West Sussex Unwrapped: A Sussex Summertime

With around 50 miles of picturesque coastline, it’s no surprise that West Sussex has been a popular summer destination since the 1700s. As a result, resort towns like Bognor, Littlehampton, Worthing and the Witterings developed rapidly and have all been home to beachfront villas, donkey rides, boarding houses, bathing machines, and of course ice cream!

Plunge into this blog and immerse yourself in a selection of summer-themed archival records.

Summer on film

Snippet from the Summer film on Vimeo by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

Summer in the archive

Taking tea on the sand dunes, Littlehampton, 1920s. Photo by George Garland, Garland N69.
Illustration of people bathing in the sea

Postcard by The Cynicus Publishing Co. Ltd., 1908 – PD 1549

Byelaws under the Public Health Act of 1875 forbade adult men and women to bath together. However, these rules were relaxed in Bognor in 1898, allowing everyone to go into the sea at once. As one of the first beaches to do so, this made the town a very popular destination for holidaying families, and a good topic for humorous postcards!

More humourous postcards from the archive

Black and white portrait of an elderly woman in a black dress and black hat

Mary Wheatland, ‘bathing woman of Bognor’, by Gerard Young, c1910 – GY PH 3045

Mary Wheatland was the manager of the Bognor bathing machines from the 1860s until her retirement in 1909. She was an iconic character not least because she was responsible for the safety of her bathers, saving many lives during her tenure as the ‘bathing woman of Bognor’.

Courtesy of the University of Chichester.

People paddling in the sea alongside bathing machines

Bathing machines were popular from the 18th century until the early 20th century and were an important part of beach etiquette. They allowed swimmers to modestly change out of their clothes into swimwear and wade into the sea, away from prying eyes.

Bathing machines at Bognor c1910, PH 3963

Animals by the sea

Whilst the only animals you’ll find on our beaches today tend to be more along the lines of pet dogs, elephants and donkeys were once popular! Well, perhaps not the elephants, though they did indeed visit Bognor in around 1890. They were part of Sanger’s Circus, a popular travelling show, who took their performance elephants to exercise on the beach – much to the bemusement and wonder of the locals!

Bognor also offered donkey rides to excited children. However, Worthing went to another level and offered goat rides! Popular in the Victorian era, children would clamber aboard a miniature carriage and potter about the beach courtesy of a couple of goats.

Someone performs as a puppet in a miniature theatre for a seaside show.
Bale’s Living Marionettes. Postcard from the Gerard Young Collection, GY PC 1105. Courtesy of the University of Chichester.

Accommodating the holiday makers

(A few select hotels. Clockwise from left to right – PH 3963 – PH 575 – detail of Kevis 4/360 – Kevis 4/360)

The Beach Hotel in Bognor (image PH 3963) as seen in around 1900. Bognor is more recently famous for Butlin’s which opened in 1932 with an amusement park. A zoo was then added and finally a holiday camp was launched. Similarly, the Marine Hotel in Worthing (image PH 575) was a popular beachfront hotel, and it is seen here also around 1900. Lastly, in the heart of West Sussex was the sizable Swan Hotel in Petworth (image Kevis 4-360) which employed many local people from the surrounding area during it’s time, until it closed in the 1980s.

A girl in a bathing costume with an ice cream sandwich smiles at the camera.
Eating an ice cream sandwich by the sea. Still from Screen Archive South East’s ‘Summer’ film.

National Dairy and Ice Cream Convention certificate – AM 613

I scream! You scream! We all scream for ice cream!

This certificate was awarded to Mr T. E. Pescott of Straits Diary, Middleton-on-Sea, for the ‘Best Dressed Ice Cream Window’ in January 1935. Yes, we know, January is an incongruous time of year for such a convention. Nevertheless, his window display must’ve looked tempting and delicious enough to win such an accolade! We can only imagine the taste of award-winning ice cream….

Illustration of a girl in a bathing costume and spade watches the sea.

Brighton Railway poster advertising trips to Selsey, c1912 – Add Mss 13773

Selsey, like a number of resort towns on the coast of West Sussex, was a popular destination for day trippers in the early 20th century. Note the language used in this poster, “a healthy rural village”. The clean, fresh air and comparatively slower pace of life in rural towns was a tonic to worn-out city dwellers and factory workers. Those with a little more to spend may have even stayed in a local boarding house or B&B, or perhaps a hotel if they were feeling extravagant.

You can read more on the history behind this poster here.

A pile of magazines with colourful photographs

Sunny Worthing magazines, 1960s

The sixties ushered in higher national employment levels and more disposable income, and a yearly holiday was increasingly affordable for many families. Seaside resorts experienced a boom in tourism. These brightly coloured publications were more like holiday brochures, promoting a summer spent in Worthing and luring back repeat visitors. From entertainment listings to taxi services, they covered everything that a holiday-maker would need to know about the town. Highly saturated photographs filled the pages, enticing potential visitors with blue skies, fashionable restaurants and trendy clientele.

Keep an eye out for next week’s theme, ‘Nursing’, on Tuesday 23rd June.


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