the building on the left) Pall Mall

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries tourism in Britain was given a general boost by a long period of hostilities with France, which made travel to Europe impossible. The Traveller's Club was built by Charles Barry in Pall Mall in 1832, right at the end of this period. Its architecture was designed to remind its wealthy patrons of the European Grand Tour which had been largely impossible for the past few decades. Although peace with France eventually opened Europe up again, by this time the habits of many people in Britain had changed. The mid nineteenth century saw seaside resorts overtaking spas in popularity. The Master of Ceremonies had been abolished at Tunbridge Wells in 1836. The seaside suited the wider range of visitors who were now taking holidays. There was no Master of Ceremonies to impose exclusivity. There was no pump room which all activities revolved around. Holiday makers broke up into smaller groups, which encouraged the idea of a family holiday. The spas had been for adults only. As early as 1803 William Hutton was describing children playing on the beach at Scarborough.







Nayland Rock Promenade Shelter, a grade 2 listed Victorian/Edwardian promenade shelter in Margate, Kent (photo by Derick Fusco)

The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century is often portrayed as a bleak affair where people worked as slaves in satanic mills. And of course there was hardship. But beside the dark image of the Industrial Revolution we should set the soaring popularity of holidays. The number of people leaving London on steamers for Kent seaside resorts at Margate and Ramsgate grew hugely. In 1812 - 13 there were 21,931 people travelling on the steamers. By 1835 - 36 that number had increased to 105,625 (figures provided by Pimlott). These were the first working class holiday makers in the world, using money, leisure time and transport opportunties provided by the first industrial society. Thousands of people were using new opportunities provided by public transport to go on day trips to places such as Box Hill in Surrey. The practice of skipping the Monday after pay day was widespread, and many companies were lucky to see their workforce back by the Wednesday. Eventually industry decided to get behind efforts to organise time off. Unions never agitated for this, and industry seemed to decide of its own accord that holidays were a good idea. There was a realisation that people needed time off to give their best; and organised holidays were preferable to the unpredictable practice of skipping Monday, or skipping the week following pay day. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 turned a number of religious festivals into secular holidays. Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the First Monday in August were all added to holidays on Christmas Day and Good Friday. The long annual paid holiday was the next step, and by 1936 the Annual Holiday Bill had made an annual paid holiday a statutory right.

Until about the mid twentieth century holidays tended to retain the original communal atmosphere of spa resorts. Butlins holiday camps, founded at Skegness in 1936, were extremely popular, and had the sort of reputation that Disney parks enjoy today. In describing these communal holidays as the norm Pimlott's The Englishman's Holiday itself becomes an historical document. At the time it was written in 1947 Britain was a highly centralised country, World War Two having consolidated the grip of central government over Britain. This social trend was reflected in the holidays people tended to take. From his view point just after the war Pimlott wrote "The individualistic holiday may prove to have been an aberration, and the communal holiday the norm" (P267). Communal holidays have continued, in the form of cruising holidays, 18- 30 holidays, adventure treks, but generally speaking the individual holiday has become more important. Today the political and cultural tendency in Britain tends towards fragmentation. Scotland and Wales have their own assemblies, people can choose their own personalised digital entertainment. The population no longer settles down at Christmas to watch The Morecome and Wise Show, and of the nine Butlins holiday camps built, only three remain under the Butlins name.

Finally, and with particular relevance to InfoBritain, there is the modern trend towards visiting "heritage sites". The beginnings of this type of holiday can be seen in the Grand Tour, where wealthy young men toured Europe looking at historic sites; although to quote one contemporary French source, most of these visitors spent their time in other ways. They would "take punch and tea at the inns... speak ill of other nations, and boast without ceasing of their own" (Duparty, Lettres sur l'Italie Quoted by Pimlott P72). Later in the eighteenth century Grand Tourists began touring their own country, mainly taking in the Lake District and the wilds of Scotland and Wales. The focus of these tours tended to be dramatic scenery rather than individual historical sites. Thomas Pennant produced what was in effect the first tourist guide with his Tour of Scotland in 1772. This was soon followed by Thomas West's guides to the Lake District published in 1778, which sold in huge quantities. Both West and Pennant were scholars and had spent much time guiding young nobles around their Grand Tour of Europe. Now they were turning their attention to their own country. This trend was strengthened at the end of the eighteenth century when the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars made European travel impossible.


Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon

Perhaps the first "heritage" site in Britain was Shakespeare's Birthplace in Stratford Upon Avon. The first Shakespeare festival in 1879 lasted ten days, and was attended by 1500 people. 4000 attended in 1894, 14000 in 1904 and 200,000 in 1938, when the festival had extended to twenty four weeks. Meanwhile the National Trust, an organisation dedicated to preserving sites of historical interest, was growing. The National Trust had been founded in 1894, and after a slow start was rapidly expanding. This was in part helped by high death duties, which encouraged the donation of property to the Trust. Visits to historic sites became increasingly popular. By the 1960s there were between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors to Stonehenge. By 1978, when about 800,000 people were visiting each year, measures had to be taken to limit visitor numbers due to erosion at the site. Today the heritage industry is a major business. While many of the old seaside resorts have hit hard times, the heritage industry is healthy.


Bringing the story full circle, we might think of people visiting historical sites as a modern version of pilgrims who made those first "tourist" trips. The word "pilgrim" actually means stranger, or foreigner. Pilgrims would belong to a faith and their pilgrimage would take them to a place central to it. Perhaps in our rather fragmented modern world, there is a desire to find somewhere that confirms a sense of belonging.










©2006 InfoBritain (updated 2010)