Peter Hodson, Queen’s University Belfast
A stroll around Douglas, Isle of Man, reveals shadows of the old seaside tourist economy everywhere. Grand Victorian terraces, horse trams trotting along the promenade, and (less pleasing to the eye) vacant land awaiting redevelopment. The island still welcomes thousands of holidaymakers, but the mass tourism of old – the focus of my recently published Cultural and Social History journal article – has long since ended.
The article has its origins in my B.A. dissertation. I had developed a strong interest in social history as an undergraduate, and was particularly keen to utilise oral history methodology. But why the Isle of Man, and why the post-war seaside holiday? In large part I chose the Isle of Man because of its under-developed historiography. Few university-based historians have adopted the island’s history as a worthy academic pursuit. The ideological roots, genesis and characteristics of Manx nationalism, for instance, has captured little attention. Primary source material held at the Manx Museum Library (the Isle of Man’s de facto national archive) is comprehensive – and under-utilised.
The other motivating factor had more to do with self-indulgence. The Isle of Man occupies a prominent place in my own family history. The Hodson connection to the island stretches back to at least the 1920s, if not earlier. My Dad, Grandparents, and Great-Grandparents made the annual pilgrimage from Manchester across the Irish Sea for a holiday in one of the Manx resorts. My Gran first visited in 1949, and holidayed every single year (without exception) since 1961. Stories about (now deserted) beaches packed with deckchairs, rickety rides on (now demolished) White City rollercoasters, and of turbulent seas on steamer crossings from Fleetwood were narrated to me as a child. I still remember the baffled reactions at primary school to my announcement of “Isle of Man” when the class discussed summer holiday destinations, rather than the “Portugal” or “Tenerife” of my peers. We liked the Isle of Man so much that we eventually moved there in 2007.
Quite by chance, I stumbled across a fascinating oral history collection at the Manx Museum Library when researching for my dissertation. These interviews with Manx residents (conducted circa. 1998-2001) who worked in the tourist sector, peppered with a few holidaymaker testimonies, were something of an archival goldmine. I bolstered this material with a small sample of holidaymaker interviews undertaken by myself, predominantly in the Belfast area. I also interviewed my Dad. Interviewing family members is an interesting experience as an oral historian. Rapport doesn’t need to be built. Insider knowledge can be deployed from the outset. Taboo issues are more keenly felt. Part of the article examines youth seaside sex – a topic that I felt uncomfortable discussing, not because my Dad is prudish, but because I simply didn’t want to know.
The Manx Museum oral histories were rich, testament to the interviewing expertise of Manx National Heritage volunteers. They provided a unique insight into the holidaymaking experience and seasonal economic boom in the Isle of Man, transformed between May and September into ‘Holiday Isle’. Though vitally important for Manx prosperity, underlying cultural and moral concerns were readily identifiable. Some of the most explicit criticism was found in the Hansard reports of the Isle of Man Parliament, Tynwald, and in local newspapers (both digitally accessible). The island’s unique constitutional status delivered unusual legislative results when local politicians were confronted with the spectre of teenage trouble and working class overindulgence.
My research interests have since moved elsewhere, but my Isle of Man holiday research was amongst the most enjoyable I have undertaken. The article was, dare I say it, fun to write. The holiday was (for most) an incredibly happy experience, where the stresses and strains of urban life could be temporarily cast aside. For many working class families, it was the highlight of the year and the product of many months setting money aside in savings clubs. It placed my own mid-20th century family experiences, and their cultural pursuits on holiday, in broader perspective. Above all, it has (hopefully) enriched Manx historiography, and provided a useful starting point for those unfamiliar with its history and culture, and fruitfully contributed to the ever-growing research on working class leisure.
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About the Author: Peter Hodson is a research student at Queen’s University Belfast, currently working on his doctoral thesis entitled ‘Memory, conflict and class: the experience and legacy of deindustrialisation in Belfast and North East England since 1970’. He is the author of ‘The ‘Isle of Vice’? Youth, class and the post-war holiday on the Isle of Man’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no. 3 (2018), pp. 433-451.