When it comes to finding out what’s happening in your local area, where do you turn first? Google? Twitter? Your local area Facebook group? News has become hyper-local, and instantaneous – within seconds of an event there will be shaky footage doing the rounds on the internet and comment threads filling up with people adding their opinions and experiences. But it wasn’t always this way.

It can be hard to remember what life was like before the internet - when the daily newspaper was a permanent fixture in homes up and down the land and every section was pored over before it was then used to wrap up the vegetable peelings! And gone are the days when a portion of that classic seaside fayre – fish and chips – was wrapped in newsprint. Thankfully some clever people decided that the humble newspaper would ultimately become a valuable record of a time and place, and that’s where our colleagues at Southport Townscape Heritage Project come in. 

Here they share a fascinating insight into Southport nearly 180 years ago.

Top half of a news page from 1844. The Southport Visiter in gothic black font, with small newsprint stories underneath.

The front page of the very first Southport Visiter, published in May 1844.

Lancashire Archives DDPr 27/31

“Lurking on the nine miles of shelving at Lancashire Archives, Preston, is a copy of the very first issue of The Southport Visiter and General Advertiser, published on Saturday 4 May 1844 for the price of threepence. If you’ve ever wondered about that spelling of ‘Visiter’, back in the Victorian period both versions were perfectly acceptable.

In 1844 the seaside resort of Southport had been in existence for 50 years, growing from a few houses and hotels among the sand dunes to a small town focused on what was then called Lords Street. The 1840s were a key period in Southport’s development. The Promenade and Nevill Street were newly built, the potential of railway links was being hotly debated, and new landowner Charles Scarisbrick had bought much of the town from the Bolds and the Heskeths – the original ‘Lords of Lord Street.’

The name of the paper says it all. It was a clever mix of advertising aimed at the ‘Inhabitants and Visiters of Southport’, and included long list of all the people staying in hotels and holiday accommodation – who wouldn’t want to spend threepence to see their name in print? Young Master Robert Munn of Hilton House, Prestwich, who was staying at the Mansion House, was one of those happy to broadcast the fact he was in Southport. Think of it as the Victorian equivalent of posting your holiday selfies on Instagram!

Most of the visitors were from the Manchester, Bolton and Wigan areas, with a few from Liverpool, Ormskirk and West Yorkshire. But L Ward Esq. and TT Taylor Esq. had come all the way from Cheltenham and Glasgow respectively to enjoy Southport’s ‘tranquil and bracing shores’.

Like most Victorian newspapers, the front page is entirely composed of adverts. The most prominent is for Mr Charlton’s Claremont Private Family Hotel on the Victoria Promenade. Described as ‘Fronting to the Sea’, the accompanying illustration shows a building that was later Sir William Atkinson’s home (The Atkinson, Southport’s home of all things cultural, takes its name from his generous support). Proving that the promise of a good pint has always been a way to draw customers, Mr Charlton makes sure to add a note that he sells ‘Bass & Co’s celebrated India Pale Ale’.

Other advertisers include the Victoria Baths, other hotels and lodging houses, but most of all, the vendors of fashionable hats and bonnets, shoes, children’s dresses and – possibly less fashionable – stays and corsets.

It’s clear that a lot of the ‘news’ is lifted from other newspapers and ranges widely from smuggling, royal activities, debates in parliament, a daring robbery, and a fatal accident on the canal. The Fashions for May inform us that waistlines are ‘very low upon the hips, and the skirts immensely wide and very long’, straw bonnets are now worn by all classes (not just working women), and the fashionable colours are ‘pale pink bordering on cerise, blue lilacs and greens of every shade’.

Not to be missed in this issue - and in a nod to the craze for serialised novels that some say began with Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’ - the first instalment of ‘The Legend of the Lord of Dunraven Castle’ draws readers in with the atmospheric, and sometimes spooky, tale of shipwrecks and heroic rescues.

The paper certainly lives up to the editorial claim to be all things to all people – we’ll spare you the jokes and the ‘Advice to young ladies’ – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. One of the three poems ‘written expressly for the Visiter’ still rings true today:

Invitation to Southport

‘Tis an axiom true, that life without health

Can ne’er be enjoy’d, although rolling in wealth;

By why go to seek it in strange foreign lands,

When it’s here to be found on Southport’s fair sands!

There’s health and long life, floats in every breeze

Which reaches her shores from the far distant seas.

So there you are – Southport in 1844, courtesy of the Southport Visiter and General Advertiser. Trying to imagine what life was like in 1844 can conjure up images of a completely different world, but many of these visitors to Southport were hoping to enjoy all of the same things that we do today - a stroll along the seafront, a bit of shopping, and a relaxing drink at the end of a good day.

The Southport Visiter is still published today. Early editions, including from 1844, can be read on microfilm at Southport Library."

colour sketch of bridge over a road, with horse and cart and men on horses. A grand white building stands on the raised ground

A sketch of the Victoria Hotel and the Promenade bridge over Nevill Street, drawn in September 1844, just 4 months after the first Southport Visiter. Maybe the unknown artist’s name is listed in an edition of the paper. Lancashire Archives DDX 1934

Southport Townscape Heritage is a National Lottery Heritage Funded project transforming the seaside town of Southport through heritage regeneration and community activities.

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