A BRIEF HISTORY

THE RISE AND DECLINE OF SEASIDE BEAUTY CONTESTS

 

In the years after World War 2, beauty contests were being introduced in a number of seaside resorts around Britain. Towns like Eastbourne, Weston-Super-Mare, Margate, Great Yarmouth, Cleethorpes and Skegness staged contests, but the main focus was always the Lancashire and North Wales coast: Rhyl, New Brighton, Southport, Blackpool, Fleetwood and Morecambe.

The Morecambe contest began, in the Summer of 1945, as the "Bathing Beauty Queen". It was organised by the local Council in partnership with the Sunday Dispatch. The first final was watched by 4 300 people in a continuous downpour and the winner was a civil service typist. According to the local paper, she received a cup, a "paltry prize" of seven guineas and a swim-suit. However, prize money soon increased to 100 in 1946 and 500 in 1947, and then to 1000 in the fifties. There was a period of disagreement with Mecca, the originators of Miss World, about whose competition should represent the nation in Miss World. This resulted in the Morecambe competition being called "Miss Great Britain" from 1956.

The contests were a new kind of entertainment for the holiday-maker as the country moved on from the greyness and austerity of the war-years. Then, as later, the men would enjoy watching pretty girls, the women would enjoy picking their favourites (or commenting on the others) and the little girls would dream of being bathing beauties when they grew up. The entrants themselves had the promise of cash prizes, as well as possible fame and fortune, to follow.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the hey-day of the sea-side beauty contest: these decades also saw the hey-day of the British sea-side holiday.

Increasing prosperity meant that more and more families could take a fortnight's holiday on the coast and seaside towns were in competition for a growing market. Many seaside towns believed that beauty contests were important in gaining publicity for the town: in Morecambe, beauty contests were seen as second only to the Illuminations as the major tourist attraction.

And the contests were popular. Fifteen thousand people were reported to have watched the first Miss New Brighton Final in 1949. The weekly heats, with the girls parading around the local swimming pool, would be watched by crowds of four or five thousand in the early years and they would often be judged by famous entertainers. Early judges of Miss Great Britain included actress Glynis Johns, comedian Bob Monkhouse, singer Guy Mitchell and Laurel and Hardy.

The Foreword to the official 1962 Miss Great Britain programme illustrates the importance of the contests to the seaside towns. It said that "when the Morecambe Corporation started the contest in 1945, they introduced to the attractions of the seaside holiday, a new form of entertainment which has now become a big part of Show Business. As the years go by, the size of our audiences shows no signs of diminishing, the standard of our beautiful competitors improves steadily and the Contest remains as popular as ever." And, indeed, newsreel films show audiences packed around swimming pools for the finals of the big contests.

But, during the sixties, the British seaside holiday started to lose out to other types of holiday. The car was replacing the train as the main way of getting to holiday destinations, thus providing many families with a wider choice of places to visit. Air travel was becoming cheaper and some families could afford to go abroad for certain sun, rather than taking pot-luck in Southport or Scarborough.

The way society was changing could also be seen by the way the girls' names were changing. In the fifties, there were Normas, Irenes, Margarets and Maureens. In the sixties, they were being replaced by Judiths, Cheryls, Carols and Sheilas.

But the format - and the cliches - of the contests were well established: the lists of the girls' statistics and their occupations; the results in reverse order; mothers apparently entering their daughters without their knowledge; and the judges saying that they were looking for the "friendly, girl-next-door type". Usually over 20 contestants entered the heats. Their jobs were receptionists and models, secretaries and students, but around the pools they became the girls of summer. Some young women wanted to further their careers in fashion and beauty. Others wanted to take advantage of the difference offered by the seaside scene to show their glamour.

The falling popularity of seaside resorts was later mirrored by a fall in the popularity of beauty contests. In some ways, this was a contradiction since national and international contests were now being covered by television and, indeed, the Miss World contests had high audience figures in the seventies.

But, a combination of changes was taking place across the country. In relation to holidays, the British people were seeking more sophisticated ways of using their time off: the resorts were failing both to look after the seaside environment and to invest for the future. In a wider sense, the restrictions on women's lives were loosening and questions were being asked about what beauty contests represented: they started being seen as a symbol (or perhaps a scapegoat) of male society's view of women.

The eighties saw the ending of a number of seaside beauty contests. Some of the local councils which had started the contests after the War were now asking themselves whether these were events that they should be involved with. Rhyl and Great Yarmouth took decisions to finish their contests and some towns moved the contests from swimming-pools to other venues, often accompanied by a greater involvement from private sponsors and organisers. In Morecambe, the decade saw some people in the Council wanting to finish the contest, whilst those who wanted to continue the contest had problems with sponsors and broadcasters. This led to the Council deciding to finish the contest, then reviewing its decision, but eventually selling the title. Most dramatically, New Brighton finished its contest when the swimming pool was destroyed by winter gales.

The contests were becoming less acceptable and less popular as seaside entertainments. Once, they were a major part in publicising a seaside resort: now they were one of the minor attractions. However, there were still good-looking young women - now Debbies, Traceys, Clares and Joannes - interested in entering the contests, there were still mothers right there behind them and there were still enough people prepared to watch for a pleasant hour or two.

At the start of the nineties, only Southport, Blackpool and Fleetwood were staging traditional seaside beauty contests and that decade saw further decline. Fewer people were turning up to watch and fewer young women were entering the contests, better career opportunities than in the past sometimes meaning that fewer had the time to spend summer afternoons entering heats across the country. By the end of the nineties, only one seaside contest remained, Miss Wyre in dull and remote Fleetwood. Southport had ended its contest because it wanted to diversify its afternoon entertainment on the Prom in order to attract a wider audience and Blackpool's contest had changed from swim-wear in the afternoon on the North Pier into club-wear for the evening at a local night club.

The "film" of seaside holidays is a part of the memories of many British people and beauty contests contribute some of the scenes on that film. But times have changed. At the start of the new century, the seaside towns themselves are adapting to changes in the ways in which people use their holidays. Many seaside resorts are attempting to regenerate themselves, identifying their positive qualities and searching for new markets, whilst also appealing to tradition and heritage. Morecambe has had problems doing this, but Blackpool and Southport have been able to do this successfully and both were receiving major investment at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Indeed, in 2006, the locations on the Morecambe front which had hosted Miss Great Britain were either derelict or a fairground, although a refurbished Midland Hotel was opened in 2008. On the other hand, the Floral Hall Gardens, host to the Southport English Rose from the 70s to the 90s, were becoming the site of a new hotel (which appears to have been inspired by the Midland in Morecambe).

Beauty contests are unlikely to be a part of the new marketing strategy, in contrast to the fifties and sixties. However, the UK still has national and other beauty contests, including a re-vamped Miss Great Britain. Miss Blackpool has also had a "makeover" and has continued successfully in its new format for almost a decade. But, the only traditional seaside beauty contest to make it into the new century was Miss Wyre: it finished in 2002.

The other pages of this web site have a selection of photographs from 35 years of contests in resorts bordering the Irish Sea, showing what's changed and what's stayed constant in beauty contests. Looks and styles have changed (to some extent), but what stays constant are smiles, swim-suits and stilettos.

 

CREDITS

Some photographs on this page have been published previously, as follows.

(a) Morecambe Poster - National Railway Museum

(b) Photograph of Lord Street, Southport from "Images of Merseyside", Liverpool Echo

(c) Long focus shot of 1950 Miss New Brighton Final from "Around Wallasey and New Brighton", Ralph Rimmer, Tempus Publishing

(d) Photograph of the Midland Hotel, Morecambe from "Morecambe Bay" web site

(e) Miss Blackpool Final 1970 from "Blackpool: Centuries of Progress" by Steve Palmer

(f) Photograph of Blackpool Swimming Pool from "Played in Britain" web site about the heritage of sport and recreation venues.

(g) Southport Poster - National Railway Museum

 

Website up-dated Summer 2008

 

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