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Edwardian bathing — with swearing

At the turn of the last century, Lyme Regis began to entertain a different class of holiday-maker. Jo Draper tells of the consternation felt by the local residents.

Lyme Regis had lots more visitors in the early 20th century because its new railway (opened 1903) meant that day-trippers could reach the town. Lyme was late in getting a railway – Weymouth, for example, had had one from 1857. The last few miles (from Axminster or Bridport) had to be done by the expensive coaches, and also took too long for Lyme to be accessible for day visitors.

 Punch and Judy at Lyme Regis in 1913
Punch and Judy at Lyme in about 1913, with the crowd spreading across the cart-road (lower level) and the parade. By 1913 Lyme was a resort for day-trippers.

Until the arrival of the railway, visitors to Lyme stayed longer. Inevitably, day-trippers were poorer than the long-stay people. The Lyme Regis Recorder was a lively local newspaper which only lasted for less than a year, but this was in 1907, just when Lyme was making the transition into a modern seaside resort, catering for day-trippers. In September, they published a long letter from a ‘great admirer of your picturesque town and its beautiful surroundings’. He was gathering up complaints ‘from old friends resident in Lyme’. They had all ‘noticed with regret the different class of visitor frequenting [the town] from that of former years’. Now ‘the “excursionist” class is chiefly in evidence, with small spending powers, often bringing their provisions with them, driving away the quieter and more desirable people’.

This had led to horrors: ‘One sees cheap sweets and “hokey pokey” [ice cream] offered for sale on the beach, a foreign band makes the Parade impossible at stated intervals, sand artists (sic) have appeared, and out-at-elbows “minstrels” have been seen!’. He thought Lyme was heading for entire ruin, but ‘the suppression of the vulgarities now encouraged would bring back the better class visitor, who alone can ensure [the town’s] prosperity’. He defined these earlier, more desirable visitors as ‘mostly of the intellectual class, literary, scientific and artistic, making lengthened stays’ and integrating with the residents who ‘could meet and enjoy the society of such guests’. To us today such snobbishness is breathtaking – only those rich enough to come for a proper long stay could be worth speaking to.

 High tide at Lyme in about 1905
High tide at Lyme in about 1905, with the tents moved back to avoid high tide. Some visitors are shielding themselves from the powerful sun with parasols. The painted-on colour is hardly convincing.

Excursionist or genteel visitor, they all wanted to bathe in the sea, and this was a good source of problems. The Town Council received several complaints in June 1907 because visitors were leaving ‘their houses in their bathing costume, covered with an overcoat, and when they got to the beach they would discard their overcoat and enter the water’. This does not seem very wicked to us a hundred years later, but the Mayor ‘considered this a matter for the police’. An alderman ‘mentioned a case where several youngsters undressed by the wall of the parade’, ie. right in the middle of the main beach. ‘On being informed this was not allowed, however, they promised not to offend again.’ The Town Clerk said that this came under a bylaw stating that ‘no person shall make any indecent show in any of the streets or public places of the town’. Quite how someone in an overcoat could be considered indecent seems strange to us nowadays, but, if so, how could bathing costumes on the beach be decent?

‘The unpicturesque bathing machine is a thing unknown in this charming spot’, but ‘tents on stands, capable of being drawn along the sands’ had replaced them (Recorder, 6 June 1907), and everyone was supposed to use one of these tents to change into their bathers. Rather daringly, ‘Mixed bathing is indulged in freely’ – in many resorts beaches were segregated by sex.

 High season at Edwardian Lyme Regis
High season at Edwardian Lyme, with a donkey, lots of bathers and a long arc of tents

These tents shielded the public from ‘indecent show’ but caused other problems. In August 1907, Mrs Toms, wife of one of the bathing tent proprietors, came before the Town Council to complain ‘that Mr Homyer, another bathing tent proprietor, had used abusive and obscene language towards her’. An alderman had advised her to come to council ‘as he had heard several complaints about the bad language used, and the people on the parade could not help hearing it’. The core of the problem was tent renters touting for trade. The harbour-master had had ‘several complaints as to Mrs Toms touting for customers, and one morning he found Mrs Toms and Homyer at loggerheads. Homyer complained she was touting’.

Three people had been given rights to let tents on the beach but only the Tomses had the privilege of a box (presumably a little office and store) on the cart road just below the Parade. One of the councillors thought this box ‘not a very great ornamentation’ but it ‘gave Mr & Mrs Toms somewhat of a claim to walk up and down and tout for customers’, which was considered to be unfair. It appeared that the Tomses wanted to squeeze out the other people renting tents.

This seems a minor matter (apart from the loud swearing overheard by visitors), but a letter to the Recorder from ‘Eight Times a Visitor’ the week afterwards suggests that it was serious. ‘During my recent stay complaints were frequent from the visitors’ over this touting, and ‘numbers of visitors of the better class are being drawn yearly from our own coasts to the Breton villages to be free of this intolerable nuisance’. Perhaps the swearing in French was more picturesque, or at least less comprehensible.

The letter-writer notes that when the council ‘refused the whole foreshore to one it allowed that one to retain a privileged position’. The Town Council took the problem seriously and sent off for model Seashore Bylaws, but these turned out to be mostly concerned with hawkers, performances, games and sermons on the beach, rather than quarrelling concessionaires.

The bylaws adopted at Lyme were like that too: ‘4. No person shall ring any bell or sound any gong or blow any horn or trumpet or use any other noisy instrument on the Seashore’. Dogs were not to be incited to bark, and no ‘glass, china or earthenware article (whole or broken)’ was to be thrown, placed or wilfully left ‘in such a position as to be likely to cause injury’.

Amazingly, the beach was still the main route from the Cobb to the town, and in 1913 the council reported that a visitor had written ‘to draw [its] attention to what he described as an intolerable nuisance caused by the passage of Messrs Wiscombe’s carts along the sands, and in particular to the incivility of one of their carters. His children were within a few yards of the parade wall and had built castles, etc, for a space of three or four yards seawards when one of Messrs Wiscombe’s carts laden with coal came along, and although the carter could see them working there he almost went out of his way to cut straight across their works and run over them if they remained where they were. He (Mr Webber) stopped the carter a few yards from his children and asked him to go round them, which would have meant a detour of about three yards, but he refused, stating that the sand was too soft lower down, which was not the fact, as many other carts, equally heavily laden, passed below them.’

Tents pushed back to the edge of the beach despite the low tide at Lyme Regis
Tents pushed back to the edge of the beach despite the low tide

The council felt they could do nothing about this, but the tent problems went on. In early September 1913, a holiday-maker complained to the council that ‘the bathing tent owners tried to prevent’ children ‘from digging in the sand between the tents and the sea’. This was because they wanted to be able to drag the moveable tents back from the rising tides. However, ‘last Sunday he personally took his children to the sands'; and even though there were no tents there at all, ‘nevertheless, the woman, who apparently owned the right to tents nearest the Cobb, came up in a very impertinent fashion and ordered them off’. They refused to go, so the tent woman and a man helping her ‘pulled a tent over and pushed the holiday-maker away’. He had talked with the harbour-master ‘and was informed there had been considerable trouble on the same question’. Another holiday-maker had written to the council with the same complaints, and one councillor stated ‘Mrs Toms had many virtues, but good manners was not one of the them (laughter)’, so it was the same tent-renter as 1907. The council decided she had no right to stop people digging in the sands and no authority to order people off them. All three bathing tent proprietors were to get letters explaining this, and the council was to consider making other arrangements. The council took over the provision of all tents soon afterwards, and the bad-tempered Mrs Toms and the swearing Mr Homyer were no longer the authorities on the beach.

The sands in 1912at Lyme Regis
Serious work on the sands in 1912 – proper-looking spades for a big project

[Lyme Regis Museum’s summer exhibition, ‘Edwardian Lyme Regis’, runs until mid September.]

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