Picture of George Head

George Head

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NOTWITHSTANDING that the town of Southport is much frequented as a watering place; that it is pleasantly situated within a few miles of the river Ribble, twenty-two miles from Liverpool; and that it may be called the metropolis of the parish of North Meols; it has been dignified as yet with a position in but few of the modern maps. Neither is it patronised by the leading people in the vicinity as one would imagine—by those who are usually styled "the higher classes."

The journey to Southport alone, without taking into consideration the salubrity of the spot, is equal to a physician's prescription. Two coaches depart thither from Liverpool every day, and as both these vehicles are set upon extraordinary rough springs, and the road nearly all the distance is paved with large stones, it is reasonable to hope that the grievous jolting inflicted on a passenger during his journey thither, may at least be conducive to his bodily health. These paved roads I imagine, on a sandy bottom, setting comfort aside, are the most economical. As, for the last few miles before arriving at Southport, the way lies across a flat moor, the sound of the coach wheels, on a still day, may be heard a long way off. People who, having nothing to do, are anxious for the arrival of their letters and newspapers by the said coach, stand at their doors listening to the rumbling noise which, like the roll of a drum, lasts for near a quarter of an hour; thus they await their intellectual banquet with as much eagerness as the hungry subaltern longs for his dinner, when he hears the tune of "the roast beef of Old England."

The line of sand hills which stretch for a considerable distance along the coast form a conspicuous object before arriving at the town; the approach to which is, as it were, by a diminutive mountain pass, where the sand lies drifted across the road, to such a depth, that the utmost efforts of the cattle are required to drag the vehicle along.

The first house in the town is "The Bold Arms," a large square edifice, and though slightly built, an inn where an individual may put up with a chance of going farther and sharing worse. They who keep the house are kind people, the terms extremely moderate, and a common table provided for the visiters during the summer season; that is to say, breakfast at eight in the morning, dinner at half past one, and tea at six. Complaints are rare as to late hours.

The town consists of one very long, wide, straight street, in length a full mile, and parallel with the sea; the line of perspective stretching apparently to an interminable length; while a few transverse streets diverge at right angles. The long street aforesaid passes as it were through the sand hills which extend parallel to it on either side. The houses are almost all dwelling or lodging houses, there being among them very few shops. They are all unequal in size, with plenty of space preserved to allow a small railed lawn or garden to each. The pavement, after the fashion of the Liverpool road, consists of large stones, and on each side, for the advantage of pedestrians, or rather, that of shoemakers, the side paths are constructed of smaller ones, more acute than I remember ever to have walked upon—except in a stable. For this reason thick-soled shoes are indispensable at Southport, and these should also be made to fit close in the quarter, as now and then at the crossings the sand lies ankle deep.

The drift of sand is so great at times, during a gale of wind, that the effects are serious. Many of the gardens in the transverse streets are filled with mountains that overtop the house, overwhelm the lower apartments, and which no one, from their size, thinks of removing.

The walking within the town is certainly not good. Without, there is the choice of the seashore, or the sand hills; in the latter, the wayfarer usually sinks up to the knees, except immediately after a smart shower of rain, when the sand binds instantaneously, and affords free leave and license to range over the tops of these mimic mountains, and visit spots which, only half an hour before, were all but inaccessible. It is really with extreme pleasure that one then explores recesses where nothing but the sky is to be seen, and which seem as wild and solitary as an Arabian desert. Rabbits burrow here abundantly, with little or nothing apparently to feed upon; and small green lizards, of a colour beautifully vivid, are plentiful. A species of toad, not common, is also here met with.

I could not help thinking, with reference to the vast tract of land lying thus waste under the form and figure of sand hills, that it might, at a comparatively trifling expense, (provided the operation were carried on gradually and by slow degrees,) be reclaimed and converted into a sheepwalk. No matter how thin the top soil; the great difficulty being once overcome, that of causing the first adhesion, it follows that the moment sheep could walk upon it, then by being fed off, the surface must increase rapidly. By the application of sea sluch, of which there is plenty on the seashore, this object might, I think, be effected; and instances may be seen, moreover, in the vicinity of the town, where a bed of indigenous yellow trefoil has advanced upon the sand hills, and grows luxuriantly upon a bottom almost of pure sand.

The land springs in the town and its vicinity are so near the surface of the ground, that, literally speaking, a donkey, being on level ground, may, anywhere and at any time, provided he be thirsty, scratch a hole with his fore foot, and therein slake his thirst. I saw a labourer, digging to plant a post a few yards only from "The Bold Arms," reach water at three feet. The wells in the town are generally five feet, of which the water stands at half the depth.

The uplands are divided into very small fields, and fenced by ditch and bank, as strongly as any part of Ireland.


From the door of "The Bold Arms" a deep sandy road leads straight to the seashore, the line of high water being about three or four hundred yards distant. The wide extent of the sands is peculiarly striking; stretching to the north and south, and, if at low water, seaward also, as far as the eye can reach. On the north, the white houses of the town of Lytham glisten in the sun, their site being at the mouth of the river Ribble, which obstacle, the breadth being foreshortened in the distance, is not perceptible. Southward an individual may ride along the shore the greater part of the way to Liverpool. The sea recedes at low water full a mile and a half. So that, as far as regards liberty and range of prospect, the eye may wander over an area equal at least to twenty square miles.

Everywhere, the sands at Southport convey to the mind a strong impression of solitude; for though the number of people residing in the town (citizens of Liverpool and Manchester) is always considerable, the line of promenades is so extended and broken, that as to appearance it is greatly underrated. In fact, the visiters, like the rabbits from their holes, pop in and out from their houses, by the cross streets leading through the sand hills, down to the shore and back again, as their idle moments dictate, by ones, and twos, and threes—tired of being in the house and tired of being out of it—now and then grouping together in small straggling parties at the approach of high water. On this occasion a short period of high change and congregation adds some enlivenment to the scene; but as the waves rapidly recede, the ladies, young and old, disappear into the town; the same vacant watery plain again appears, and the gulls and sand pipers remain undisturbed till the next tide.

The ceremony of ladies bathing is accompanied with some peculiarities. Owing to the rapid rise and fall of the tide they are obliged to be particularly quick in their movements, so that not only those who are about to dip are as busy as bees, but likewise the mothers, and aunts, and sisters, and cousins, and friends, who attend them. And perhaps it is this appearance of bustle that always attracts a gang of idlers who, having nothing better to do, stand by and look on. I did not remark any specific regulations enforced as to distance among the spectators, which point seemed to be decided by custom and common consent to everybody's satisfaction. A painted board, nevertheless, placed in a conspicuous position in the rear of a score or upward of bathing machines standing in a line, decrees that those of the gentlemen shall not advance nearer than one hundred yards from those of the ladies; and further, that all pleasure boats are prohibited from approaching the ladies when bathing, within the distance of thirty yards, under the penalty, in case of contempt of the regulation, of five shillings; a fine which, under the circumstances, cannot, I think, be called exorbitant. I am not aware how it is proposed to adjust a case of disputed distance, some favour being properly due to the variation of the steersman's eye on such an occasion. The amount of the fine has been calculated, probably, by those best able to assess the damage, and affords the means of turning, in these liberal days, even a lady's charms to the good of the parish. The insulted fair one becomes a public benefactress, while the gentleman fined, provided his eyes are tolerably good, has no cause to complain of the draft on his purse. The fine, moreover, falling on the boat's crew, would be paid in a kind of ad valorem rate, as the case might be—not exceeding, at all events, a few pence each.

All the old bathing women at Southport (to make use of an Hibernicism) are young men, that is to say, stout lusty fellows under middle age. Whether the service diminishes the chilling effects of water; whether it makes young men old, or old men young, is a point, they say, not yet determined; at all events, the young ladies, one and all, without hesitation, submit to their guidance, such as they are. The guide, or male personage, or what not, having taken his post in front of the door of the machine, in the usual manner, the young lady undresses within. Having disencumbered herself of her apparel, she puts on a dark blue bathing dress, (in which I perceived no other difference from those commonly used, than that it was invariably fastened with strings between the ankles,) and in this costume makes her appearance, "albo sic humero nitens, utpura nocturno renidet, luna mari," —(her shoulder white as the clear moonbeam that glitters on the midnight sea,)—on the upper step of the sanctuary. Presenting both her hands to the guide, and supported by his grasp, she then falls backward on the wave, receiving the embraces of old Neptune, as young ladies usually do, with the accompaniments of squeaking, giggling, kicking, splashing, and wincing.

Besides the healthful recreation of bathing, the folks enjoy, from time to time, the diversion of sailing. Boats at high water every morning depart for Lytham, besides others which ply regularly at the same period, for private hire. The boatmen, far from soliciting strangers to go on board with the usual importunity, were on the contrary so remiss, that I let several opportunities pass of becoming a passenger, imagining them to be engaged by a special party. On a subsequent occasion, being better acquainted with the style of things, I paid sixpence on the shore, and walked in with the rest. To get some half dozen ladies on board was a part of the day's adventure; the tide not being as yet sufficiently high, it was indispensable that they should be carried in men's arms for some distance towards the boat. The young gentlemen of their party very gallantly proffered their assistance, and two of them performed the service in a dexterous manner, both together supporting the fair burden by crossing hands, and enabling her to feel as if she sat in a sedan chair.

Women are tender, nervous creatures, and somehow or other, whenever they have to deal with that rude, rough animal, man, they universally put themselves into a twitter. I particularly remarked that every one of these damsels began to be fussy the moment, or rather a few moments before her turn to be carried arrived; and invariably one and all anticipated the gallants, by stepping forward most unnecessarily to meet them, and placing their dainty little feet in the puddle. But this action was merely preliminary, and quite trifling compared with the furious fits of the fidgets which followed on being actually lifted. This ceremony was attended by an innumerable host of little difficulties. First they would not be helped at all—then they would be helped, but their clothes were in the way. Some found fault because the gentlemen placed their hands too high—others squeaked because they were too low—then they were sure they would fall forward—and then again there was nothing at all to prevent their falling backward; so that finally, what with all their whims and fancies, they really, poor things, became seriously frightened, sometimes, as if wrought to a phrensy of ungovernable agitation, seizing the beau by his curly poll, at other times by an ear or a whisker. However, they were no sooner on board than their fears were all forgotten, and they became so joyous and happy that the bloom of youth and hilarity not only irradiated their own countenances, but also shed a reflected light all round.

It was on the evening of the above-related boating party, when, as I was walking near the seashore, I observed three ladies perched on the summit of one of the highest of one of the sand hills, and, as I approached nearer, I perceived they were all sitting down, each having a book in her hand which she seemed to be reading. As there appeared no chance of disturbing them, all being so intently occupied, I continued to stroll onward, stopping now and then to look at the sea, and then approaching a little nearer by degrees, till I was enabled to discover, not only that they were young and pretty, and that instead of reading their books they were laughing and talking to one another; but that they were the very identical ladies whom a very few hours before I had silently accompanied in the boat. I therefore, having hitherto been moving in the periphery of a circle, commenced an approach upon its diameter, and then advancing, I accosted the fair group, after having made a profound obeisance.

The above occurrence led partly in its turn to my partaking in an expedition, then on the tapis, namely, that of a donkey party and fete champetre to be held in the country two miles distant, at a place called "The Isle of Wight." Why the spot should be thus denominated, I never could learn, the locale consisting of a small alehouse, "The Ash Tree" on the edge of the sand hills, bearing a red flag flying on the roof; adjoining the house there is a bowling green.

It was about three o'clock of the appointed day, and not before the party were ready to proceed, that I seriously considered what I had undertaken; not that I had any fears on my own account, or other apprehension than for the back of the donkey, now appropriated to my service; having been of late years rather out of the habit of bestriding these animals. And it was really with unfeigned earnestness that I put the question to the boy, his owner, whether or not he thought him able to carry me. The master of Duke (for that was my donkey's name) had no scruples whatever on the part of his beast, neither had he a word to waste in reply: and as the ladies were all mounted and moving on, all he did was to tighten the girth. Duke received this favour conferred on him with a sour look, and upon its being repeated shook his ears, switched his tail, and drew himself up into a menacing attitude. He was a dun-coloured, bony patriarch, and though not overburdened with flesh, yet, as the nature of his duties demanded, a comely, able-bodied animal. On preparing to mount, I was somewhat discomfited by being provided with a lady's saddle, but on these occasions everybody fares alike, and a stirrup is hitched on at the opposite side. This was not agreeable, but there was no help for it—it was the custom. When I mounted, not only did Duke's back not bend, but I had reason to be perfectly astonished at the style in which I was carried, particularly as the road was paved, and the animal had not a shoe on his foot. None of the donkeys at Southport are shod; they say that the hoof becomes cracked if shod, and grows harder when bare. At all events, Duke stepped over the pave without flinching, and at a rate, now and then, which I should have imagined quite impossible. As soon as the donkeys trotted, the young ladies began to giggle and titter, when the boys in the rear also opened their mouths and gave tongue, at the same time, by the liberal application of their sticks, we enjoyed a burst of a hundred yards at full gallop. On these occasions, such were the powers of Duke, that though I remained quite passive, I always found myself in the end, "first flight," though the sagacious animal had a disagreeable fashion, whenever he felt his master's stick on his posteriors, of shuffling one side of his rump, if he could, under the tail of my coat, in order to avoid a beating, simultaneously yielding to the opposite side, with an oblique twist of his body; which movement felt to me precisely as if a strong man were twitching him half round, by a side pull at his tail. A similar manoeuvre prevailed among all the donkeys, which caused them continually to cross, during the period of the gallop, in each other's wake, and so jostled and jumbled the riders together, as entirely to dissipate at once all manner of formality.

On dismounting at the sign of the Ash Tree, preparation having been previously made, an entertainment a la fourchette was displayed on the bowling green. This consisted of abundance of boiled eggs and delicate fried rashers of bacon. As to the tea, which soon was smoking on the board, its best panegyric rests upon the fact of its having been brought thither in a lady's reticule. At all events, every one was thoroughly satisfied; for my own part, I both drank tea and ate of the eggs and bacon heartily, and everybody having rendered strict justice to the viands, the sand was rubbed off the hides and saddles of the donkeys, we all remounted, and before seven o'clock the whole party had broken up, and every individual was left to his or her separate resources, for the remainder of the evening, in the town of Southport.

Since I have undertaken to relate a part of the gayeties into which I entered during the few days of my sojourn at Southport, I must add to the foregoing another rural festival, in the way of races and sports, celebrated on the sands. The ceremonial was duly announced some days before by large placards, printed and distributed, to give it publicity. By these it was set forth, that races would take place between donkies, and the spavined old horses used in the bathing machines; that men would hop in sacks, trundle wheelbarrows blindfold, chase a pig with a soaped tail; and that boys would climb a greased pole for a gold-laced hat, and dip for pieces of drowned money in a bowl of treacle.

There is no physical or moral act of a man's life that so thoroughly assists his independence for the time being, proves good fellowship with all the world, and exhibits him in an undisguised state of nature, as a sound horselaugh; and for what possible reason the laws of fashion have prohibited that innocent recreation, I never could imagine—a prohibition which actually causes the countryman to clap his hand before his mouth, in the presence of his superiors, as if there was harm in giving way to such an honest impulse of nature.

Certainly it is very delightful to see people happy, especially when they know not exactly the reason why, yielding involuntarily to the united sympathies of body and mind, in the form aforesaid; but however I might have been naturally predisposed towards this country tournament, there was one part of the exhibition calculated, I am sure, to unbend muscles rigid as the bow of Ulysses, and this part was that of dipping for the money in treacle.

In the first place the spot chosen for the occasion was by nature most happily suited to the purpose on the broad seashore, while a projecting ridge of sand hills afforded a convenient position for the crowd which had assembled, consisting of five or six hundred people, to arrange themselves in clusters, and bask at ease among the little mountains. Besides, it was one of the finest of summer evenings.

A table or dresser having been placed on the sands, a huge wooden bowl containing at least a gallon of treacle was put upon it. The officiating personage having carefully stirred round and round with a stick ten silver shillings, within the luscious element, the competitors were summoned by sound of horn to the lists; it being previously understood that the hands of each boy were to be tied behind him, and no means allowed, except the assistance of his teeth, to recover the hidden treasure. On such conditions, every prize so fished up was to be his by right of salvage.

The first candidate was a great lubberly boy of seventeen, whose diffidence, excited by the gaze of the multitude, caused him to display to better advantage the wide mouth and projecting teeth with which nature had furnished him. Shouts resounded on all sides, and appeals were made from intimate friends to his acquaintanceship, as without delay they proceeded to business. All preparations were effected in a few minutes—his hands were bound, his throat was bared, he was placed kneeling on the table, the bowl of treacle before him, and he was just ready to duck for the prize, when a desperate effort was made by his grandmother to prevent the ceremony. At this juncture, she very opportunely made her appearance, loudly called him by his name, screamed, pushed the people on her right and on her left, abused both him and them, using her feeble strength to make way through the crowd, and seize her recreant relative. But the poor old creature had very little chance, as might well be supposed, of attaining her object. She was pushed, and hustled, and impeded in all sorts of ways; while, on the contrary, the boy was urged and instigated to be undutiful by public acclamation. Recognising his grandmother, (and her solicitude and inflexibility ought certainly to have won his heart,) he grinned clownishly, and as if giving way to a sense of duty, for a moment refrained. It was but for a moment. The sounds of "Go it, Dick," "Down with your muzzle," were too animating, and urged by the joint love of fame, money, and treacle, down went his head into the bowl.

The first struggle was a very determined one, no matter whether or not it was successful; but it may well be asserted, that few scenes of the sort ever presented a better subject for a painter than the one in question, at the moment when, after the first plunge, this rustic renegade drew his head out of the bowl, and recovered his kneeling position. His own countenance more like that of an ourang outang than anything human, the disappointed rage of the grandmother, and the roars of laughter proceeding from five or six hundred open mouths in unison, were so many sounds and objects which, when combined, presented, in their way, a picture of real life, seldom if ever to be surpassed.

The festivities lasted upward of three hours, when, even before the sun had set, the country people returned to their homes, and the waves broke again in solitude on the shore. During the whole performance, I never saw among a multitude of people more good-humoured and orderly behaviour; indeed, they submitted to be ridden at and driven out of the course by mounted horsemen, with infinitely less remonstrance than is usual with many an ignorant vagabond, who does not reflect that the process is for the general good. In fact, the congregation consisted chiefly of sensible industrious people—of such as, thank God ! there are thousands upon thousands in the country, apart from great towns, who support themselves by daily labour, and pass the chief part of their time in the bosoms of their families. In the neighbourhood of Southport, there is a rural manufacturing, as well as agricultural population, of whom these were a part; domestic silk weavers, living separately in small cottages, and working at home at their looms.

And a more striking contrast cannot be conceived, than was presented on this occasion, to another scene I beheld only a few days afterward, at the Maghull races, where the crowd was composed of the rougher sort, in and about the great town of Liverpool, being, I sincerely hope, the outpourings of the worst class of inhabitants.

I can never forget the impression made upon me by the squalid ruffianly visage of one man, as he was sitting within, at the entrance of one of the tents or low receptacles of drunkenness. In one hand was his mug of liquor; with the other, he held by a string a starving white bulldog. Several times I passed the spot during the two hours I was on the ground, and could not help pitying the destiny of the unfortunate animal, whose staring coat was sufficient indication of his hard treatment. I had left Southport on purpose to go to these races, and on my return home I saw once more this man and dog. The former lay on the ground in a stale degrading to human nature, while shivering at his side in faithful attendance stood the dog. The collapsed muscles of his master's hand had loosed their grasp, yet still, in spite of ill treatment and hunger, there the dog remained, evincing that disinterested attachment, that true nobility of nature, in search of which among the human race, many an honest heart may wither in disappointment.


George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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