Claire Warrior previews Beside the seaside – snapshots of British coastal life
Join Claire Warrior for a preview of Beside the seaside, a new exhibition of historical photographs depicting life on the British coast. Find out more about this fascinating collection and about the images on show.
Hello, I’m Claire Warrior. Next month, the National Maritime Museum opens Beside the Seaside, a new exhibition of historical photographs depicting life on the British coast. I’m going to tell you more about this fascinating collection, and give you a glimpse of some of the images that will steal the show.
One of the main aims of this exhibition is to showcase the museum’s fantastic collections of historical photographs. When it opened its doors to the public in 1937, the National Maritime Museum had already collected some 5,000 negatives. By 1950, over 50,000 photographs had become part of the collections, and that number has continued to rise and rise.
We had a great time trawling through the collections and finding images for the exhibition, but it was difficult to know where to start. We asked the curatorial team, who look after the historical photographs for some guidance, and they suggested some of the collections that they’ve earmarked as being particularly important.
The collection of Frith and Company caught our eye. Francis Frith was something of a pioneer. He was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire to a Quaker family. His interest in photography began in the 1840s, when it was still a very new technology. Frith had made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business and as a printer, and this money enabled him to combine his love of photography with his thirst for travel.
From 1856 to 1860, he made three tours to the Middle East and Africa, and he took his photographic equipment with him. In 1860, Frith founded a photographic publishing company, selling prints to the public. He then became interested in documenting the British Isles, and he and the photographers that he commissioned toured the length and breadth of the country, visiting thousands of towns and villages between them.
Frith died in 1898, but his company continued to flourish. With the advent of the picture postcard, it moved into postcard publishing, and became one of the biggest companies in the field in the country.
There’s quite an interesting story behind how we got the glass plate negatives that we have. In 1971, the Frith Company ceased trading. George Osbourne, the NMM’s curator of historic photographs at the time, visited the company’s premises and sorted out a whole load of the original glass plate negatives of British coastal subjects, putting aside all that he could find in the time that he was there. Most of the images date from between 1880 and 1940. The National Maritime Museum now has some 1, 293 negatives from the Frith Company archive and you’ll see a taster of that in the exhibition.
One of the things that I love about the collection is the fact that it has so many images of familiar places, but you have to look closely to see what has changed and what has remained the same. It was really hard to choose which images to use, but it seemed to make sense to us to look at something that many British people have some kind of experience of – the seaside and the coast. We focused on England and Wales, because there were so many great images from these areas, and we decided to arrange the exhibition geographically by region.
The story of the development of seaside resorts follows the same general pattern, the coming of the railways being just about the most important reason that some resorts flourished. With the growth of a resort came the development of the familiar seaside architecture: peers, pavilions, and promenades – a lot of the things that we can see today.
We also wanted to include places that were working coastal communities, like the villages of Devon and Cornwall, that are now known for being picturesque visitor attractions. We wanted to contrast them with the leisure pursuits seen beside the seaside.
For me, the delight is in the detail – the small children paddling with their skirts and trousers rolled up in Scarborough, the Exmouth cockle woman who is wrapped up against the elements but has bare feet, the women sheltering under underbrellas to avoid tanning their faces, or the crew of the Skegness lifeboat proudly wearing their cork lifejackets.
I think one of my favourite images contrasts these ideas of work and leisure. It’s a picture of Scarborough, with a scattering of bathing machines at the front foreshore. These were used for people to protect their modesty; they would undress there, and then swim in the sea next to the bathing machine, sheltered from public view. At the back of the picture is a vast herring fleet with the sails up. The sheer size of the fleet is amazing, and you do get a real sense of contrast of somewhere like Scarborough being both a working fishing town and somewhere that people went for leisure.
I’m now going to hand you over to one of the exhibition’s curators, Jude Holland, who is going to tell you about a few of her favourite things in the display, including some special Punch and Judy puppets that we’re putting on display for the first time.
Thanks Claire. Now, I’m going to talk to you about a few photographs from the section on the north-east and east of England in the exhibition. This is my part of the world. The British seaside is a subject that is quite close to my heart, because as a student, I spent a summer working at a burger bar on Cleethorpes beach, and that certainly gave me an interest and experience of seaside life.
One of my favorite photographs in the exhibition is of my hometown, Grimsby. This photograph is from the 1890s, and it shows the harbor full of fishing trawlers. There is not that much left of Grimsby’s fishing industry today, but the town’s dock tower, which was modelled on Sienna Town Hall and built in 1852 is still there, and that’s an important landmark for local people.
Another photograph I love in this section is of Whitby, which is a town that I frequently visited as a child with my family, as I was growing up. This photograph shows Whitby’s harbour, and you can see the medieval abbey on the hillside in the distance. The abbey is mentioned in Bram Stoker’s famous horror novel “Dracula”, and Bram Stoker actually stayed in Whitby while he was writing this book.
As Claire mentioned, the exhibition features five Punch and Judy puppets. The museum acquired these in 2001 from Peter Butchard, who was a local Punch and Judy man. They’re handmade, and the puppets were used by several generations of Punch and Judy men before Peter Butchard acquired them. The distinctive Punch puppet on display in the exhibition is probably around 150 years old, but lots of alterations have been made to him since that day.
When I was doing some research for the exhibition, I uncovered some quite exciting old newspaper articles which Pete had kept about his puppet performances. And it turns out that after starting to perform in Broadstairs, on the beach there after his retirement, he took his show around the world and went to countries like Greece and Australia bringing the delights of Punch and Judy to children there.
He also performed in front of the Queen at the opening of the National Theatre on the Southbank in 1976. And he gave his last show in Greenwich in 1999 at the age of 90. He’s actually still around at the age of 99, so we’re really hoping that he’ll be able to come and see the exhibition. The puppets are now in their very own customized display case, which Richard Norris, one of the museum’s collections display team expertly painted up to look like a theatrical stage set, and that looks really great now, brings out the colours of the puppets; so hopefully you’ll get to see them in the exhibition.