The Victorians love of seaside fairy lights.

Living in a traditional seaside town as I do, I have grown up with, always loved, and miss terribly, the good old fairy lights that used to be displayed around the promenade, someone had rather poetically described them as a ‘necklace of lights,’ and that is just what they were, colourful jewels that once adorned the  graceful curve of our beautiful bay.

I say ‘were,’ because part of Weymouth’s grand ‘modernisation’ scheme in preparation for the 2012 Sailing Olympics was the complete dismantling of the good old fairy lights, only to be replaced with modern, sterile, soulless laser lights, something that has caused much controversy and disgruntlement amongst many of the locals.


So fierce were people’s feelings that so far it has invoked two petitions to bring them back.

Now I’m not adverse to modernisation in theory..but some things just don’t need fixing!

Well, o.k., maybe the old fashioned light bulbs that draped from post to post weren’t the most cost effective or productive, but in this day and age of modern technology, with solar power, LED lights etc…there just had to be a better option out there, not just wholesale removal.

As for the so called laser lights…they are completely  underwhelming to say the least. The best place to view them from is out at sea…not an option for most of our visitors walking the Esplanade, which is surely the only reason they had been installed?


Certainly not for the locals benefit!

Enough of my tirade anyway, stepping down off my soap box…the purpose of this blog was to show people that maybe these fairy lights in Weymouth go way back further than they perhaps realised, the Victorians too were very fond and proud of the their seaside illuminations.

Nowadays we all take artificial light for granted, streets lit, shops lit, houses…but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t really so long ago that our ancestors were poodling around with nothing but mere candle sticks in hand and a feckless flickering flame.

In 1835 Weymouth revelled in being very modern in their thinking, they finally had gas lighting installed in a few of the main streets and some of the premier shops. It didn’t go too well at first, but with a bit of tinkering they finally got there.

‘Experiments were first attempted on Saturday last with tolerable success, but on Monday and the following evening the appearance was splendid.’

As gas lighting became more widely used, people began to see the advantages of using it decoratively.

In September of 1886 is a report in the papers of one of the regular concerts that were held in the warm evenings at the end of the old decorative wooden Pile pier. Cosens & co had lent gas the gas lamps to festoon the length of the pier, and the Gas company supplied…well, the gas.


So successful were these beautifully illuminated musical soirees that nigh on 2,000 odd people would attend. The elegant curve of the pier bedecked with lights would sparkle like jewels in the still evenings waters of the bay.

A most glorious sight to behold…Weymouth was still the place to be seen at, where the elite and the rich flocked to, still riding on the coat tails of George III’s sea bathing legacy.

Then as now, the council had to find various ways and means of making Weymouth the place for folks (aka tourists) to come to, after all, they were and of course, still are, the main lifeblood of the town.

For Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June of 1897, Weymouth really went to town, with a whole day of spectacular events and feasting to commemorate her 60 year reign. Not least in the evening, as the light faded, so the place was ablaze with light spectacular. Even the Nothe was festooned with Victoria’s initials in illuminations.


‘The illuminations at night were carried out on a gorgeous scale. along the whole line of the bay for a distance of a mile and a half fairy lamps were hung, and the gardens also freely illuminated. In the town by private enterprise the illuminations were very extensive, as were also those at the various public buildings.’

In 1898 Weymouth welcomed Royalty to its shores once again, this time in grand style. They too were invited to view the spectacular evening light display that Weymouth had become famous for.

‘Daily Mail, London, Friday, August 26, 1898

Prince at Weymouth

Illumination of Pier, Gardens, and Promenade.

HRH the Prince of Wales conferred upon Weymouth a special honor by consenting to remain last evening in the Osborne, anchored in the bay, to witness the illuminations of the pier, gardens, and esplanade.

A telegram was dispatched to Sir Francis Knollys, on board the Royal yacht, from the town clerk, requesting him to ask his Royal Highness if he would allow his yacht to remain in the bay to witness the illuminations, to which a reply was received stating that the Prince of Wales would be pleased to do so.

For this purpose the Osborne came into the bay from Portland soon afternoon, and took the following party from Devonshire House, the residence of Mr. Montague Guest, on board:- Mrs. Lawrence and Miss Esme Drummond, Mrs. Atherly, Mr. Langrishe, Sir Allen Young, and Mr. Montague Guest.

They had luncheon on board the Osborne, where there were the Prince of Wales, the Princess Victoria, Princess Marie of Greece, Prince Nicholas of Greece.

The Portuguese Minister

Senhor L. de Soveral, Mr Christopher Sykes, Sir Francis Knollys, Captain the Hon.Seymour Fortescue, Mr Fripp, the Prince of Wales’s medical advisor, Mr Martino, and Sir Henry Burdett.

After luncheon the yacht proceeded to Lulworth, the company being landed in the pretty coves in launches.

Some visited the coastguard station, others enjoyed the beautiful air and splendid scenery from the Downs, the remainder going for a short drive into the country.

On the party again assembling on the Osborne they had tea on board, and the yacht then steamed for Weymouth, where she arrived shortly before six.

The weather was most favorable for the illuminations, and the front presented a magnificent spectacle, the best view being obtained from the sea.’


And so the tradition carried on up through the years, strings of colourful fairy lights adorned our bay, they soon spread to the Jubilee clock, covered the theatres and the hotels on the Esplanade, lit the Victorian shelters that lined the Esplande.


People would come from far and wide to admire the pretty seaside resort and its illuminations, many would walk along the Esplanade under the swaying ropes of lamps of an evening, their soft glow casting a warm ambience that no modern day high tech lasers can ever hope to match.

Even in the depth of the colder seasons, those stalwart twinkling bulbs whispered of warm summers evenings yet to come as they swung in the cold blasts of winter.


I would love to see them back again…but fear that it’s never going to happen, until fashion again dictates that traditional seaside resorts are once again en vogue.


Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m research Saratoga Springs in the states and the 1880’s visitors always remarked about the enchanting fairy lights.


  2. cannasue says:

    Well, they’ve certainly caused a great deal of controversy here!
    The majority of people never wanted them removed, then you have the few who say we are old fashioned and need to be brought into the 21st century.
    Guess you’ll never please everyone.


  3. Jon Kitchin says:

    I wonder when did the lights in their most recent guise appear? I have seen a few pictures lately of Weymouth apparently in the late 60’s/early 70’s where there are no fairy lights. Is there a record of when they appeared and disappeared?


  4. cannasue says:

    I’m not totally sure when the electric lights came in.
    Many of my postcard collections shows them there in the 20’s and 30’s. I’ve always not known them there. They were suddenly stripped out in 2011/12.
    Call me a stick-in-the-mud but, to me, those coloured lights draped along the esplanade were Weymouth…it just does not look the same now at all, I’m afraid that lasers just don’t do it for me.
    I know people are trying to modernise the town, but some things suit a traditional bucket and spade resort, (which is what we are and should be proud of in essence,) better than others.


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