Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Elizabeth Robins Pennell on Margate

I've never been to Margate, but even the barest details have very comfortable resonances for me: resorts set on the chalk coasts of southern England were central to my childhood, and appeal to me wherever I see them (even across the Channel). And yet I think the ones I know best were, to various extents, gentrified by location away from major population centres. Britain has any number of resorts that were historically much more vigorous and downmarket because of their catchment area: day-trip distance from major working-class conurbations. Blackpool, within rapid access of Manchester and Liverpool, is a classic example; and so is Margate, repeatedly mentioned in late-Victorian works as the day-trip destination of "'Arrys and 'Arriets" from East London.

I couldn't resist quoting in full the article - London at play: on Margate's sands - written by Elizabeth Robins Pennell in 1897 for the US-published The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. An American who lived for most of her working life in London, she was a wide-ranging writer who wrote on art, food, biographical topics, and travel.

The piece was written for Century as part of a regular commission for travel writing she took on, with her artist husband Joseph Pennell, who provided the illustrations (I'll try to sort these out later). It's a realistic yet affectionate 'outsider' view of Margate and its London visitors - imagine a late-Victorian Bill Bryson analogue. That Margate is long gone, but this vivid piece rather makes you wish you could visit it.

Here it is (usual disclaimers about the period's racist language apply): London at play: on Margate's sands. Due to the vagaries of Google Books hosting, US readers can access it directly via one of the links here. The piece is packed with contemporary and literary references - perhaps labouredly so - and I've annotated ones that may not be self-explanatory.

- Ray


  1. Fascinating. Interesting how she compares it to Atlantic City on the New Jersey shore. (I haven't watched "Jersey Shore" but I suspect it is awful in its crudeness. Far worse than the Margate gang.) Atlantic City, where my grandfather used to play on the Steel Pier, is now a latter day Las Vegas and Donald Trump's being trumped. It is also the template for Monopoly which brings up the specter of the 1930's which we are getting ready to relive. Strange, all these things.

  2. The analogies are interesting. Coney Island and Margate are an easy ferry trip from their respective metropolises. Atlantic City, a bit more remote, distinctly seedy in reputation: Blackpool could be its analogy. Here, things are quite rarefied, culminating in Sidmouth, which is positively Edwardian - all tea shops, no machine arcades - while Torquay and Paignton are probably the most downmarket. I have a lot of time for these places. I was brought up by a family who despised resorts - it was always 'walk along the beach glowering at people and whingeing about how spoilt it was' - yet they always felt very comfortable to me, and still do (even Paignton, where you feel slightly out of place if you don't have a bulldog tattoo on your calf).