In the mid 18th century, Dr Richard Russell began to promote the drinking of sea water as a cure for diseases such as gout and jaundice.
This began the development of coastal settlements as places of well-being, rivalling established health towns such as Bath and Harrogate. Doctors claimed they could detect special medicinal properties in the air and sea water of different resorts.
The industrial revolution transformed these quiet health resorts into seaside holiday towns. The development of the railway was key in allowing the upper classes fast access to the Bay and established the Victorian seaside resort. With the increased wealth of Britain and the birth of the leisure industry, Torquay developed a whole new character.
Families went to the seaside because the air was believed to be healthy. No one went to sun-bathe and most people went to the beach fully clothed.
Respectable visitors also avoided any form of excess. So what did they actually do?
One activity for Torquay’s visitors was to acquire souvenirs of their holiday – either by purchasing a gift or by collecting shells or minerals.
Another popular pastime was the collection of varieties of pressed seaweed to put into albums and to take home as decoration.
To aid the interest – which was both an art and a science – a number of guides were offered for sale which advised visitors on what to look for in Torquay’s rock pools.
One example is that of Shirley Hubbard, who was actually a man called James Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890).
Shirley’s The Seaweed Collector: A Handy Guide to the Marine Botanist (1872) gave information on collecting and identifying seaweeds.
It also gave advice on what to wear:
“To be suitably dressed is one of the most important matters in setting forth to gather seaweeds. Above all things it is desirable to protect the feet with stout boots, the so-called seaside boots of canvas or white leather being quite unsuitable for clambering over boulders to find rock-pools, or for wading in the marshy parts of a sandy shore where fresh water streams come down. Serviceable woollen garments that fit somewhat close are to be preferred to fashionable ‘fly away’ things which the wind will sport with unkindly, and which are sure to get well wetted when you begin to stoop and ‘potter’ about.”
Seaweed collecting was a common activity and contributed to the popularity of the seaside holiday. One of the Victorian ladies who made it so central to the Victorian holiday experience was Torquay’s Amelia Warren Griffiths (1768-1858).
Amelia was born in Pilton, North Devon. In 1794 she married the Reverend William Griffiths, who became a vicar in Cornwall. He died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Amelia with five young children. In 1829 she settled in Torquay.
Amelia was a gifted scholar who raised awareness of the diversity of marine plant life. She corresponded with the foremost algae and seaweed experts of her time. In 1817 her fine reputation led the eminent Swedish botanist Carl Agardh to name a genus of marine red algae Griffithsia Agardh in her honour.
Her companion was Mary Wyatt, who kept a pressed plant shop in Torquay.
The two women produced two volumes of pressed and named seaweeds found around The Bay, called Algae Danmoniensis. Published in 1833, each contained 50 different species. Volumes 3 and 4 followed in subsequent years. These rare books are now part of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Collection.
Amelia continued to pursue her interests well into her 80s. On her death, her private herbarium was deposited at Torquay Museum.
Incidentally, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum was recently asked by the Natural History Museum about their oldest biological specimen. It was found to be an example of tufted conifer-weed (Boergeseniella thuyoides) collected on the Cornish coast in 1801 by Amelia. The specimen is held in one of three volumes of pressed seaweeds that were collected, mounted and compiled by her.