Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Torbay and a passion for collecting on the shore

Many British seaside towns are currently fighting a reputation for being run down, having many residents suffering financial hardship, having an influx of homeless people with all their problems, and also for open drug use. This is, of course, a generalisation, as there are many “bijou resorts” with many (un)occupied second homes and even the major resorts have marinas filled with craft owned by wealthy residents or by visitors who own apartments where they spend a few weeks, or week-ends, each year.

The influx of visitors to UK resorts has always been at its height during summer and in the 1950s and 1960s tourists poured in by train, coach and, latterly, by private car. “No Vacancy” signs were everywhere: on large and small hotels and also on guest houses, often converted from large Victorian properties built for a quite different type of visitor. I was brought up in Torbay and, as a year-round resident, was aware of the huge differences in the numbers of people in Paignton and Torquay in the summer months compared to the population in winter, when so many businesses that catered for holidaymakers shut down. All this was obvious, but I was not as curious as I should have been about the origins of the handsome villas and large houses that had been converted to accommodate visitors (and are now more widely used as holiday apartments). The young rarely are curious about history: it is something which comes with age and a sense of time passing.

Torquay was especially lucky in having a building boom in the mid-Nineteenth Century, with villas in an Italianate style being common, mirroring the Riviera feeling that the location of the town provided. Some of the villas were permanent residences and some were for shorter-term stays for those who wanted to own property in this fashionable resort. Then there were hotels that catered for First Class passengers and for members of the burgeoning middle classes who were attracted by the climate, beautiful setting and social cachet of the town. It was a time when visitors enjoyed a gentle walk, or a carriage ride, through the beautiful countryside and many also joined in the passion for Marine Natural History that was at its height at this time.

We get an idea of just how important a visit to the shore could be from the writings of Philip Henry Gosse, who lived in St Marychurch in Torquay, venturing round the coast and out to sea [1]. He was one of the great popularisers of Natural History and part of the fascination for visitors to the shores of Torbay was down to him [2]. In his book Land and Sea [3], Henry Gosse describes the local coastal scenery and the book is illustrated by woodcuts in a highly Romantic style that must have encouraged readers to visit Torbay (some are shown below).

Another woodcut from the book (see below) shows a man and woman on the shore, dressed appropriately for collecting and making observations [4]. This is what Henry Gosse writes about the effects of collectors, especially of sea anemones, that would be added to their parlour aquaria, a popular form of “entertainment” at the time:

Ah! gentle reader, I’ll whisper a secret in your ear; but don’t tell that I said so for ‘tis high treason against the ladies. Since the opening of sea-science to the million, such has been the invasion of the shore by crinoline and collecting jars, that you may search all the likely and promising rocks within reach of Torquay, which a few years ago were like gardens with full-blossomed anemones and antheas, and come home with an empty jar and an aching heart, all now being swept as clean as the palm of your hand! Yet let me do the fair students and their officious beaux justice: the work is not altogether done by such hands as theirs; but there is a host of professional collectors, small tradesmen whom you must search-up in back alleys, and whose houses you will easily recognize by the sea-weedy odour, even before you see the array of pans and dishes in front of the door all crowded with full-blown specimens. These collect for the trade, and are indefatigable. Only think of the effect produced on the marine population by three or four men in a town, one of whom will take ten dozen anemones in a single tide!

A reflection then of the popularity of the pursuit of collecting marine animals. It is not something that we recognise today, although families still venture on the shore to examine rock pools.

Later in Land and Sea, Gosse describes travelling to parts of Torbay that were less popular for collectors [3]:

Therefore it was that we ran some miles away from home, and pursued a pleasant road, partly through green lanes, rank with the glossy young leaves of the arum, and the arching fronds of the hart’s-tongue fern, scarcely embrowned by the late arctic winter; and partly sweeping along the shore-line and over the cliffs that make the base of this beautiful bay; till, Paignton being some distance behind us, we turned off to the left down a little lane, and drew up at the margin of the broad flat beach called the Goodrington Sands.

Far away is the edge of the sea, for the tide is wonderfully low, though we have yet a full hour and a half before it will be at its lowest point, and an immense breadth of soft, wet sand lies exposed. We pause for a moment to gaze on the boundary to the right. It is Berry Head, a noble headland that projects like a long wall far out into the sea, and presents its bluff termination, crowned with fortifications, to the impact of the waves that drive in with impotent fury from the wide Atlantic.

Berry Head is mentioned in the label to the woodcut of collectors shown above and, in Land and Sea, Gosse goes on to describe his methods of collecting, although contemporary Natural Historians would frown at his use of chisels and hammers to remove specimens together with the rocks to which they are attached.

Above are two contemporary images of Goodrington Sands and I wonder how many visitors today are aware of the activities of the passionate collectors of the mid-Nineteenth Century? The rocks in the lower picture were one of the collecting sites used by Henry Gosse and it is good to see young children in the picture following his example, but presumably without chisels and hammers. If only they knew about their enthusiastic predecessors.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Charles Kingsley (1855) Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore. London, Macmillan and Co.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

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