Us Brits are unashamed holiday junkies. Last year, eight out of ten of us took a holiday with the average family of four spending a whopping £3,440 – the equivalent of two months’ salary. What’s more, one in four of us say that we expect to spend even more on our holiday this year! As holidays move online, more and more of us spend our lunch breaks checking airfares and day-dreaming as we scroll through images of gorgeous destinations. We agonise, save and plan for that perfect summer break.

Yes, it’s fair to say that we’ve always taken our holidays seriously but the way in which we holiday has changed beyond all imagination. While exotic breaks to Spain, Portugal and more far-flung destinations now rule the roost, it hasn’t always been this way. The older among us will fondly remember a time before pristine white sand beaches, city breaks and activity holidays – a gone but not forgotten British holiday where campsites, donkey rides, glamorous grannies and knobbly knees were king.

But what if we were to go even further back in time to find out how our ancestors holidayed and where and how the British holiday was born? From the modesty of the Victorian era to the kitsch and Carry On of the 50s and 60s – home or abroad – we’ve always managed to inject a typically British sense of fun into our leisure time. So let’s journey through the ages to see how we used to holiday.

This is ‘The Great British Holiday’ and this is its story…

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A History of the British Holiday:

1. Early 18th century – A healthy obsession

The craze for sea bathing dates back to the 18th ­century when doctors started ­prescribing the seaside, just as they had prescribed taking the spa waters at Bath. A number of scientific papers at the time suggested that bathing and actually drinking sea water was beneficial to health. You could say that the popularity of such healthy sojourns, taken mainly by the wealthy were the precursor to the modern spa break.

2. Victorian Era (1837-1901) – Summer job

The six-weeks of summer holidays that UK children enjoy today are linked to our agricultural past. Families needed their children’s labour over the summer to pick fruit and farm the land – something to keep in mind next time you find the kids lazing away their holidays on the sofa!

3. 1840 – Steaming ahead

While there had been huge expansion of the railways in the 1830s and 40s, there was not yet an established market for intercity travel. 1841 saw the birth of the package holiday as entrepreneur Thomas Cook arranged to take a group of 540 temperance campaigners from Leicester Campbell Street station to a rally in Loughborough. Cook arranged for the rail company to charge one shilling per person that included rail tickets and food for the journey. Cook established his travel agency, Thomas Cook & Son, and by 1888, the company had offices all around the world.

4. 1871 – We’re all going on a summer holiday [song by Cliff Richard]

The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 was passed to give bank workers the chance to watch a day’s cricket but also came at a time when railway travel was quickly becoming more prevalent across the nation. Suddenly, people had a little more free time and were able to travel much further than they were before – Brits flocked to the seaside and by the 1890s, about 360,000 Londoners headed to the coast for the August Bank Holiday.

5.  1878 – Pleasure Palaces: a glimpse of the spectacular

Seaside towns like Blackpool and Southend-on-Sea began to flourish, and holiday resorts sprang up all along the coast. The resorts popularised many of the enduring British holiday traditions we know today such as ice creams, donkey rides, sticks of rock and Punch and Judy shows.  However, some provided more sophisticated attractions. ‘Pleasure Palaces’ – venues that combined music halls, theatres, opera houses, zoos and even lagoons complete with Venetian gondolas – offered ordinary Brits a glimpse of the spectacular.

6. 1900’s – Rolling in the deep

The Victorians are well known for their obsession with modesty and the seaside was no exception. So that nobody of the opposite sex would see them in their swimming costumes, they used a ‘bathing machine’ – a roofed and walled, wooden cart – that they would change in, before it was rolled into the sea.  Some resorts employed someone called a dipper that would push the bathers into the water and yank them out once they were done – all part of the Victorian seaside experience apparently!

7. 1910 – 1920’s – Good morning comrades!

Caister Holiday Park, near Great Yarmouth, claims to have been Britain’s first ever holiday camp. But anyone who arrived thinking they were there to relax was in for a shock – guests stayed in bell-tents and were woken at 7am by loudspeaker bellowing: ‘Good morning, comrades!’ Everyone was expected to take part in exercise drills along the beach and male guests were even put to work in the camp’s vegetable patch!

8. 1930’s – One door closes, another opens

Billy Butlin, the founder of Butlins holiday camps, reportedly founded the company after getting locked out of an unwelcoming Welsh boarding house, between meals. Surely, he thought, people would pay for a holiday where they weren’t expected to make their own entertainment? Cost of a week’s holiday was £2.12s.3d per person!

9. 1940’s – War is over

During the Second World War many British holiday camps had been taken over for military use. In 1945 they once again opened their doors to holiday makers. In some cases, the campers moved in almost as the soldiers marched out!

10. 1950’s – 1960’s – It’s all in the knees

In an era before travelling abroad became widely affordable, getting to a seaside holiday camp was a much cheaper option – you would pay just . In the 1950s, a return train fare from Brighton to London was just over twice the price of a portion of fish and chips. Knobbly knees and glamorous granny competitions were all the rage. With their wheelbarrow races, bonny baby contests and donkey rides, the camps epitomised a very British way of having fun.

11. 1970’s – Sex on the beach

Club 18-30 was set up in 1970, offering singles and young couples the opportunity to travel without families or children. While promotion of the brand was initially low-key, its popularity was increased as air fares dropped and an advertising campaign that targeted young, sexually active people looking to enjoy uninhibited, alcohol-fuelled fun. Club 18-30 is still around today and has retained its position in the youth market – the average age of guests is 19 and one third are travelling without their parents for the first time.

12. 1970-1980’s – The Brits abroad

By the 1980s an explosion in low-cost package holidays brought new experiences for ordinary people that their parents and grandparents could barely have imagined. In 1971, British tourists took four million holidays abroad. By 1981 it was more than 13 million. Even for poorer families, holidays no longer meant Blackpool and Bognor but sun, sea, sand and sangria.

13. 1987 – Costa del Dole

Figures show that the best ever years for the British seaside holiday were the early to mid-70s when just over 40 million people had a holiday in the UK. However, the lure of guaranteed sunshine abroad and the falling price of air travel, decimated the traditional British seaside holiday. The worst ever year was in 1987. During the so called “Costa del Dole” days of the eighties many boarding houses switched to offering accommodation to the unemployed instead of families on holiday!

14. 2000’s – Travel gets sophisticated

The package holiday was said to be in decline after 2003 – killed off by budget airlines and the internet. Brits were now able to find their own cheap fares and board without a tour operator – this created a rapid increase in the number of people travelling further a field, looking for culturally authentic, educational and holistic experiences – rather than the bucket and spade holidays of old. However, some suggest that the death of the package holiday has been exaggerated – figures show that in 2014, more than half of UK holidaymakers booked a package.

15. 2008 – No place like home

The economic woes of the 2008 financial crisis brought an increase in the number of people taking so-called staycations rather than venturing abroad. However, despite the economy improving, fondness for holidaying at home has continued to stay high. Holidays in England jumped by 12% between 2008 and 2013. Short trips were the fastest growing area of domestic vacations, with 29.6m one- to three-day holidays taken in England in 2013, a 17% increase on 2008.

Source: The rise of the staycation more Brits holidaying at home, The Telegraph – A history of package holidays: Rising numbers indicate a renaissance with an updated and classier holiday experience, Independent – Seaside Statistics, seasidehistory.co.uk – Package holidays flashback, DailyMail – Club 18-39, Wikipedia – Torremolinos it ain’t: Holiday snaps from a bygone age of bonny babies and knobbly knees at the holiday camps of Fifties Britain, DailyMail – Bathing Machine, Wikipedia – Start of the seaside, Express.co.uk – The Bank Holiday Act, Wikipedia – Summer Holidays History Victorians, Timetour.co.uk – School holidays are a pointless relic of the past, The Telegraph, English Heritage – Queen Victoria’s Beach, Messy Nessy Chic – Victorian Prudes and their bizarre bathing machines, Retrorambling Blog.
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