“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”: holidays by the sea in the 18th century

In the course of the 18th century a variety of spas and seaside resorts became popular destinations for busy Georgians seeking cures for a variety of chronic conditions, as well as for relaxation from the dramas of high politics. Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1715-90 project, considers the experiences of some of the high-profile individuals who took their holidays at two of the most popular in the late 18th century.

Among the most popular resorts for members of the elite seeking the benefits of sea air during the later part of the 18th century were Brighton and Weymouth. Earlier in the period Scarborough had been the foremost spa town, but in the course of the century it had been steadily eclipsed by a variety of rivals and by the 1760s and 70s the delights of East Sussex were beginning to attract regular holiday-makers. Brighton’s burgeoning popularity can be traced through the succession of acts of Parliament seeking to improve the state of the roads leading to and from the town. In March 1770 a bill for repairing and widening the road from Brighton to Lewes came before the Lords, and six years later another bill sought to improve the state of the road from Brighton to Cuckfield. In 1773 a bill was presented for improving the town’s infrastructure: its paving, lighting and cleanliness and for improving the coastal defences and ensuring the harbour was in a fit state for merchant shipping.

John Wilkes was just one of a number of prominent politicians to make the most of the increasingly popular resort. From July to August 1776 Wilkes took an extended break from London, partly in search of respite from a tedious autumn ague which seems to have settled on him, but he was also no doubt keen to quit the capital having failed in his effort to be elected city chamberlain. He set out in the middle of July, charting a route through Croydon, Godstone, on to East Grinstead, Maresfield, where he stayed at the Old Chequer Inn, ‘a very good house’ and finally Lewes before arriving at Brighton on the 13th. He reported to his daughter that his ‘feverish heat’ had diminished and that he was already finding benefit from the sea air.

At Brighton, Wilkes checked into the Castle, a well-known inn in the town, but promptly set about looking for apartments, which would accommodate him and his daughter, as he hoped she would shortly be joining him there. He found ‘very good apartments’ vacant until 8 August, comprising:

four good bedchambers, and two rooms for servants, besides a pleasant parlour… Nothing can be more complete – a full view of the sea, which breaks at your feet.

In the end Wilkes was disappointed of his daughter’s company, but pressed on undeterred to enjoy his vacation and took up residence in his ‘old little cabin, at Gorringe’s on the cliff’ for a guinea a week. He promised to send to his daughter some of the delicacies of the place, rabbits and chickens ‘both of which are remarkably good here’ but was frustrated in his plans to send up some of the local ‘delicious’ lobsters as poor weather was deterring the ‘cowardly, methodistical fishermen’ from venturing out.

Interest in Wilkes in the London press was by no means diminished by his decision to quit the capital and at the end of July one newspaper reported that a dose of sea bathing had done his health no good at all:

Mr Wilkes is very much indisposed; the bathing in the salt water has brought on him some cold shivering-fits, that are declared by his physicians to be alarming. [Morning Post, 29 July 1776]

(c) Trustees of the British Museum: 1868,0808.9134

Replying to his daughter, Wilkes denied the story’s accuracy: ‘I have neither been in the sea, nor seen a physician; and except the strong symptoms of an ague, I do not know of a single one unpleasing’. His denials clearly reached some journalists, as another paper, the General Evening Post, published a few lines reporting that papers like the Morning Post had got it wrong, though this did not stop the Morning Post repeating the information in its issue of the 30th and in the first week of August another reported once more that Wilkes was ‘extremely ill’ at Brighton. [London Chronicle, 3-6 Aug. 1776]. On the 7th the Morning Post reported that Wilkes’s physicians thought him in ‘extreme danger’, but again the reports seem to have been exaggerated as that same day Wilkes assured his daughter he was much better and had been twice out for a ride the previous day.

By then Wilkes had relocated again, exchanging his cabin on the cliff for the greater comfort of a friend’s house at nearby Preston. It meant that he was out of the way of ‘much good company’ that arrived at Brighton around the same time and in early August he noted the arrival of Lady Barrymore, ‘that English ortolan’, driving herself and Charles James Fox in a phaeton. There were further plans for excursions, including a visit to the Isle of Wight, which was ultimately to become an important retreat for him. By the end of August he was back at Preston, having taken in Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight, the earl of Pembroke’s house at Wilton and Salisbury, and was by then preparing for his return to London having successfully ‘got rid of my troublesome companion, the ague’.

Wilkes was not the only notable for whom a holiday combined the pleasures of sightseeing and and taking time to recover from tedious illnesses which London life did nothing to alleviate.

In August and September 1794 the royal family were at Weymouth, a seaside resort which had been recommended to George III by his doctors to help treat his (mysterious) illness. There they were able to indulge in simple pleasures like walking on the esplanade, reading, and (unlike Wilkes) sea bathing. The king was also supposed to drink sea water as part of his cure. [Anne Kaile, ‘The rush to the sea’, Historic Gardens Review xxxiii (2015-16)].

(c) Trustees of the British Museum: 1868,0808.5877

Some pleasures were probably more open to the royals than others, and on the 20th they were welcomed aboard HMS Southampton, a frigate that happened to be at anchor in the port, and were given a morning’s sail along the coast. The next day, the royals visited the soldiers camped outside the town, they saw them go through their exercises though ‘without firing’ before being hosted to tea in Lord Buckingham’s tent before heading back for supper at 10 and bed at 11. There were more trips aboard the Southampton during their visit and on the 28th the queen and her party were driven in carriages across the sands.

The presence of the Southampton and the military encampment is a reminder that the royal family’s trip to Weymouth in 1794 came at a time of international uncertainty. The very day before they had set out (the 14th) the king had received news of the executions of Robespierre and St Juste in Paris.

Not all holidays were so highly charged, but through the 18th century polite society increasingly came to appreciate the simple pleasures of a trip to the seaside. Brighton may have acquired greater popularity still following its discovery by the Prince Regent and his establishment there of his Pavilion retreat, but as indicated by the succession of improving bills in the 1770s, long before then Brighton, and other such watering places, had become established as vital places for those in need of rest and recuperation from the busy world of politics.


Further reading:

Peter Borsay, ‘A room with a view: visualizing the seaside, c.1750-1914, TRHS, 6th ser. xxiii (2013)

Letters from the Year 1774 to the Year 1796, of John Wilkes, Esq (4 vols, 1805), Volume 1

Memoirs of the Court of George III: Volume 4: The Diary of Queen Charlotte, 1789 and 1794, ed. Michael Kassler (2015)

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