I’m very pleased to feature the first of two new guest posts from Peter Claxton recounting Bridlington Borough Council’s significant council housing programme and its vigorous efforts to promote the town as a seaside resort. (Peter has contributed earlier posts on the history of council housing in Cottingham.) He now focuses most of his research time on Kingston upon Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century with particular emphasis on public health and housing.
Bridlington in winter is a silent place, where cats and landladies’ husbands walk gently down the middle of the street.
T. E. Shaw – Lawrence of Arabia – in his observations on 1930s ‘out of season’ Bridlington, highlighted a problem that beset – and still does to this day – many of our seaside resorts, the lack of year-round employment. (1) Twenty years earlier when the borough council first contemplated the provision of housing, the Medical Officer of Health laid bare the problem to be faced: (2)
The Corporation will have to be very careful in tackling this question in the future. As Bridlington is a seaside resort the majority of the working classes do not desire workmen’s houses but larger ones, so that their income may be largely increased by taking in visitors.
The task was further complicated by the fact that Bridlington was a town divided, as the old Local Board had noted: (3)
The Old Town is mostly residential and takes the bulk of the labouring classes, whilst The Quay is chiefly occupied by lodging houses and private residences.
The arrival of the railway in 1846 came to represent more than just a delineation on a map, it influenced the fortunes of each part of the town. Bridlington Quay was no longer a ‘harbour of refuge’ for the coastal trade or the port through which much of the East Riding’s agricultural produce – predominantly malt – was shipped. And as a result, the Old Town to the north-west slipped into an interminable decline. Within a decade of the railway’s arrival the 600-year-old market was in a state of atrophy. The residences and offices of solicitors, bankers and merchants, intrinsic elements of a former vibrant agrarian economy, were by the end of the nineteenth century, but marcescent reminders of its former standing as a market town. Attestation to the area’s demise was further evidenced by a plethora of insanitary working-class dwellings.
Conversely , as a late nineteenth-century trade directory noted: (4)
Bridlington Quay a mean and insignificant village at the commencement of the present century, [is] now a small but handsome town and seaside resort, with all the comforts and conveniences which [a] luxurious age demands …
The Quay, to the south-east of the railway, was the new face of Bridlington, offering entertainment for those that came ‘for the day’ or ‘stayed a week.’ It was, ‘the seaside resort nearest to most of the great centres of population of the West Riding.’ (5) It also attracted the commuter and by 1921, more than 2,800 Bridlington residents worked in Hull or the West Riding, with many residing in villa style houses that populated the new roads close to the seafront. (6)
As such, the work of the district council – declared a borough in 1899 – differed at each side of the railway, and by the outbreak of war in 1914, it had erected new housing in the Old Town, and at The Quay, entered the world of entertainment and leisure.
Following a visit to Joseph Rowntree’s model village of New Earswick in 1913, it was suggested at a council meeting that: (7)
Rowntree’s cottages in York, they were no doubt excellent in many ways but they could not be erected by the council at anything like the price … Garden Cities – they were not always suitable or satisfactory or cheap.
Words that clearly identified the problems to be faced by the borough council. There was no local benefactor ready to fund provision; agricultural wages were depressed, and other forms of employment predominantly seasonal. These issues would be reflected in the design and size of properties erected. Maximum weekly rents were to be in the region of five shillings (25p) per week, in fact the council hoped that smaller properties might be let at less than four shillings (20p).
Also, there were members on the council associated with the building trade, evidently nervous of the possibility of stepping away from traditional methods of construction. Letchworth was cited as an example, where as well as standard brick construction, alternative build techniques had been introduced. It was noted that ‘many were becoming cracked and [were] generally too-well ventilated.’ (8)
By 1914, the council had built 35 terraced houses – with ten allocated to employees working at the town’s power station – and twelve bungalows. Yet it suffered criticism regarding rents and in particular, the bijou nature of the bungalows for ‘old couples and widows.’ At 300 foot super the three-roomed dwellings were exceedingly small. As a councillor insensitively questioned, ‘How on earth was a fat woman to turn in a scullery such as was proposed …’ (9)
With the town’s sleeping population often quadrupling during the summer months, the sub-letting of rooms became an imperative for many families. (10) The council signalled acceptance of the practice confirming: (11)
[It] had no objection to the taking in of visitors. If they could make a little money that way it would help to pay their rents.
This was a perennial problem for both council and tenants. The council saw the wisdom in building smaller houses, thereby reducing the risk of unpaid rents during the winter months. Tenants were keen on larger properties to augment their income during the summer.
Indeed, there were opportunities galore for those with spare room to let. The privately built New Spa south of the harbour attracted 80,000 visitors within a month of opening in 1896. (12)
The council responded to the lack of amenities on the North Shore in 1904, erecting a glass and iron Floral Pavilion adjacent to the bandstand on the Royal Princes Parade.
Two years later it built the Grand Pavilion at the north end of the Royal Princes Parade. With a seating capacity for 2000, it was in the popular ‘oriental end of pier’ style favoured at many seaside resorts.
Everything of course changed in August 1914. A provincial weekly publication summed up the town’s plight perfectly: (13)
But the place had a strangely deserted appearance, where it was usual to see thousands, there were only hundreds. You may write to half-a-dozen boarding houses, and find that any one of them can spare you a room or rooms…
The town’s Medical Officer of Health’s comments were far more revealing: (14)
Owing to the outbreak of war in August the season proved a failure, … there is no doubt that many spinsters and widows, who rely upon their income and livelihood to come from visitors, are on the verge of starvation.
In 1919, the council’s intentions were made clear when it purchased the 1907 Spa Theatre and Opera House, as well as the original 1896 Spa. The future of the town and its residents, rested with the development and promotion of the resort.
North-west of the railway, municipal attention turned once more to the town’s permanent residents. But the vagaries of employment in both agriculture and leisure remained. The local Master Builders’ Association continued its crusade for larger properties: (15)
What is needed in a seaside resort is a house of a rather larger type, with sufficient accommodation to enable tenants to augment their income by taking visitors during the season.
The council’s vision of the way forward, was however, diametrically opposed to that of local builders. There were to be no lavish plans for an inordinate number of large council houses each with spare rooms to rent out. A perceptible change in the ‘holidaying habits’ of those that came to stay for a week had been noted. Visitors were starting to choose, ‘… camp sites for cheaper holidays free from the irksome rules of boarding houses.’ (16) The age of the tent, converted railway carriages or buses, ex-army huts or wooden bungalows had arrived. (17).
In tandem with private provision, house building gradually brought the two parts of the town together. Following a modest build of twelve houses in 1921 on the aptly named Borough Road, construction of the Postill estate began two years later. By the middle of the decade the council had erected approximately 200 properties.
Sadly, an attempt to promote home ownership during the 1920s failed to gain traction. A proposed ‘purchase out of rent’ scheme attracted a mere six inquiries and was swiftly shelved by the council. (18) At the same time, a briefing document regarding the regeneration of the seafront reiterated: (19)
Apart from the fishing industry there are no established industries in the Borough which is purely a health and pleasure resort for the large industrial populations …
The document informed that visitor numbers arriving by train ‘during the season’ had risen from 216,000 in 1922, to 320,000 by 1925, (20) and the town had to move with the times. Visitors were now seeking, ‘… music and entertainments as evidenced by the popular craze for dancing.’ (21) It would take a substantial amount of money, approximately £100,000, and the council was convinced that this was the way forward.
Disappointingly, no matter how busy the seafront was during the summer, it could never sustain the whole town through the winter months. But, as we shall see in a follow-up blog, efforts to increase year-round employment proved contentious. And when ambitious plans for the regeneration of the seafront failed to come to fruition, a subsequent appointment by the council proved fortuitous.
(1) R. Knowles and P. Clabburn, Cats and Landladies’ Husbands: T.E. Lawrence in Bridlington (The Fleece Press, 1995)
(2) Borough of Bridlington Medical Officer of Health Report, 1911, wellcomecollection.org
(3) District of Bridlington Local Board & Urban Sanitary Authority Report for 1893, wellcomecollection.org
(4) T. Bulmer & Cos., Directory of East Yorkshire, 1892
(5) D. Neave, Port, Resort and Market Town: A History of Bridlington (Hull Academic Press, 2000)
(6) D. and S. Neave, Bridlington: An Introduction to its History and Buildings (Smith Settle Ltd., 2000)
(7) ‘The Housing Problem’, Bridlington Free Press, 31 January 1913
(9) ‘12 Cottages to be built’, BFP, 20 March 1913
(10) Neave, Port Resort
(11) ’Visitors and Workmen’s Houses’, BFP, 26 September 1913
(12) D. and S. Neave, Bridlington: An introduction
(14) Borough of Bridlington Medical Officer of Health Report, 1914
(15) ‘Boarding-Houses Preferred’, BFP, 1 March 1920
(16) D. and S. Neave, Bridlington: An Introduction
(18) ‘Purchase out of rent scheme’, Hull Daily Mail, 28 April 1927
19. Seafront regeneration briefing document, East Riding Archives, BOBR/2/15/4/518