How beach huts came to be a seaside must-have

Colourful beach huts at Youngs Park, Goodrington

Colourful beach huts at Youngs Park, Goodrington - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

All along coastline of England including those of Torquay and Paignton, one can see our iconic beach huts.

Terraces of shed-like structures, painted white with coloured doors and felted roofs, some basic, some ornate, loved by many couples and families who own or rent them, paint and furnish them with seating, a gas stove, crockery and beach ware, and sit outside or in, throughout the summer months.

But where do they originate?

In a previous article, I mentioned that 200 years ago wealthy people took to the seaside on the recommendation of their doctor, to partake of the sea air and particularly to sit or lie in the cold salty sea water. This was said to be a remedy for many ailments.

Torbay became particularly popular with the wealthy as a winter destination due to our mild climate, when travel to the continent was deemed unsafe, due to the Napoleonic wars.

The recommendation wasn’t a case of stripping off and diving in, many of the persons arriving for this ‘cure’ were infirm and sick, some even bedridden.

Therefore, they had to be brought or carried down to the beach, where they entered, fully clothed, a horse drawn room like carriage, especially designed with a collapsible hooded end facing towards the sea. His or her servants would then undress them.

Most Read

The bathing machine would be pulled into the sea by horse, the collapsible end would drop and the naked victim would be carried into the water by strong burly attendants known as dippers and dunked under.

Of course, these folks would bring their complete family with them, many of whom joined in with the sea bathing, whether infirm or not, so that by the 1870s many of these contraptions were lined up along the top of the beach to be hired by the half hour.

This was the age of the prudish Victorians, where even table legs were covered, as the sight of them might bring on sexual passions.

So ladies and gentlemen who weren’t there on doctors orders, wore ornate bathing garments and there were also separate bathing beaches for men and women.

In Torquay, the main ladies’ beach was at Beacon Cove, which was considered sheltered and away from prying eyes.

However, it was overlooked by Torquay yacht club, frequented by men, and where members were often seen standing at the window with a pair of binoculars pretending they were ornithologists.

By the end of the century into the early 1900s the Edwardian age took over from the Victorian one with more freedom.

Mixed bathing started to become popular, as it already was on the continent and in the USA.

The bathing machine was gradually being taken over by changing tents on the beaches, with family tea parties set up on picnic tables in front of them.

Then in 1914, the First World War put an end to seaside day trips and holidays, and it wasn’t until the beaches were cleared in 1919, that some enterprising folk came upon many of the abandoned bathing machines, removed their wheels and erected them in rows at the top of the beaches, where the pre-war tents had been, repaired and painted them in white and bright colours and began to rent them out to the tourists and visitors that were returning in throngs to the seaside.

Not just the wealthy but the working and middle classes, who needed to enjoy the fresh air and freedom, denied for five years.

As well as hotels for the wealthy, there were home owners who started to cater for the more modest income holidaymaker and offer bed and breakfast stays, which in those days meant just that.

The family would be ejected from the house after breakfast and needed to entertain themselves for the day. The beach hut was the ideal home from home.

With the Second World War from 1939 to 1945, our beaches were covered in mines and barbed wire, again they were a no go area, but when the war finished and holidaymakers returned to our beaches and the sea, to sun bathe and swim, build sand castles, and relax, the very British beach hut was again much in demand, especially with families, as it still is today.