How Swanage shrugged off its industrial past to become a holiday destination…

By Sara Niven.

SWANAGE’S place as an attractive seaside destination may seem obvious now.
But for decades, the town’s industrial history contrasted with a past steeped in industrial heritage.
The apparent identity crisis of the town is addressed by Jason Tomes in his new book, Swanage: An Illustrated History, which is available now.
“For example, Christopher Taylor, in the Dorset volume of The Making of the English Landscape series, dismisses Swanage as a ‘visually unattractive holiday town’,” Jason explained.
“Many books about Dorset understandably focus on rustic life, often in a romantic way: manor houses, farm horses, thatched cottages with roses round the door.
“Swanage has only two thatched cottages. Though close to countryside, it is not a country town and never has been.
“By the time it acquired its urban character, it had been an industrial village for centuries, dominated by the stone industry, and then it became a seaside resort.”
An Illustrated History - Jason Tomes
Jason’s book features 13 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of life in Swanage.
For a town that became known as a top spot for UK quarrying, this not surprisingly includes the stone trade, its rise as a significant component in Swanage’s economy – and subsequent demise.
The town’s most famous quarry, Tilly Whim near Anvil Point, was still open as a visitor attraction at the time Jason was growing up locally, before finally closing for good in the mid-1970s.
However, despite covering this well, he was keen to explore other aspects that followed and shaped Swanage, including attempts to promote it as a health and spa town in the 1820s and the boost to tourism provided by the arrival of the railway in 1885, which forced locals to – albeit begrudgingly – accept its place as a tourist hotspot.
“For at least the last 140 years, the big story in Swanage has been the evolution of the resort,” Jason said.
“The fact that previous books have not examined this very closely probably tells you something about the attitude of some residents to holidaymakers!
“One of the persistent distinguishing features of Swanage is a rather grudging and half-hearted attitude to its principal industry.

“Seaside tourism is nevertheless the single most important factor in shaping the modern town and it rightfully takes centre stage here – though the book covers a great deal besides.”
As author, Jason has made a deliberate decision to restrict the history of the town’s architecture to one chapter, citing his belief that a place is primarily a collection of people, not buildings.
He views this as having provided the scope and freedom to focus on other aspects of Swanage’s development, be they social, cultural, economic or political.
Certainly, there is the benefit of added interest for both reader and author in doing so and it was a decision he says his publisher was happy to support.
“Many modern publishers of local history books impose a depressing degree of uniformity that makes every town seem much like every other by fitting it into a template: from flint arrow heads to supermarkets, via the Domesday Book, the Civil War, and the Victorians,” he explained.
“Happily, this is not true of Dovecote Press, which has allowed me to produce a book as idiosyncratic as its subject.”

Swanage: An Illustrated History is published by The Dovecote Press, priced at £15.
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