Monday, January 18, 2010



I walked to Mumbles yesterday. In case you don’t know, Mumbles is the once-quaint-now-trendy fishing village west of Swansea. It’s January, but for once it wasn’t raining (nor even snowing!) and the sun was shining. I didn’t walk as far as the pier, but I started to get the song from Sweeney Todd stuck in my head:

Where I’d really like to go
In a year or so
Doncha wanna know?
Do you really wanna know?
By the sea, Mr Todd, that’s the life I covet
By the sea, Mr Todd, oh I know you’d love it
You and me, Mr T, we could be alone
In a house wot we’d almost own . . .

I realize Sweeney Todd isn’t the best gauge of historical practice, but the British have a documented relationship with seaside resorts which, if you think about it, is kind of amusing since it’s all one big island. (I also realize that almost every country bordered by the sea has resorts and a history of going there, from Malta to Iran.)

I have to confess this is something I didn’t think about until I started working in the Tram Shed for Swansea Museum this last spring and summer. Coming from a landlocked state, sure, we had summer beach vacations to California and Virginia Beach. I have to confess to a limited background on this ,but what I’ve read on the history of transportation in Britain suggests that, other than big events like the Great Exhibition of 1851, ordinary working people had a) little time for holidays (a few days at most); b) a limited number of places they could practically go. So the southern coast of England and Wales were the usual spots.

I mentioned to you last time about rock and how I had difficulty even picturing it from Tim Richardson’s description; now I’ve been to enough seaside towns to understand what it is (and I’d never put it in my mouth). But that’s part of the collective British consciousness of going to the seaside. I listened to that video in the Tram Shed about the Mumbles Railway (first passenger railway in the world) so many times that I’ve picked up the information from osmosis, but most memorable were the days when the reenactor would take school children on the old tram car and pretend they were going to the seaside.

Everyone here, from Dawn French to my Swansea friends of a certain age, remembers having grit-filled sandwiches at the seaside. There are the inevitable donkey rides (never saw any donkeys at Santa Monica Pier, though I suppose there could have been!). In the beginning (ie, mid- to late-nineteenth century) there were bathing huts and bathing costumes. The children were always amazed when the reenactor told them of the costumes (hats, heavy skirts, bloomers, etc) women had to wear for “sea-bathing.” Certainly it’s a miracle that more people didn’t drown. They would always end the session by singing songs like “Oh I Do Like to Be By the Seaside” and the one about Daisy and the bicycle.

Oh, and the Punch and Judy show. You can’t conceive how excited I got about seeing a Punch and Judy show. All the adults around me regarded the live show for the kids with indifference, but then they had all seen them throughout their youths. Punch and Judy made me think “medieval,” for some reason (probably because of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to be honest!) and it did seem somewhat amazing to me that such an old, populist art form could still be going. So I did finally get to see my first Punch and Judy show, and I was a bit shocked by the violence. Of course, it is all perpetrated by puppets and the psychopathic Punch gets detained by the law in the end. Still, the dog and then the baby getting thrown down the stairs, not to mention Mrs Punch getting her lights knocked out, disturbed me slightly. When I talked casually to one of the performers, he downplayed my domestic violence fears. Someone, I can’t remember who, suggested that it was simply an unflinching historical record of the times in which it was conceived. The humor, despite all this, is quite charming.

I found out that at one point, Swansea was poised to become the next Brighton in terms of resort towns. This was the very early nineteenth century, and Beau Brummel often relaxed in the town. It was this pivotal time when Swansea swivelled between industry and recreation, and in the end became an industrial town. By the time of the 1851 census, the east side of the town by the river had all become devoted to copperworks, steelworks, and shipping (all the coalmining was in the Valleys). I often think about how differently things might have turned out, if Swansea had gone the resort route. I have even thought about making the “never-was” into a musical!

The Two Ronnies at the Seaside

1 comment:

LSJansen said...

Trust the historian to get curious:
The earliest Punch shows go back to 14 Century Italy - so your instincts were quite right. Found a website if you're interested:

For what it's worth, I find them pretty violent and uncomfortable to watch too. I think it comes down to cultural/historical relevance and remembering that even though we live in a violent world, you and I didn't grow up with everyday violence (like the sort you'd read about in The Prince and the Pauper or Oliver Twist) of the sort Punch performs so it's alien to us find it funny. I think.