Vintage posters from the National Railway Museum tell the story of the Great British Holiday

By Catherine Farrell, National Railway Museum | 30 July 2010
a Blackpool poster with three flappers in 20s style attired leaning on a promenade rail

With a collective tightening of purse strings in the wake of the new Government’s spending cuts and the chaos caused by volcanic ash earlier this year, the ‘staycation’ is enjoying an unprecedented surge of popularity in the UK.

Cash-strapped holiday-makers are rediscovering the delights of the traditional resorts which their parents and grandparents enjoyed back in the glory days of the seaside holiday and a recent report from Sheffield Hallam University suggests the seaside tourism industry is currently contributing 3.6bn to Britain’s beleaguered economy.

Those interested in the origins of the seaside holiday should make tracks to the National Railway Museum (NRM), where the ‘rail’ story of the Great British Getaway can be found in the NRM’s priceless poster collection housed in its public archive centre Search Engine.

Railways and Holidays
The railway was instrumental to the development of the traditional seaside holiday. The seaside town was born in the late 19th century when the railway network reached the small fishing villages which peppered the UK coastlines. With carriage loads of workers from the city looking for fresh air and recreation, these sleepy coastal towns soon transformed into thriving and busy resorts.

In the twenties and thirties on bank holiday weekends trains would be packed and people would pour out of the cities into seaside towns. By the end of the 1930s around 15 million people were going on holiday to the coast.

Butlin’s holiday camps, founded at Skegness in 1936, were extremely popular, and had the sort of reputation that Disney parks enjoy today. In their heyday Butlin’s along with counterpart Pontin’s epitomised the family seaside holiday as thousands flocked to their camps to be entertained by the redcoats and bluecoats.

a poster showing people cavorting round a pool

Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Skegness’, LNER poster, 1930 Poster
Poster produced for London & North Eastern Railway in conjunction with Butlin’s Holiday Camps to promote rail travel to Skegness in Lincolnshire. The poster shows an action-packed view of a throng of people enjoying themselves in and around a huge swimming pool at Butlin’s Camp, with a water feature and man beating a drum in the foreground. Artwork by E Oakdale.

The popularity of Butlin’s and Pontin's waned in the l970s as air travel expanded and trips to exotic destinations became more affordable. However, nearly 80 years on since Billy Butlin’s first holiday camp opened, the bucket and spade break isenjoying a revival; with bookings taken by the two firms surging by nearly a quarter as hard-pressed families opt to holiday in Britain rather than abroad.

This reversal in fortunes in the midst of the recession also reflects the efforts of the parks to move upmarket. Health spas, luxury rooms and fine dining restaurants have been added to attract middle-class visitors.

At the updated resorts, events such as knobbly knees competitions are distant memories. Instead there are performances from X Factor and Britain's Got Talent stars such as Stacey Solomon, Danyl Johnson and George Sampson.

East Coast Delights
Although Billy Butlin put Skegness on the map in 1936 with his flagship holiday park, it was not the only resort on the East Coast that was pulling in holiday makers by the train load.

London and North Eastern Railway were quick to capitalise on the success of coastal resorts, and produced posters advertising the delights of seaside destinations on the East Coast line from the late nineteenth century through to the second half of the twentieth.

Although travelling by car was now more commonplace, the majority of people still travelled to their holiday destination by rail and war clouds had not yet gathered to rain on the parade of the nation’s holiday plans.

In the 1930s the London & North Eastern Railway ran its ‘Quicker By Rail’ campaign to remind people that the speediest way of getting to their favourite resorts was by train.

a poster with a painting of children

'East Coast', LNER poster, 1933.
Poster produced for London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail services to the East Coast of England. The poster shows a group of small children playing in rock pools by the sea. Artwork by Dorothea Sharp (1874-1955).

a poster showing a couple leaning on a veranda overlooking a bay

Scarborough - It’s Quicker By Rail’, LNER poster, 1923-1947.
Poster produced by London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to the coastal resort of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. The poster shows a couple overlooking Scarborough South Bay from above the Spa. Artwork by W Smithson Broadhead, a portrait and horse painter who also designed railway posters.

a poster with a paintings of crowded quayside

Bridlington: It’s Quicker by Rail’, LNER poster, 1935.
Poster produced for London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to the coastal town of Bridlington, North Yorkshire. The poster shows a crowd strolling and looking at the boats on the water. The town is visible in the background. Artwork by Frank Newbould, who studied at Bradford College of Art and joined the War Office in 1942. He designed posters for the LNER (London & North Eastern Railway), GWR (Great Western Railway), Orient Line and Belgian Railways.

Family Friendly
The family friendly aspects of the seaside holidays was the focus of this campaign with a large proportion of posters showing children enjoying traditional activities such as paddling, building sand castles and exploring rock pools.

a poster with a painting of children scrambling across rocks

Filey for the Family
Poster produced for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), promoting rail travel to the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Filey, showing children clambering on rocks at the water's edge. Printed by Chorley & Pickersgill Ltd, Leeds.

a poster with an art deco style painting of two girls in swimming costumes

‘Whitley Bay by LNER’, LNER poster, c 1930s.
Poster produced by London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) to promote rail travel to Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear. The poster shows three figures on the sand on the beach, being splashed by an incoming wave. Artwork by Tom Purvis (1888-1957), who rallied for the professionalisation of commercial art. In 1930 he was one of the group of artists who founded the Society of Industrial Artists, which campaigned forimproved standards of training for commercial artists in order to broaden their scope of employment. He became one of the first Royal Designers for Industry in 1936.

A West Coast Story
The recent report by academics at Sheffield Hallam found that the Blackpool area had the largest single concentration of seaside tourist jobs at more that 19,000.

Blackpool first rose to prominence as a tourist destination in 1846, with the completion of a branch line to Blackpool from Poulton. A sudden influx of visitors, arriving by rail, provided the motivation for entrepreneurs to build accommodations and create new attractions, leading to even more visitors for the town.

The growth was intensified by the practice among the Lancashire cotton mill owners to close the factories for a week every year to service and repair machinery. These were known as wakes weeks, a title which had its origins in annual medieval holidays to celebrate the dedication of churches. Each town's mills would close for a different week, allowing Blackpool to manage a steady and reliable stream of visitors over a prolonged period in the summer.

By the end of the 19th century Blackpool was the only town in the United Kingdom to boast three piers and the Opera House was said to be the largest outside of London. Visitor numbers continued to boom in the first half of the 20th century although they started to decline with the advent of the package holiday in the 1970s. Blackpool fought back with bigger and better attractions such as the first modern looping coaster in the UK in its Pleasure Beach amusement park.

a Blackpool poster with three flappers in 20s style attired leaning on a promenade rail

‘Blackpool - Always Merry and Bright’, MR poster, 1923-1947.
Midland Railway poster: ‘Blackpool for Gorgeous Sights’ showing three women sitting on railings on the pier, with the famous tower in the background. Artwork by Wilton Williams. Printed by McCaw, Stevenson & Orr Ltd, London and Belfast.

The Sunny South
Although it was mainly the northern resorts that enjoyed the boom associated with the industrial revolution, with workers from the Northern mills making tracks for their nearest seaside destination, the story of the Southern resorts also features in the National Railway Museum collection.

Some southerly resorts such as Bournemouth and Brighton, were built as new towns or extended by local landowners to appeal to wealthier vacationers. Southern Railways used the character of ‘Sunny South Sam’ to entice holiday makers down to the south coast.

a poster with a jolly railway man

Sunny South Sam’, SR poster, 1939.
Poster produced for the Southern Railway (SR) to promote rail services to the sunny South Coast of England. Sunny South Sam made his debut in 1930 and quickly became a popular figure. He appeared in a variety of guises and often displayed Meteorological Office sunshine records for the South Coast resorts. Artwork by William Ramsden Brealey, who studied at the Sheffield School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He was a poster artist for the SR and also painted portraits.

Devon and Cornwall
Devon and Cornwall used outstanding views and superior weather to tempt holidaymakers to their shores. Torbay in South Devon became the ‘English Riviera,’ a name that promised continental weather and a realistic alternative to European travel.

a poster with a harbour scene from Cornwall

Cornwall’, GWR poster, 1937.
Great Western Railway poster showing a harbour scene. Artwork by Leonard Richmond.

a poster with a painting of sea front gardens

'Torquay, Devon's Riviera', GWR poster, 1930s.
Poster produced for the Great Western Railway (GWR), showing a view of the harbour at Torquay, noted for its mild climate, with a fashionably-dressed couple standing in a sub-tropical garden in the foreground. Artwork by Martine.

a poster with a vivid painting of people surfing and swimming in the sea

'Newquay', GWR poster, 1937.
Poster produced for Great Western Railway (GWR) to promote rail travel to Newquay, Cornwall. In 'The Winter Resorts of the West Country', published by the Great Western Railway in 1925, Newquay claimed to have a climate of 'phenomenal dryness'. It also boasted the highest class of modern hotel accomodation, the best golf course and exceptionally exhilarating air. It is Britain’s most popular place forsurfing. Artwork by Alfred Lambart, who studied art at the Allan-Frazer College of Art in Arbroath. He designed posters for London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and was a book illustrator.

From the last quarter of the twentieth century, the popularity of the British seaside resort has declined. The greater accessibility of foreign holiday destinations, through package holidays and, more recently, European low-cost airlines, affords people the freedom to holiday abroad.

Despite the loyalty of returning holiday-makers, northerly resorts such as Blackpool have struggled to compete against the favorable weather of Southern European alternatives. However the South with its warmer temperatures has been more successful in reinventing itself. Brighton is repeatedly held up as the model of a modern resort.

Although it has neither holiday camps nor end-of-the-pier shows it has still grown considerably due to its reputation for broadminded hedonism. Newquay in Cornwall, popular with surfers since the thirties has set itself up as global mecca for those catching the waves, hosting international surfing events on its shores.

As people look for ways to escape from their constantly beeping mobiles and ever-full inboxes, holiday choices are definitely going back to basics. The posters of the past, housed in the National Railway Museum’s Search Engine could become the advertising inspiration of the future with the public hankering after the traditional delights of the seaside holiday.

As well as being home to a rich collection of 1930s posters, the Museum is also paying homage to the thirties heyday of the Seaside holiday this summer in connection with the Great Western railway’s 175th anniversary, with a number of themed activities including steam rides on Cornish Coast legend City of Truro.

The National Railway Museum poster collection including the 1930s holiday posters featured is housed in Search Engine at the National Railway Museum. Appointments are essential if you want to view original material, although you can view copies Please call 01904 686235 or email ahead of your visit.

All posters © National Railway Museum Pictorial Collection

Latest comment: >Make a comment
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.