The unknown history of Barry Island

Barry Island beach, Whitsun 1963, image: Walesonline

Barry Island beach, Whitsun 1963, image: Walesonline

"Barry Island: The Making of a Seaside Playground, c.1790-c.1965 isn’t the book I planned to write," said Dr Andy Croll.

"When I started my research, some twelve years ago, the circumstances of its birth as a tourist attraction and subsequent development were clear enough.

"According to the received wisdom, Whitmore Bay (the Island’s beach) only began attracting sizeable numbers of tourists in the 1890s. This was very late. Other British resorts had been drawing visitors to them since the late eighteenth century.

Dr Andy Croll's new book - Barry Island

"But there was no mystery surrounding Barry’s late arrival on the tourist scene. After all, before the 1880s, Barry was an isolated and unremarkable rural district. It was thinly populated (just 80 or so inhabitants called Barry hamlet their home in the early 1880s), it had no urban infrastructure to talk of and it was difficult to access. It took two hours to journey along the ‘bad roads’ linking Cardiff to Barry at this time. It was unsurprising, therefore, that the Island had failed to catch the attention of tourists.

"With all this in mind, I began studying the Island’s resort history not with the intention of revising the overall story of its development but rather with a view to reconstructing the beach culture that took shape during the course of the 20th century. The book was going to be an examination of a leisure space and the written and unwritten ‘rules’ that came to govern the behaviour the beach users.

"However, the more I scrutinised the archival sources, it became clear that much of our understanding of the Island’s development as a resort was just plain wrong. Recently digitized newspaper sources allowed me to find evidence of Whitmore Bay flourishing as a bathing resort as early as the 1790s – a full century before we thought its history as a seaside playground began.

Barry Island 1951, Image: Walesonline"The newspapers revealed that, in the Georgian years, Barry Island was far from being a working-class resort. It was drawing super-elite visitors. Peers of the realm were amongst its devotees. By the early and mid-Victorian period, its popularity broadened a little. The majority of the tourists were still very well-to-do, but they were more likely to be middle-class residents of the booming town of Cardiff than they were to be aristocrats.

"Speculators drew up grand schemes for developing the little island. Wide, tree-lined avenues were to be graced by impressively bourgeois villas. Promenades and sea walls were to discipline the Bay’s unruly sand dunes. Barry Island was set fair to become a hyper-respectable middle-class watering place.

"But this, of course, didn’t happen. Why? Because it fell into the hands of Lord Windsor (the owner of the St Fagans estate) in the later 1870s. His family had already invested heavily in nearby Penarth and Windsor was desperate to turn that little settlement into Cardiff’s marine suburb. Barry Island – with its fine sandy beach and romantic status as an island – was a dangerous threat to his dreams, so he did the obvious thing: he mothballed the island, and refused to allow any developers onto it.

"Windsor did something else, too. He banned all visitors for the best part of a decade. Just at the moment when Whitmore Bay was efflorescing into Cardiffians’ seaside holiday destination of choice, Windsor closed it and turned it into a private hunting ground. In doing so, he broke a widespread convention: British landowners rarely closed beaches to the public.

"The shutdown of Barry Island in the late 1870s and 1880s is an event that had gone entirely unnoticed by historians yet it proved to be of the greatest significance. The later chapters of the book consider the implications of the closure and details Windsor’s ongoing hostility to working-class visitors.

"When the first tourists from the Valleys arrived by train in the late 1880s and early 1890s, they were not welcomed by Windsor. The trippers had to seize Barry Island and make it their own leisure space; the landowner did little to encourage them. For much of the 1890s, the Island didn’t even have proper toilet facilities or refreshment outlets – that’s how much Windsor sought to dissuade ‘the masses’ from visiting Barry. It’s also the reason why Windsor’s beloved Penarth has a fine pier and Barry Island doesn’t.

"Is this just a history of local significance? Hardly. For one thing, by the interwar period, Barry Island had become one of the top three day-tripper attractions in the country (after Blackpool and the newly opened Wembley Empire stadium). Many hundreds of thousands of visitors descended upon the place every summer season. As such, the dynamics underpinning its development need to be properly understood.

"But there’s another important reason for paying attention to Barry’s seaside history: it forces us to rethink key aspects of the way that historians and students of tourism have come to conceptualize ‘seaside resorts’ and their development. Barry’s experience fits none of the models used by geographers to make sense of the processes by which seaside resorts ‘evolve’. That fact alone suggests we might need to rebuild our models.

"Barry’s history also alerts us to a type of Victorian tourist who has been ignored by most writers: the visitor who preferred their seaside resorts to be quiet places, away from the noisy crowds that gathered at the sector-leading resorts such as Brighton, Margate and Blackpool.

"These tourists – and their spending power – mattered to the rural communities that they stayed in for months at a time during the bathing season, but historians have rarely included them in their studies. They’ve been bewitched, understandably, by the gregarious seaside visitors who fuelled the growth of the highly developed watering places. But at a time when we worry about tourism’s disruptive effects on host populations and fragile ecosystems, it is important to note that there are examples of ‘sustainable tourism’ we can study in the past. Mid-Victorian Barry is a fantastic example of a place that catered to goodly numbers of tourists but did not suffer any obvious disamenities as a consequence.

"The story of Barry Island’s rise into the ‘Kingdom of the Chip’ – as it was brilliantly described by writer Gwyn Thomas in the mid-1960s – is bursting with wider significance, then. But I’ve tried, also, to include as much of the human element as I can in my book. Seaside historians can be accused (often fairly) of being more interested in visitor numbers and tourism multiplier effects than in donkey rides, fairground thrills and candy floss. But I’ve sought to make room for the donkeys, the bathing machines, the pierrots and the dodgems whenever possible. Barry Island was a treasured leisure space for generations of South Walians, after all, and any history needs to try to capture the changing ways its visitors enjoyed a day out at Whitmore Bay."

About Dr Andy Croll

History Research - Dr Andy Croll

Andy Croll is a principal lecturer in History at the University of South Wales. His research expertise includes the history of tourism (particularly coastal tourism) in the long nineteenth century. He is also interested in the history of poverty and welfare in the era of the New Poor Law.