History and Mystery at the Seaside

A post by my wife, Annie...

A Seaside Mourning is a Victorian murder mystery, set in the fictional town of Seaborough, a small resort in East Devon. I love this area, maybe it’s in my genes, for it was the home of my ancestors. John and I have spent many happy days exploring the villages and walking the old by-ways in the footsteps of my forebears. Two were Victorian police constables, perhaps much like the ones in the story.

East Devon is an area of the county often overlooked by holiday-makers. A timeless landscape of narrow lanes, ancient hedgerows, thatched cottages, meadows and commons. There are a few sedate seaside resorts, their railway stations and branch-lines long gone.

Budleigh Salterton

The unspoilt coastline features dramatic, zig-zag cliffs of red sandstone, gradually fading to chalk near the county border. Together with the neighbouring cliffs of Dorset, they make up the Jurassic Coast, Britain’s only Natural World Heritage Site.

I’m fascinated by the history of seaside resorts and have lived in two very different ones. In A Seaside Mourning, Seaborough is expanding. It is autumn 1873 and the town now has its railway branch-line. New houses are going up and some businessmen are keen for a pier, and other amenities, to be developed.

Many of the characters are on the make, jostling for more money and social position. Some are fighting for security in a precarious society, shadowed by fear of the work-house. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is not safe. This was an age when policemen were not considered gentlemen. A detective was treated by the well-off as a distasteful necessity, an embarrassment who should call at the tradesmen’s entrance.

Abbs cannot summon suspects to interview if they are his social ‘betters.’ He must catch a murderer without giving offence. Dismissal, without a reference, is always a threat.

Walk through the streets of any British seaside town, trace back the architecture and you’ll most likely find it began as a fishing village. The rise of the seaside resort – offering buildings and entertainment designed to attract tourists – gradually began in the eighteenth century. At that time the concept of an annual holiday for the masses didn’t exist. The wealthy tended to travel abroad on the classical Grand Tour or over-winter on the Continent. Working people had neither the money nor paid leisure to explore new places.

From the mid-1700s, physicians began questioning whether sea-water might have healing properties, similar to those of spa water. An enterprising Sussex physician, Dr. Richard Russell set up a house for patients in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone in 1753. ‘Taking the waters,’ at inland spa resorts, was fashionable. There was money to be made from rich invalids – and hypochondriacs – so there may have been some self-interest involved.

Dr. Russell published works on the rejuvenating powers of sea-bathing and drinking salt water, claiming his treatments cured enlarged glands and all manner of ailments. As well as swimming, his patients were immersed in baths of salt-water and encouraged to ‘promenade’ in the sea air. This quickly became prevalent medical opinion.

Just as today, landowners and speculative builders were quick to spot a business opportunity. Scarborough, on the coast of Yorkshire, had the best of both worlds. Mineral water had been discovered there in the early seventeenth century and they had a flourishing spa by the beach. Wheel out the bathing-machines and the town was well-placed to develop into England’s earliest seaside resort.

Villages along the South Coast, in particular, offered a mild climate and an easier journey from the capital. They began to throw up lodgings suitable for well-to-do visitors. Theatres and assembly rooms were built, promenades and sea-front gardens laid out. New resorts advertised their picturesque scenery, carriage tours and health-giving benefits.

Jane Austen satirised this new enthusiasm in her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon. Much missed, detective novelist Reginald Hill did a witty take on Sanditon in his Dalziel and Pascoe novel A Cure For All Diseases.

Sidmouth, in East Devon, is a possible contender for Austen’s Sanditon, though several resorts fit the clues. It’s most likely that Jane Austen was thinking of more than one place. The Austens enjoyed holidaying along the Channel coast. Their stays at Lyme Regis in 1803 and 04 famously inspired part of the setting of Persuasion.

Fashion played a part in putting a watering-hole on the map. When George III’s physicians recommended he try the sea cure in 1788, he chose the village of Weymouth on the Dorset coast. Liking its sheltered sandy bay, he returned many times, making Weymouth one of England’s oldest seaside resorts.

His son, later the Prince Regent, vastly preferred Brighthelmstone, nearer London. Under his patronage it expanded rapidly to cater for his younger,  wilder set. It has never lost its stylish and racy reputation. The spelling changed to suit its pronunciation and a new saying became widespread. Wealthy patients were advised to try Doctor Brighton.

Some towns started out as the vision of a single developer. In the 1780s, a wealthy merchant, Sir Richard Hotham, bought up land around the Sussex fishing village of Bognor. He intended to design a purpose-built resort, modestly named Hothampton, and entice the King away from Weymouth, making himself a second fortune. George III never obliged and the town reverted to Bognor soon after Sir Richard’s death. He did leave the townspeople several fine terraces and a splendid park. Bognor is another contender for Sanditon.

New resorts received a boost to their fortunes when the Napoleonic wars closed the Continent to travellers. Prosperous invalids, and people living in seclusion, often settled by the sea in smart new villas for the gentry. Lady Nelson came to live at Exmouth, an early East Devon resort, after Nelson’s association with Lady Emma Hamilton became public knowledge.

Hunstanton features briefly in A Christmas Malice, an Inspector Abbs novella, set just after his case in Seaborough. This West Norfolk resort came about as the scheme of one man in 1846. Henry Le Strange, an architect and local landowner, built a hotel on an empty headland as the flagship of his new town.

A typically enthusiastic Victorian ‘entrepreneur’, he gathered investors to fund a railway-line from King’s Lynn to his planned site, named after the nearby village of Old Hunstanton. It took another 16 years before the railway arrived and further building work began.

Many resorts can date their growth to the arrival of the railway. It became the custom for middle-class Victorian families to send their children to the seaside with nannies and nursery-maids. The first pleasure pier had been constructed at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, as early as 1814. Almost a hundred more followed, mostly in England and Wales.

The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 gave workers four days off – five in Scotland. On Whit Monday and in August, railway companies laid on ‘Bank Holiday Specials’ for the day-trippers pouring into popular resorts. At last, accessible for the pleasure of ordinary working people, the seaside resort, as we know it today, had arrived.

The first two Inspector Abbs Victorian Mysteries, A Seaside Mourning and A Christmas Malice are on sale on Kindle for 99 pence/cents for this week – both books and the third mystery Speak for the Dead are also available in paperback.

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