Forgotten trinkets from Scarborough's changing tides

Esther Graham has been shopping down on Scarborough's seafront. She's returned with a bucket and spade and a couple of souvenir keyrings. They're the same ones thousands of children spend their pocket money on each summer and which often end up being forgotten long before the holidays are over.

Esther Graham of Scarborough Museums Trust is creating an archive of seaside memorabilia. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

These ones are different and as the latest addition to an archive set up to preserve the country’s seaside heritage they should end up a little more treasured.

“From the introduction of bathing machines to the Kiss Me Quick hat, the culture which exists around seaside resorts is unique,” says Esther from Scarborough Museums Trust, which is leading the project alongside museums in Filey and Southend. “The problem is that a lot of the items which relate to days out at the seaside that we all remember are seen as throwaway.

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“As children most of us came back from days at the coast with bags of souvenirs, but how many of us bothered to keep the snow globes or the novelty pencils? At some point they ended up in the bin and each time a little bit of our history was lost.”

Esther Graham taking a look through an ornate viewfinder depicting Scarborough scenes. Picture: Richard Ponter

Scarborough is now hoping to redress the balance and as well as investing in contemporary souvenirs, a team of volunteers is cataloguing every single item in the museum’s existing collection of seaside memorabilia. It’s an epic task, but once complete Esther hopes to make the entire archive available online.

“We have got some fabulous pieces,” she says, opening up a box which contains and original 1960s swimming hat covered in red plastic flowers and another which has bathing suits from the same era. “There is something about the design, which means you instantly know they are from that decade and we are fortunate to have quite an extensive collection of bathing costumes and they are a really graphic illustration of how resorts changed and developed.

“The very earliest costumes had weights in them to prevent them floating up when the ladies used those very early bathing machines. There was an absolute emphasis on modesty, which gradually gave way to more revealing beachwear as the decades went on.”

The first of Britain’s seaside resorts emerged in the 1800s and were initially they were the preserve of the wealthy who believed breathing in the sea air could ward of disease. However, the arrival of the railways provided a cheap and easy escape for those living in soot-clad industrial cities and a boon for entrepreneurs who realised there was money to be made on the coast.

Esther Graham taking a look through an ornate viewfinder depicting Scarborough scenes. Picture: Richard Ponter

Piers were built alongside grand hotels with impressive ballrooms and soon seafronts were lined with theatres, which during the summer were packed out every night of the week.

The good times weren’t to last and the arrival of cheap foreign holidays was the final nail in the coffin for many of the most popular resorts. As visitor numbers fell away, so too did the money needed to maintain these grand iconic structures.

Today many of the Victorian and Edwardian piers have been reclaimed by the sea, the ballrooms have been turned into bingo halls and the open air pools filled in with concrete. Just down the road from the Trust’s offices, one of Scarborough’s most famous venues is also facing demolition.

Built in 1932, The Futurist is one of the few surviving Super Cinema Variety Theatres, but whatever glamour it once had disappeared some time ago. While a campaign group has been desperately trying to save the building their efforts have so far proved futile and it seems almost certain that it will eventually be airbrushed out of history.

“One of the areas we are really keen to look at is the entertainment which existed at the seaside,” says Esther. “Scarborough, like a number of other resorts, had a rich history when it comes to pierrot troupes who performed on make-shift stages on the sand.

“These were the first real variety acts and they used to attract huge crowds. While we might not be able to bring them back, by recording their history and preserving the programmes and the various photographs taken of them we can at least ensure that the part they played in the history of the Great British seaside is not forgotten.”

While the project is about preserving the past, it also has one foot in the present. The three sites are putting together an oral history archive and are encouraging local people to tell their own personal stories of the towns in which they live.

“We have held a few of these workshops and I think initially there is a little bit of mistrust,” admits Esther. “Often coastal resorts have a bit of a reputation for being rundown and understandably the people who live in them want to tell you that it’s not that bad.

“However, once they realise that what we are interested is the people and places that gave the resort its character they tend to relax. We held one here recently and what really struck me was that no one mentioned the seafront or the beach. When you asked them what they thought defined the town, the first thing they said was the green, open spaces.

“You can make all sorts of assumptions about why people like a particular place, but you only know for certain once you actually ask them.”

It was the Japanese-inspired gardens of Peasholm Park which often featured on Victorian souvenir plates and vases and Esther is keen to hear from anyone who might have memorabilia which they might want to donate to the archive.

“We have some wonderful items,” she says, taking the wrapping off an early 20th century view finder featuring scenes in and around Scarborough. “It’s quite a grand souvenir and certainly you would struggle to find anything like that now.

“However, every piece of memorabilia does tell a story about the period in which it was sold and our job is to build up as detailed a picture of possible about the life and times and each of the resorts.”

It is also hoped that next year the three museums will come together to stage an exhibition looking at the history of the resorts and they have already put together a module as part of the Children’s University project, which was set up to inspire youngsters aged between five and 14 to develop interests outside of the confines of the school curriculum.

The project is being funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the hope is that by the end of next year it will have built up a detailed picture of Britain’s seaside heritage.

“So far 36 museums and galleries have joined the Seaside Heritage Network and our first job is to find out what seaside-related collections are held nationwide,” says Esther. “The story of the Great British seaside is one that we have all played a little part in.”

• To find out more about the archive go to scarboroughmusuems trust.com