When ‘Sheffield-by-the-Sea’ was the place to be

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It was a sleepy village which became Sheffield’s first mass holiday destination. Colin Drury on how city folk inspired a thriving coastal resort

IT was a somewhat neglected fishing village with little to recommend it: the wind was generally bracing, the amenities were minimal and there was just one hotel.

This was Cleethorpes in 1872.

Yet this sleepy little community - population, just 8,000 - would, over the next half century, become a bustling resort so beloved by South Yorkshire holiday-makers it became known as Sheffield-by-the-Sea.

Some 15,000 people from our region would visit every year at the start of the 20th century. And as late as the Seventies the town was still so popular with folk from Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham that it was profitable for The Star to print an East Coast edition through the summer. Anecdotes still abound of Sheffielders walking out on their first morning to discover their next door neighbour staying in the B&B across the road.

Now, a new talk premiered next week will throw (sun)light on why this east coast backwater became such a hit with South Yorkshire trippers.

It was all down, it seems, to a spot of capitalist engineering.

“Cleethorpes is the closest resort to Sheffield,” says Bryan Longbone, the historian behind the talk. “But it wasn’t inevitable it would become the place most favoured by the city.

“Skegness and Mablethorpe aren’t much further. Scarborough was bigger. And, because of Sheffield’s central position, the west coast resorts weren’t exactly inaccessible.”

So, why did Cleethorpes become our seaside of choice? Arguably, it seems, for no greater reason than the ambition of the Great Central Railway.

In the early 1870s, the company, looking to expand, ordered engineers to assess the possibility of extending its direct Sheffield to Grimsby line to nearby Cleethorpes. The new spur, partially built along the coast, opened in 1873.

“Great Central Railway essentially said to the town, ‘if you provide the resort, we’ll bring the people’,” explains Bryan, of Scunthorpe, who will give his talk at The Michael Church in Lowedges on Tuesday. “New B&Bs, hotels and lodging houses were built, while Great Central Railway offered discount and cut-price tickets to holiday-makers and group bookings.

“It meant if you wanted to go to Skegness, for example, you’d have to change trains and use two different companies which would cost more and take longer. But to go to Cleethorpes, there was a quick cheap line.”

From that small village, the town expanded rapidly - much of it paid for with Sheffield spending money. In 1873, the pier opened; and in 1885 the promenade was unveiled. A concert hall was built in 1888, and the pavilion was opened in 1903.

Pleasure gardens, cafes and seaside facilities all came. Later, with overnight trips becoming ever more affordable, fish and chip shops, amusement arcades and donkey rides became de rigour.

“It would have been a wonderful place at the height of summer,” says retired industrial chemist Bryan, 65, who has researched old newspapers and railway documents to compile his talk. “Between 1910 and 1912, about 27 per cent of all B&B guests were from there.”

Later figures are unknown but the anecdotal evidence suggests they were almost certainly just as high with day trips - organised by steelworks, churches and working mens clubs - adding to the sheer volume.

“You walked down the sea front and it was like walking down Fargate,” says The Star’s former chief photographer Stuart Hastings. “We did a coast edition through the summer back then so readers at the seaside for the week could still find out what was going on back home.

“During works weeks when the steel factories shut down for a fortnight we’d walk along the promenade and we hardly needed to check where holiday-makers came from because virtually everyone was from back home.”

It wasn’t, of course, to last. By the late Seventies, mass air travel had become the new mass rail travel. As flights became cheaper, overseas destinations became increasingly popular. All-inclusives to Spain and Turkey replaced British resorts. The glamour of seaside towns faded once more.

* Bryan’s talk takes place at The Michael Church in Lowedges Road, Lowedges, on Tuesday, at 10am. Cost £1.50.