Turning Away from the City

The Significance of the Victorian and Edwardian Seaside

Turning Away from the City

The Significance of the Victorian and Edwardian Seaside

Noah McEniry

Hamilton - 2022

What were the historical environmental, cultural, and social conditions in the cities of Hamilton and Burlington as a result of their unique position along Burlington Bay? Why were the citizens of these regions so eager to seek recreation and rest in the local retreat, and what effects did this trend of seeking recreation and repose in the nearby bayside region have on the environment, the inhabitants of the region, and the cultural landscape which had developed in the region? This paper investigates these questions by looking at the conditions which led to the development of the seaside retreat common in Burlington and Hamilton, a study strengthened by examining larger global trends which emphasizes a public desire for a seaside holiday. Through examining newspapers, Victorian and Edwardian maps, and a historical artistic depiction of Burlington Beach itself, this paper will answer the above questions by interpreting why Burlington Bay was a key region to those living in the surrounding cities, and how this shift toward the beach’s use as a recreational site was desirable to individuals regardless of social class. This study examines how significant the region of Burlington Beach was to residents of Burlington and Hamilton given its desirable environmental qualities. Burlington Beach was, and to some extent continues to be, a region of escape for those who dwell in heavily populated industrial hotspots nearby. The Bay was especially invaluable in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, serving as a place of recreation and repose to a range of social classes. The primary sources used throughout this essay provides insight to understanding the prominent role that the Bay served over time, particularly exploring how it impacted local residents and informed their experiences living in one of the most prosperous regions in Ontario.

Around 1840, the region of land surrounding Burlington Bay was originally inhabited by squatters who took up residence in the region and mainly supported themselves financially through trading fish and other products, especially with the neighbouring city of Hamilton due to the city’s high potential for spending and economic profit.1 This early development of trade and expansion is a pattern common across many North American and English vacation resorts. What originally began as a fishing community was built up into a minor town, as there were developments, continuous expansion, and further building projects within the region to accommodate those being drawn to the area because of its environment and resorts.2 In fact, Holden outlines a central view of the Bay in light of its past by commenting on its key location and potential:

Burlington Bay is one of the most lovely sheets of water in Canada, and has been known by a variety of names… It is shaped like an equilateral triangle, the base of which is the Beach, a stretch of fine drift sand curved concave to both sides of the depositions of sand, and was evidently in- tended by nature to be part of the lake.3

In light of this development from being characterized as a fishing village and region of hospitality, due to its location, Burlington Beach quickly developed into a site of vacation. In 1865, it is estimated that up to 2000 people visited the beach ranging from elite citizens to those seeking an escape from the industrial environments of Hamilton, indicating the region’s early identity as a calm place in stark contrast with the otherwise metropolitan and industrial regions of the city.4 A 1857 advertisement (see Figure 1) from The Daily Spectator illustrates the ways in which citizens of Burlington and Hamilton would have possibly viewed or heard of the attractions that were being developed and marketed around Burlington Beach, as it describes the Beach as the “happiest land in the world,” a

Figure 1: The Daily Spectator, January 21, 1858

landscape replete with trees and a calming lakeside atmosphere.5 This advertisement mentions the “wants of the public,” adding verity to the above research which highlights the desirability and use of the Burlington Beach region as a repose and escape form the affairs of industrial city life. It was truly desirable to have such a region where the effects of industrialization were not seen. One would be able to breathe what must have felt like cleaner air, see natural sights, and have been able to recharge before returning to the workplace- all without having to travel more than a few miles to enjoy these great social, cultural, and health benefits.

In the years leading to the end of the 19th century, the region also significantly saw the development of personal summer homes which were constructed by elite members of the cities’ society. The sentiment was to avoid the busyness of the year, the pollution of the city, and other business affairs which otherwise took place in the city. In addressing the decline of the use of Burlington Beach as a region of pleasure and vacation, it gradually became influenced by the industrial waste of the nearby cities, a process which left Burlington Beach a far less attractive resort destination for holidays.6 Burlington Beach’s nearby location was a key characteristic for the cities of Hamilton and Burlington, an appeal which would then fade as developments in technology, while the region itself was also marred over time due to its prolonged use and proximity to the pollution of the industrial centers nearby. Figure 2 (below) provides a sketch of the cities of Burlington and Hamilton in 1880, a landscape which, despite being seen from the nearby mountain, had already began to be defined by the smoke rising from the factories and industrial regions of Hamilton, obscuring even the view of Burlington Beach.7 Such a depiction helps one to see why the Bay was a desirable retreat from the city, as well as how the eventual decline of the region would have taken place in light of the pollution which accompanies the prosperity of an industrialized city such as Hamilton and Burlington.

Burlington Beach was used primarily as a resort for those in the surrounding area, a pattern which can be understood further by comparing it with other industrial cities to see if a similar trend can be observed. The beach’s uses historically, compared with those of English and North American uses of the seaside, were as a resort in response to the conditions which accompanied the times enumerated in the above history and corresponded considerably to the development of Burlington Beach. Based on analysis of how the seaside resort was in some sense inherited and adopted by the working-class as regions for holidays, Walton cites the factors of rising wages across the 19th century, increasing demand of recreational spaces, and new visitors to the said regions as reasons for their development. Each of these factors directly echoe the major means of economic expansion that the early community of Burlington Bridge had displayed.8 With the growth of the seaside resort’s popularity among the strengthened middle-class, social elites who had previously used these regions as personal resorts or cottages had therefore receded into other more isolated regions, meaning the seaside became a far more accessible option available to Burlington and Hamilton’s middle-class people. Walton also notes five conditions which enabled seaside resorts, like Burlington Beach, to become common sites for holiday retreats: cheap and accessible transportation, wage increases among labourers, improved or focused management of the resorts themselves, more allotted time for consecutive vacation and holidays to workers, and workers’ preference for a seaside vacation.9 Walton’s synthesis thus underlines that it was often industrialized cities which had been connected with seaside resorts. The Burlington Beach had grown and developed to mainly meet the recreational demands of the people, such as the advertisement from The Daily Spectator had indicated.

To consolidate this information on the history, development, and use of the Burlington Beach region, two original maps will be examined to highlight the way this development took place, as well as why it would have taken place given the existing reputation Burlington Bay had as being one of the most environmentally beautiful regions of Ontario. From these details, an interpretation can also be offered as to how this natural landmark influenced the lives of the inhabitants of the region, something which can be gleamed by examining primary sources that

Figure 2: Depiction of the City of Hamilton and Burlington Bay in 1880, Lloyd Reeds Map Collection

detail the region’s environment. The following two maps offer a bird’s-eye view of Hamilton with the Burlington Beach and Bay in view, dated to 1876 and 1909 respectively. The Herman Brosius map (Figure 3) illustrates the highly developed and focused industrial centers, particularly the manufacturing workplaces which served as the economic backbone of Hamilton.10 Burlington Bay itself is characterized by steamboats and schooners, while many smaller vessels with sails are also visible in the image which indicates the dual-purpose, of trade and recreation, which Burlington Bay was at this time being used for.

The second map (Figure 4) highlights a more extensive topographic map of the Bay and the two cities of Hamilton and Burlington, dated from 1909.11 The map highlights the location of the demarcated Burlington and Hamilton beaches, while also emphasizing in the densely marked regions where the most urban center of each respective city lies in relationship to the beach. By looking at this map, one can observe how Burlington Bay lay situated between two industrially powerful cities and offered an escape from urban life while also being located conveniently between Hamilton and Burlington.

Figure 3: First map of Hamilton in 1876, drawn in the style of a bird’s-eye view.

In understanding the significance of the information gained through studies surrounding Burlington Beach in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, one can interpret the qualitative experience of each neighbouring city’s landscape to understand what this region meant to the inhabitants as a resort and destination for repose from urban life. In commenting on the series of photographs entitled Art Work, Peace addresses how photographs of the highly industrial towns of Hamilton and Burlington often emphasize their environmental regions with little showcase of the smoke and lining of factories which would otherwise be expected as characteristics of the two cities.12 Burlington Beach may thus be seen as a prelude to the modern vacation and retreat which the inhabitants and workers from a variety of social classes had used and looked to with joy in contrast to the cities which they had left. The region provided a space which was beautiful and still lined with opportunities for recreation and joy in times of vacation to allow workers to rest from their otherwise demanding lives in the bustling but prosperous cities. As a prelude, it echoes the practice of taking vacations using the highly advanced travel of the modern era to reach similar but distant regions of the world to enjoy what would have in these historical eras taken place locally. In some sense, the prosperous cities were also fortunate in that they were able to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding landscape, and it may be an interesting study to further examine whether a similar process had taken place in other cities where industry had flourished, while also being defined by their bordering on a bay or major port. Additionally, it may also be considered just how much of the prosperity of the region of Burlington and Hamilton was supported and enabled by the great promise of vacation and leisure which the Beach had offered the residents nearby, encouraging them to work with the promise of the solace offered by this local resort.

Burlington Beach was thus a desirable region which not only served to advance the region economically, but also provided a much needed and otherwise unavailable repose to the inhabitants of Burlington and Hamilton whose respective cities both saw a great deal of economic prosperity founded on industrial success. Despite issues surrounding the possibility of pollution of Burlington Bay from the region’s use as a site of vacation, the seaside atmosphere remained a factor which had a profound positive impact on the citizens of Burlington and Hamilton and remained a site which may have inspired and served as a catalyst for the cities’ prosperity.

  1. Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “‘The Heritage of the People Closed Against Them:’ Class, Environment, and the Shaping of Burlington Beach, 1870s–1980s,” Urban History Review, vol. 30, no. 1 (2001): 40–55. 

  2. Niall Finneran, “Beside the Seaside. The Archaeology of the Twentieth-Century English Seaside Holiday Experience: A Phenomenological Context,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 21, no. 3 (2017): 533–557. 

  3. Mary Rose Holden, Burlington Bay, Beach and Heights, in History (William T. Lancefield, 1898). 

  4. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Class, Environment, and the Shaping of Burlington Beach,” 42. 

  5. Figure 1: Geo Snook, “Opening of the Burlington Beach Garden Hotel and Pleasure Grounds,” The Daily Spectator (Hamilton, ON), January 21, 1858, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=YbdSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=eIADAAAAIBAJ&pg=4008%2C19372

  6. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Class, Environment, and the Shaping of Burlington Beach,” 49. 

  7. Figure 2: “Hamilton and Burlington Bay, from the mountain,” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, Beldon Bros., 1880, https://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A70030

  8. John K. Walton, “The Demand for Working-Class Seaside Holidays in Victorian England,” The Economic History Review 34, no. 2 (1981): 249–265. 

  9. Walton, “The Demand for Working-Class,” 252-253. 

  10. Figure 3: “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton: Province Ontario, Canada,” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, J.J. Stoner, 1876, http://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A70026

  11. Figure 4: “Hamilton, ON. 1:63,360. Map sheet 030M05, [ed.1],” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, Department of Militia and Defence, 1909, https://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A87858

  12. Walter G. Peace, “Landscapes of Victorian Hamilton: The Use of Visual Materials in Recreating and Interpreting the Past,” Urban History Review 18, no. 1 (1989): 75–85.