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Devon County

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Long before the coming of the railways, doctors began to suggest to their wealthy patients that dipping the body in  salt water could be beneficial and even that drinking sea water might promote good health. Travelling away from  home was something only rich people could do and so a trip to the coast became the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy. But then came the railways to change all that. In Britain, no one is far from the coast and soon, anyone, for a few shillings, could be transported swiftly to the seaside where they could do as rich folk had been doing for years - bathe in the sea, for the sake of their health or simply to have fun.


As the years passed, a dilemma arose because none of the profitable sea-bathing places which had sprung up all over the country, wanted to lose the patronage of the rich or miss out on the prosperity which crowds of working-class visitors could bring. Torquay solved the problem by creating what amounted to a resort with two levels. For the wealthy, there were luxuriously-appointed hotels, so sumptuous that they were used by Royal personages from all over Europe, moorings for their yachts, social events and elegant shops in which to pass a morning. For those who came 3rd class in crowded trains to seek their pleasures over a very short period of time alongside hundreds of others like themselves, there were designated places out-of-sight for bathing and, well away from the hotels,  inexpensive lodging houses for overnight stays. It was a plan aimed at achieving the best of all worlds and keeping the paths of these two classes of visitors ever from crossing.


The Ladies' Bathing Beach at Torquay c.1861
Ladies' bathing beach at Torquay c.1861


In the 19th century, sea  bathing in Torquay was strictly segregated with men and women having separate beaches designated to them. From the early years of the century,  Torquay Council kept a strict watch over the propriety of sea bathing and drew up a number of byelaws which were frequently added to.

Four beaches were allocated to ladies:

a) From Livermead Cliff to Corbyn Head

b) From NE of Corby to the Old Toll House

c) Between the public baths and the Imperial Hotel

d) At Meadfoot.

Five beaches were allocated to men:

a) From south of Corbyn Head to the Old Toll House

b) At Livermead but near the west side of Corbyn

c) On Tor Abbey sands

d) At Peaked Tor

e) At Meadfoot but several yards from the bathing machines.


Other byelaws included "No bathing with or without drawers is allowed between the Belgrave and the Imperial" (1887) and "No person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies' bathing machine (1899).

Men would have engaged in actual swimming but women were so hampered by the voluminous clothing they had to wear in the sea that they could do little but hold on to a rope and wait to be dunked under the water by the waves or by the attendants who were, of course, female.


Victorian women bathing

Victorian women bathing

Origin not known


By the 1890s, there had been huge changes in attitude towards seaside resorts. Most places had come to terms with the fact that the upper classes had sailed away to the Mediterranean to enjoy seaside places with a better climate and a better attitude to the rich and titled. To survive, more and more places  began to cater for the mass market.


Torquay did not handle changing times very well, clinging to the hope that Royalty, and the rich and famous who followed in their wake would one day return . In effect, the town created a time warp by advertising itself as "Queen of the English Riviera" and by exercising tight control over developments which did not fit that image. In spite of constant articles in the press about temperatures in and out of the sea and the number of hours the sun shone down on this favoured spot, the truth was that Devon's climate was, and is, very variable; being in Torquay isn't at all like being in Nice or Menton on the French Riviera.


The railway continued to bring in short-stay trippers but far fewer than before as people discovered sandier Devon beaches where the bathing rules were not so strict and which did not cost quite as much in rail fares to reach. Torquay had an excellent beach around the coast at Oddicombe which was very difficult to reach and, as the 19th century came to its close, it began to be suggested by business men in the town that this beach could be opened up for wider public use by the construction of a funicular railway running from Babbacombe Downs at the top of the cliffs all the way down to the sands below - a lift which would take tourists down and up again without any effort on their part - a lift which would become a tourist attraction in its own right.


Victorian Guide Book map showing bathing places
Map showing bathing places in Torquay

from a Victorian Guide Book




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