THE Yorkshire coast has a place in the hearts of those who remember going there as children.

The seaside towns - Scarborough, Whitby, Bridlington and Filey among them - continue to attract crowds of holiday-makers and day-trippers. Folk flock to the beaches, the fairground rides, boat trips, ice-cream parlours, fish and chips cafes and souvenir shops awash with buckets, spades, flip-flops and novelty rock.

But the popularity of the Yorkshire coast goes back centuries - and initially it was the domain of the rich. Before 1900 only wealthy people - old money, new money, entitled and privileged - had the means and leisure time to visit the ‘fashionable watering places’ that would become the resorts of today. These visitors were from the upper reaches of British society, the aristocracy and commercial and industrial magnates, and also distinguished visitors from around the world. Did you know the French royal family visited Scarborough, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse stayed at Filey and the Maharajah of Cooch Behar took a suite at the Hotel Metropole in Whitby?

Bradford textile merchants rubbed shoulders with Earls, Lords and Dukes. Also among the upper echelons of Victorian society touring the coast in the season were high ranking members of the armed forces, the Church, law and medical professionals and the musicians, artists and entertainers “to whom the elite extended its embrace”.

In The Golden Age of Yorkshire Resorts 1800-1914 (Amberley Publishing), George Sheeran explores moneyed visitors to the county’s seaside resorts - revealing what attracted such people, and why places like Scarborough and Filey remained select resorts until the early 20th century. Using original research based on letters, wills, diaries and newspaper reports, he explores the wealth and lifestyles of high-class visitors to the Yorkshire coast. Illustrated with photographs, paintings and plans, the book has chapters on grand coastal houses, luxury hotels, leisure activities, churches and the ways in which men and women of means shaped these resorts.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The book explores the wealthy past of Yorkshire resortsThe book explores the wealthy past of Yorkshire resorts (Image: Amberley Publishing)

“Large houses built near the sea for the rich were nothing new in the 19th century,” writes Dr Sheeran. “Some houses, the seats of nobility and gentry, had been in such settings for generations. These were not, however, second homes chosen for their seaside locations or places to which families might retire, but country houses handed down through generations.

“By the later 18th century some gentlemen were also building second homes or retreats on the coast at Bridlington Quay and Scarborough, as well as in more isolation positions.”

As visitor numbers grew, resorts were expanded. The Esplanade in Scarborough and Whitby’s Royal Crescent are fine examples of ‘new streets’ built in the 19th century. The book also charts the rise of luxury hotels such as the Queen’s Hotel at Withernsea and Scarborough’s iconic Grand Hotel.

With health tourism rising in the 18th century, the Yorkshire coast became popular for ‘taking the waters’. The elite indulged in bathing, rather than swimming. As they stepped into the sea, attendants known as ‘dippers’ would submerge them in the water then help them out. Indoor baths, with water pumped from the sea, appeared in Scarborough around 1798, when Travis’s Baths opened on the cliff, followed by baths at Bridlington Quay and Whitby.

During the 19th century, leisure activities at resorts grew, and spa buildings expanded to include concert halls and lecture theatres. Scarborough led the way in cultural attractions’ from the early 19th century: “In the 1870s came the most remarkable of Scarborough’s museums, the Marine Aquarium. Its tanks contained many types of fish, crustaceans, octopuses and turtles, diving birds, seals and alligators. There was also a stage, set in a ‘romantic rockery’, where concerts of light classical and vocal music were performed.” Tanks ran along corridors to a grand central hall, design in Indian-derived style.

Among the sports that developed at Yorkshire’s resorts were horse racing, sailing and yachting. Seaside resorts also provided opportunities for philanthropy, with wealthy benefactors funding lifeboats, mariners’ orphans and convalescent homes for the poor. Sir Titus Salt’s wife, Caroline, was among the “women from eminent and industrial families” who subscribed to the Royal Northern Bathing Infirmary at Scarborough.

By 1900 Yorkshire’s resorts were changing. The growth of mass holidays and day-trippers meant a sojourn by the sea was no longer the privileged experience it once was. The well-heeled began to go abroad, taking grand European tours.

By the 1930s, Billy Butlin was checking out a site south of Filey for a holiday camp.

Dr George Sheeran is Honorary Visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. He is also a trustee of the People, Landscapes and Cultural Environments Research Centre, supported by York St John University. His interest and expertise is urban and architectural history, and his books include Bradford in 50 Buildings.

* The Golden Age of Yorkshire Resorts (1800-1914) is published is available at and in bookshops.