When I finished the essay, I sent it to my dad to have a look and he said "I prefer your blogs". I know what he means - academic essays can rob all the joy out of a subject - so I decided to rewrite my essay for my dad's consumption, put the stuff I couldn't put in my actual essay, and put it on here. It only covers up to 1900, so you will have to go write your own essay for the Edwardian period. I got 82% for the 'proper' version.
A Brief History of Cromer as a Resort
Long ago, in the mists of time, Cromer was a prosperous market town, a little inland from the coast. It was almost the site of Edward IV's successful reinvasion to take the crown (again) from Henry VI, but he changed his mind and went up the coast to Ravenspur. But erosion took its toll. Shipden was swallowed by the sea in the thirteenth century, giving rise to certain legends, and it seems likely that part of the reason for Cromer's diminishing size across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that it kept falling in the sea. In 1724, Daniel Defore, then roaming the country and writing up the first travelogue of England, said that "Cromer is a market town close to the shoar [sic] of this dangerous coast. I know nothing it is famous for (besides it being thus the terror of the sailors) except good lobsters”. Not long after, seabathing became a popular health treatment for the wealthy of the age. All kinds of hydrotherapy were used by the rich - my favourite is the visitors to Matlock Bath who paid a princely sum to have buckets of cold water dumped on them from above - and seabathing was widely accessible, and had a royal pedigree - George III in his madness was a frequent visitor to Weymouth, and Brighton developed alongside as a favoured resort, being close to London.
Cromer, however, was not close to London or any other useful municipal centre. Norwich, the closest city, was a busy market and textile town. King's Lynn, further round the coast, was a very busy port full of important folk. What secured Cromer's fortune as a future resort was its local gentry. The gentry were the celebrities of the day - in Bath, famous guests were announced by a peal of bells, as much an attraction as the spring waters and balls. In North Norfolk, Holt was the place to be. It was almost entirely rebuilt in fashionable style after a fire gutted it in the eighteenth century, and the local gentry (of Felbrigg, Gunton, and Melton Constable) held horse races, balls and assemblies to provide the rich with something to do. Where else would they go to bathe in the sea than Cromer; splendidly placed on high cliffs, with plenty of shipping and beautiful scenery, and untouched by the burgeoning industrial revolution.
Now, we skip forward a little to 1800, when the first guidebook to Cromer was published. It was written by a surgeon named Bartell, who wanted to advertise the benefits of the town, possibly inspired by a 1799 piece in Gentleman's Magazine which waxed lyrical about Cromer's coast: "Had Neptune himself sent his azure chariot to receive [me], I scarce could been more awed, more softened, or more enchanted". Bartell wrote of its beauty, its lighthouse run by two women (there's a cracking story there somewhere), and the many country houses in the vicinity for those who wanted to go and peer through the windows of the aristocracy. He wrote of how you could hear the bells of Shipden church ring at high tide (most likely nonsense, although church rock undoubtedly remained an issue for shipping into the nineteenth century). He also wrote of its dearth of attractions, complaining that all it needed was one good inn for the rich to stay in, to catapult it to fame akin to Brighton. It was already hosting the rich for short seasons in leased houses, but there was no hotel, no bath house, no assembly room.1 Cromer's population at the time was around 700 people.
Bartell's book worked. By 1815, Jane Austen was able to refer to Cromer as "the best of all the sea bathing places. A fine open sea [...] and very pure air" in Emma. This implies that the sort of people reading Jane Austen at the time knew where and what Cromer was. Cromer began to grow. Adverts such as this one began to appear, advertising large houses for sale in order to lease them out to holidaymakers:
|Norfolk Chronicle 18th August 1827|
|Engraving from 1867. Prints Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. Original available here|
The people who visited resorts liked to have somewhere to walk. This was partly because sea air was healthy and free, but also because it gave an opportunity to be seen and to hobnob with other rich guests. Cromer had a jetty, 'well paved for walking', from 1822, in much the same place the pier now stands. It was washed away on numerous occasions, but always rebuilt as the centrepiece of the town. Although the pier in its current form wasn't built until 1901, the older jetties held concerts and firework displays and functioned as the formal pier does. Happy Valley, being considerably broader in the 19thC, was also a popular place to walk. At some point in the Victorian era, this walk was paved and supplied with porches to shelter in and view the sea. When it finally occurred to the great and good of Cromer to build sea defences, lest their lovely money-spinning hotels fall into the sea, they included a promenade for guests. This was initially built in the 1870s.
It wasn't enough to have hotels and walks to attract the wealthy. Cromer's status as fishing village turned good meant it lacked the amenities that people were beginning to take for granted: safe water, gas power, transport links, room for coaches. Part of Church Street was demolished in the 1870s to widen the road to allow for more traffic. There was a daily coach in the summer season, taking guests from Tucker's Hotel to Norwich railway station in time for the 11am train:
|Norwich Mercury. 23rd June 1849.|
The reason the Cabbells built the West Cliff estate was primarily because of guests complaining bitterly that there was no room at the inn. When Clement Scott, he of Poppyland fame, arrived in Cromer in the early 1880s, he couldn't find anywhere to stay so wandered off to Overstrand looking for lodgings. As you do. In doing so, he discovered the church tower on the cliff, the Garden of Sleep, and weaved the mythology of Poppyland, so potent that it remained in advertising use for a good century after he wrote about it. So perhaps the lack of lodging was a good thing. Or perhaps it was simply overstated to discourage common visitors from coming to have a look. One thing that became abundantly obvious when researching Cromer is that its reality was a far cry from how it was advertised. Cromer was undoubtedly full every season, but the advertising was designed to underplay its attractions. One guidebook said "on undeveloped tastes, Cromer would be thrown away". In 1800, Bartell wrote pages on the art, the light, the beauty, while acknowledging there was nothing much to actually do. This was more or less true in 1800. However, when Clement Scott wrote eighty years later about there being "nothing to attract the fashionable young lady", he was LYING. Oh the lies Scott told! "We have no representative brass band, no rotunda on the pier head, no fashionable promenade, no evening dances, no assembly rooms, and very few opportunities for social intercourse". There was no brass band or rotunda, that's true enough, but there was a string quartet, regular concerts in the inns and on the jetty - even fireworks displays. There was at least one assembly room in 1880. The only possible conclusion to draw from these lies is that Scott was trying to put off the working class hordes that had begun to infiltrate Great Yarmouth and Hunstanton. THERE'S NOTHING HERE, PEONS, STAY BACK! A scant twenty pages later, he calls Great Yarmouth "a playground by the sea". Scott wanted to protect his little Cromer haven from the influx of Sheffield smiths that were already using Yarmouth as their preferred holiday destination.
Was he successful? Of course not. In every directory of businesses published in the 19th century, Cromer is described as a 'fashionable bathing resort'. The rich residents of Cromer - the Gurneys, the Buxtons and the Barclays all made their holiday homes here - were a clear indication to those in the know that this was no mere beautiful backwater. A look at the businesses listed in the directories back this up: no less than two piano warehouses in Cromer by 1892 were surely a sign of the upper class. The residents of Church Street doubled in number between 1851 and 1891, and a few fisherman aside, most were affluent and had servants. Almost every business also offered rooms or apartments to let - usually those above the shop. Holidaymakers were huge business. However, Cromer remained difficult to get to for those who could not afford the train fare, and maintained its exclusivity well into the Edwardian age.
Some of its poshness can be ascribed to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Edward VII made his home at Sandringham, about forty miles from Cromer, from the 1860s onward. He was a regular visitor to Cromer, and patronised the golf club from its inception in 1887. The Royal Links Hotel (long gone, alas) became the royal residence of choice when visiting. His sister, Princess Louise, and daughter Princess Victoria, were frequent guests.
And so, here endeth the tale of Cromer, before the pier was built, before the Seaside Special became the longest running end-of-the-pier show in the country, before Henry Blogg became a household name, before Winston Churchill summered in Overstrand. Before Paul Theroux had a chance to describe it as “very empty [with] a sort of atrophied charm, a high round-shouldered Edwardian look, red brick terraces and red brick hotels and the loudest seagulls in Norfolk”. From fishing village, to a town with a population of 3700 in 1901, Cromer blossomed throughout the nineteenth century because of its exclusivity, rich inhabitants and royal allure.
1 A quick note: an assembly room was basically a space for hire, where you could hold balls, lectures, concerts etc, like a very posh community centre. They were usually owned by the local bigwigs and the events were accessible by subscription to keep the riff raff out. Coaching inns usually were built with an assembly room, to increase the profitability as well as to attract customers. Towns like Stamford had as many as three assembly rooms in the early 19thC.