Filey has unexpected charms. It’s a good place to reach by rail. The station is a particularly well-preserved example of the work of George Townsend Andrews (1804-1855), with an overall iron truss roof and a standard North Eastern Railway footbridge slotted into the train-shed walls.
The short walk to the sea is unremarkable, until you reach the cliff edge. Ahead is the North Sea, which in the nineteenth century was called the German Ocean. In each direction spectacular cliffs stretch to Filey Brigg in the north and southwards towards Muston, Hunmanby and Reighton.
Facing the coast, but separated from the cliff-edge by ornamental gardens, is the Crescent, an elegant ensemble of Regency terraces, constructed for an enterprising Birmingham solicitor, John Wilkes Unett (1770-1856), who commissioned plans for a resort to be called New Filey from the Birmingham architect and surveyor Charles Edge in 1835.
There is a subtle demarcation between the Crescent area and the Old Town. The two are interdependent, but Unett’s speculation was aimed at “those who possess a relish for the pure exhibitions of nature, and take with them a little society”.
Visitors came to Filey, as a quieter alternative to Scarborough, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and initially they came by road. In the 1820s two stage-coaches operated, each on alternate days, six days a week. Local sailors and their wives recognised that catering for tourists was at least a supplement to the unpredictable fortunes of the fishing trade.
The Hull-Scarborough railway opened in 1846. It could have encouraged an invasion of excursionists, but they seem to have headed for Bridlington and Scarborough. Instead, Filey attracted a constant stream of visitors of high social standing and net worth. Charlotte Brontë visited in 1849 and 1852; Sir Titus Salt came in 1871, and Frederick Delius was a regular visitor from 1876, when he was fourteen, until 1901.
Filey was also the discreet resort of British and foreign royalty. Leopold II, King of the Belgians in 1873 made the first royal visit: he was Queen Victoria’s cousin, and he was followed by her son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1880), her grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence & Avondale (1890) and her daughter, Princess Louise, later Duchess of Argyll (1899).
German relatives of the British royal family also visited – the Prince & Princess Louis of Battenberg (1900) and Ernest Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, and his family (1910). Indeed, well into the 1930s Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, who was married to the Earl of Harewood, used to bring her young sons for holidays to Filey.
Ironically, Filey’s major claim to fame in the holiday industry was the Butlin camp, started in 1939 and completed as RAF Hunmanby Moor. After the war it flourished, to the extent that it had its own branch line and railway station. The camp’s maximum capacity was 11,000 holidaymakers, and it ran successfully into the 1970s: http://www.butlinsmemories.com/filey/index.htm.
It’s a fair bet that most of the thousands of visitors to Butlins never went near Filey itself.
The Butlin’s branch line closed in 1977 and the camp lasted until 1983. It has completely disappeared under redevelopment.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all: the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside: the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.