Here’s a text I wrote, back in 2007, about the history of the seaside and the up-and-down railway track of the big dipper…I am a bit of an expert in the cultural history of the English seaside and have taught classes on it. I’ve even written things that have been published. I got to this via my interest in railway seaside posters and because I live by the seaside in Kent, and can see across to France. This text was published in Cathy Lomax’s magazine.
Margate has a special place in the development of the English seaside and in the embrace of pleasure as one of its distinguishing characteristics. I want to explore some of the ideas behind the association of seaside, pleasure, amusements and utopia. It’s not surprising that the space at which all these themes intersect is the utopian sounding dreamland amusement park.
Seaside resorts began to develop in Britain in the second half of the 18C. They were a pragmatic reaction to the overcrowding of inland spa towns such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells. The aquatic cure was promoted as an alternative to the therapeutic waters and as a more natural (or authentic) experience than the formalised rituals of the pump room and plunge-bath. In fact, it took some time, and the powerful example of the Prince Regent, for the seaside to become properly liberated from the stifling protocols of polite metropolitan society.
Margate was ideally situated to take advantage of this opportunity. It was located near to London and had good communications by road, boat, and later by rail. In the course of the 19C the popularity of the seaside grew and extended its appeal to a much wider population. Again, Margate was ideally placed to benefit from the large population concentrated in London’s south eastern quadrant.
For the aristocratic and middle class visitor at the beginning of the 19C, the seaside offered a curative therapy from the dramatic upheavals of social mobility associated with industrialisation, democratic politics, and of the increasingly powerful class interest defined by new money. The maritime perspective was a powerful reminder of a ancient and permanent natural order, the relentless and implacable force of nature, and of the sublime potential of the sea. Later, the widening appeal of these thoughts simply provoked the aristocracy to explore the more remote coastal areas such as Cornwall and Scotland in Britain, and the Mediterranean coast abroad. Later, the aristocracy recast the therapeutic potential of the sea around the loftier spaces of the alpine interior.
As a popular leisure resort Margate, along with Southend and Blackpool, embraced the pleasure beach and amusement park. The utopian potential of the sublime and natural was replaced by the hedonistic thrill of mechanical rides. This artificial contrast between the different experiences and sensibilities of seaside visitors informs much of the debate about the English seaside and explains, in part at least, the very obvious class distinctions that still persist along the coast.
At the beginning of the 19C sea bathing appeared un-natural. The sea was viewed, in the main, as a reminder of the world’s chaotic origins. The relentless power of the waves ate persistently at the coastal margin. Very little of the shore was settled and the coast appeared, for the most part, as a desolate place. It is not surprising that, in these circumstances, people turned their backs to the sea. The few settlements along the shore were, accordingly, involved in an unending battle between the elements.
The act of sea bathing was surrounded, in its earliest forms, by a complex administration of medical instructions that assured the exact treatment as required. These instructions were brutally enforced by the dippers and drenchers who lined the shore.
The therapeutic rituals of the procedure exacerbated the coldwater shock of sea bathing. Child, female and infirm were forced into the sea and submerged according to instructions. The successive submersions resulted in a sadomasochistic approximation of auto-asphyxiation.
The bathing machine was first reported at Scarborough. Its purpose was to provide a private changing room on the beach where patients could steel themselves for the ordeal ahead. Wheels were added along with horses, ropes and pulleys so that the hut could be lowered directly into the sea. From there, escape was impossible!
Under such circumstances, and in combination with the relaxed social environments of seaside entertainment, it’s not surprising that seaside towns gained a reputation for hedonistic freedom and sexual liberalism.
The more robust male patients were encouraged to pit themselves against the relentless power of the waves, so that the same feelings of exhaustion were achieved by physical exertion rather than asphyxiation. The gender difference in the ritualised administration of saltwater treatments was a consequence, in part at least, of the increasingly formalised delivery of therapeutic treatments.
The physical demands of sea bathing made the seaside a natural environment for the promotion of exercise as part of a discourse of health and efficiency aimed at the industrial worker. The physical disciplines of gymnasium, sports-field and seaside were thought, by the later part of the 19C, to be a means of civilising the brutal and terrifying force of the working masses.
By the end of the 19C the seaside, beach and bathing had become parts of a developing leisure economy. The rupture with the medical origins of sea bathing was complete. The seaside’s therapeutic value was now identified in the psychological relief afforded from the workaday realities of discipline, productivity and efficiency as characteristics of industrial capitalism. In consequence, the beach began to be identified, psychologically and sociologically, as a site for holiday activities associated with rest, relaxation and fun.
big dipping at the pleasure beach
The first large-scale funfair was Lunar Park outside New York. The new larger and mechanical rides were made possible by the supply of electrical power and advances in mechanical engineering. Both Hotchkiss and Maxim, names associated with the deadly machinery of war, were pioneer engineers of seaside rides. Maxim’s Captive Flying Machines still provides classic entertainment on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Dreamland’s own Scenic Railway (1920), in Margate, is one of the earliest surviving timber-framed coasters.
WG Bean developed the Pleasure Beach at Blackpool in 1896 after the US model. It provides for a concentration of extreme rides. The permanence of the site allows for bigger and more elaborate rides than are usually available at traveling fun fairs.
Nowadays the Pleasure Beach hosts several very large roller-coasters. The first of these was the famous Big Dipper built in 1923 by John Miller. The original ride was extended during the 1930s. The notoriety of the ride allowed its name to become synonymous with this type of attraction.
The Blackpool Big Dipper is one of a diminishing number of original timber framed roller coasters that are still in use. These structures are identified with the first, golden age, of roller-coaster design during the 1920s. Sadly, Folkestone’s own timber framed roller-coaster was demolished earlier this year. More recently, computer aided design and complex steel engineering has allowed for larger and more extreme rides to be built.
Timber framed roller-coasters, although less extreme than their steel framed successors, are held in the highest regard by coaster aficionados. The timber framed ride is characterised by an elasticity that is missing from the more solid steel structures.
The roller-coaster is a closed railway-track loop comprising a series of diminishing peaks. The potential and kinetic energy are harnessed so that, from the first highest point, the cars can complete the full circuit. In their earliest forms, these rides were laid out in a straight-line, or switchback, form. There is evidence of winter sleigh version of these rides being built, using man-made mountains of ice, at St Petersburg in Russia and as early as the 18C.
It is clear that the elasticity and repeated dipping that make up the excitement of the original rides is, in part at least, an attempt to re-engineer the early experience of the aquatic cure with its combination of excitement and vertigo. The sexual and romantic potential of this excitement was recognised early on. The Blackpool Big Dipper plays a key role in the narrative of Hindle Wakes (1927) where the romance between the protagonists is played out against the backdrop of the Pleasure Beach.
One of the themes of Hindle Wakes is that the seaside leisure resort offers an opportunity to escape the limiting constraints of normal existence. This sense of hedonistic potential lies at the heart of the seaside holiday experience and is expressed through the sanctioned exuberance of carnivalesque transgression. Nowhere was this potential more forcefully expressed than at Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach and at Margate’s Dreamland.
Beyond the rides, the Pleasure Beach was defined by a visual style that spoke of an exoticism associated with the Orientalism first articulated through Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. The Pleasure Beach has an intricate skyline characterised by delicate tracery. The graphic expression of the seaside rides is communicated by the use of large-scale grotesque typefaces along with exotic Tuscan and Egyptian letterforms.
It is crucial to distinguish between exoticism and luxuriousness. Although the two are often combined, especially in their Orientalist manifestation, mere luxury lacks the powerful signifiers of dissolute popular hedonism that characterise the most successful and popular seaside leisure resorts.
The dippers and dredgers of the early seaside were recognised as brutal enforcers of aquatic therapy. Their later counterparts, the showmen mechanics and dancing girls, were mythologised as happy-go-lucky inhabitants of a coastal Shangri La. David Essex vividly conveyed the romantic appeal and easy charm of the fairground personality and social rebellion in That’ll be the Day (1973). Counter cultural rebellion became, almost immediately, more aggressive and anarchic as Mods, Rockers, Punks and New-Wavers each tapped into a generation of marginalised youth in Britain.
The thrilling structures of the Pleasure Beach are, by virtue of their modular and pre-fabricated construction, quintessentially modernist. Furthermore, the fantastic architecture of these structures speaks of technology, spectacle, ersatz danger and mass consumption. Together, these characteristics provide for a powerful discourse of pleasure that is quite specific to the seaside and specifically differentiated from the workaday realities of inland life.1
The architecture of the pleasure beach, ephemeral though it is, provides a powerful template for a modernist alternative to the functionalist tradition. Gordon Cullen first explored these ideas in the immediate aftermath of WW2 and up to the Festival of Britain. Later, in the early 1960s, Cedric Price developed a theory of megastuctures where large spaces were shaped and defined by the leisure activities they contained. The most influential of price’s schemes was the Funpalace conceived with Joan Littlewood.
Later Price’s ideas became the starting point for the architectural experiments of Archigram and the radical proposals of Rogers and Piano for the Pompidou Centre (Beaubourg) in Paris. Nowadays, these ideas survive in the bastard form of the suburban shopping, or strip, mall.
The flexible interior spaces of this new modernism were defined, like those of the pleasure beach, by intricacy and interruption, wallscape and lettering. Sadly, the corporate imaginations behind the organisation and facades of contemporary retail are much more limited than their seaside predecessors.
Our contemporary leisure economy, however sophisticated, has failed to deliver new variants on the pleasure beach. The new inland theme-parks offer little scope for the radical transgressions of the utopian resorts of yesteryear. The gentrification of seaside resorts confuses pleasure and shopping and defines the limits of contemporary hedonism by reference to a bewildering choice of coffees. The psychological liberation associated with the feelings and experiences of the Pleasure Beach are disappearing fast.
It is essential that the psychogeographical traditions of seaside transgression, fun and liberty, exemplified by the Kiss Me Quick hat, are retained amongst the ribbon developments of condos and malls that identify the commercial regeneration of the seaside.
Something of the visceral excitement of the bigger dippers may be got from the internet. See for example, www.ride-guide.co.uk or the many files held on www.youtube.com
Corbin A (1995) The Lure of the Sea London, Penguin
Gray F (2006) Designing the Seaside London, Reaktion
Hassan J (2003) The Seaside London, Ashgate
Inglis F (2000) The Delicious History of the Holiday London, Routledge
Jones B (1951) The Unsophisticated Arts London, Architectural Press
Lindsay K (1973) Seaside Architecture London, Evelyn Manning
Sanders R (1951) Seaside England London, Batsford
Marsden C (1947) The English at the Seaside London, Collins (BIP112)
Turner ES (1967) Taking the Cure London, Michael Joseph
Walton JK (2000) The British Seaside Manchester, MUP
Webb D (2005) Bahktin at the Seaside Theory, Culture and Society, vol 22(3): 121-138
Supplemental – June 2014
I have been reading Peter Wollen’s Speed and Cinema. He describes how the psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, triangulates the thrill of speed in relation to anxiety, excitement and desire. Balint identified the experience of speed as a kind of auto-erotic sensation…indeed, he claimed all thrills may be understood as a compound of speed and desire.
Obviously, and in relation to the cinema or train ride, it isn’t necessary for the spectator to be moving themselves. So, it can be an entirely vicarious experience. A sort of out-of-body experience.
Balint was writing, in the first instance, about the thrill of fairground rides. Wollen applies this thinking to the cinema and Hitchcock, and I have applied it to the train ride….
That’s a wonderful loop of train-track, up and down.
Virilio P (2006) Speed and Politics LA Ca, Semiotext(e)
Wollen P (2002) Paris Hollywood Verso, London