The fascinating story of the 'no nonsense' landladies of Morecambe from the 1940s to 1980s

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The Landladies of Morecambe is a fascinating series of new videos launched by Morecambe Heritage and funded by Historic England.

A £10,000 Historic England grant funded the Morecambe Heritage project exploring the lives and stories of the landladies who ran bed and breakfasts in Morecambe up until the 1980s, when it was a favourite holiday destination for working class families from Northern England and Scotland.

Famed for their no-nonsense reputation, gruff manner and strict rules and regulations, 20 people were interviewed about their reflections on Morecambe landladies over the decades including ex-landladies themselves, family members and paying guests, whether holidaymakers, students or workers.

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Twelve filmed interviews are now available on Morecambe Heritage’s website at The interviews were mainly conducted by 12 local young people, making intergenerational learning an important part of the project.

Landlady Bessie Ball and guests at the Seashelt boarding house.Landlady Bessie Ball and guests at the Seashelt boarding house.
Landlady Bessie Ball and guests at the Seashelt boarding house.

A short film by Historic England, inspired by the grant project, brings together three generations of landladies at the Berkeley B&B in Morecambe to reflect on the town’s past, present and future. You can watch the video above.

“My feelings about the project are that heritage, particularly personal memories, connects us all, even across a chasm of six or seven decades,” said David Evans of Morecambe Heritage.

"It reminds older people of simpler, happier days where a holiday consisted of a stroll down the promenade, making sandcastles, taking a dip in often very cold water, followed by a hearty meal, and perhaps a show if you are lucky, all the while being looked after by a friendly landlady.

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“The young interviewers were all volunteers and gained a real insight into the social history of their hometown. Interviewers and interviewees alike said they enjoyed the experience, and many could see the value in capturing the memory of the landlady's experience from a bygone era.”

Morecambe landladies at The Berkeley B&B on Marine Road West, Morecambe, with the Northern Heart Films crew. Picture: Historic England Archive/Olivia Hemingway.Morecambe landladies at The Berkeley B&B on Marine Road West, Morecambe, with the Northern Heart Films crew. Picture: Historic England Archive/Olivia Hemingway.
Morecambe landladies at The Berkeley B&B on Marine Road West, Morecambe, with the Northern Heart Films crew. Picture: Historic England Archive/Olivia Hemingway.

Below is a ‘light-hearted summary’ of the project by David, which we think you’ll agree makes a fascinating read.

The Landladies of Morecambe by David Evans

Stroll along the front at Morecambe today, and you will see many of the hotels that have graced the promenade for a good half century or more.

The Lothersdale, St Winifred’s, The Morecambe Bay, The Auckland and of course the iconic Midland. Names that have represented the signature of Morecambe,for the past 60 years. These are the survivors of a huge industry largely decimated by our desire to holiday in more exotic sunshine guaranteed climes.

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A promotional postcard for the 'Sea - Shelt' boarding House on Regent Road, Morecambe.A promotional postcard for the 'Sea - Shelt' boarding House on Regent Road, Morecambe.
A promotional postcard for the 'Sea - Shelt' boarding House on Regent Road, Morecambe.

The seaside landlady is a dying breed but return to the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s and you would have been spoilt for choice of not just the bigger hotels on the front, affordable for the few, but more likely the 100s of terraced boarding houses on the roads parallel to or running down to the promenade. Here you would have found a wealth of Belle Aires, Sea Views, Sea Crest, The Clarenden, The Belvedere, The Westcliffe and a hundred others. Iconic seaside accommodation names that reassure us of a guaranteed friendly welcome, comfort and good old British ‘bon ami’. After all isn’t that what we came to the seaside for?

Post war and up to the late 1960s, Morecambe during the summer, like many UK seaside towns, was thronged with holidaymakers. A week away and a chance to escape from the dust and the grime of the Glasgow shipyard, the Bradford woollen mill, or the Rochdale cotton mill.

Definitely not the playground of the rich but the retreat of the working classes; get yourself off to Morecambe for a fortnight, doctors would advise asthma sufferers in the 1950s; the air in Morecambe is better than Filey or Scarborough!

Throughout the 20th Century, like Blackpool, the Morecambe landlady gained a reputation for her no nonsense, penny pinching and even ferocious demeanour. Stay out after the door is locked and you will find yourself sleeping on a bench on the prom. Try it on with my daughter and you will be made to leave; come in drunk and you will feel the edge of my tongue. ‘Take your shoes off, don’t you dare dirty my newly whitened step’. This stereotype has appeared in many films or newsreels of the time and on many a saucy seaside postcard.

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Morecambe landladies had a reputation for their no nonsense approach.Morecambe landladies had a reputation for their no nonsense approach.
Morecambe landladies had a reputation for their no nonsense approach.

Having interviewed 20 landladies, or their offspring, holidaymakers and university students too, I can see little evidence that an army of Ena Sharples ever dominated the landlady scene in Morecambe.

More likely from the 1940s and 1950s, many of the landladies’ rules seemed archaic. Holidaymakers have confirmed that come rain or shine they were ‘booted out’ after breakfast and were not allowed back into their digs until high tea (usually served around 5pm). ‘When it rained, we had to hang around the penny slot machines or the fairground until tea time’. And use of the cruet set was indeed charged as an extra at 6d (2.5p). But back then, we were still in the era of rationing and guests often came equipped with a cardboard box containing their rations, and hoped that the landlady remembered who brought the pork chops, and who brought the sausages!

The era of landladies I interviewed were more 1940s to 1980s. The latter part of that period in Morecambe experienced a shift away from holidaymakers, through first year students attending the newly opened Lancaster University to construction workers building the two nuclear facilities at nearby Heysham, and to young unemployed relocated to Morecambe by the DHSS. Each of these groups offered opportunities for landladies to accommodate guests on a much longer stay basis than the holidaymaker.

Cliff grew up in a boarding house during the 1930s; lost his mother at six but remained a landlady’s son when his auntie, as godparent, took over. His mainly happy memories are of a protective granddad and elder brothers (actually cousins) steering him through the hazards of life with the advantage of older advisors. I asked Cliff if the landlady employed penny pinching tactics such as no plug sockets in rooms. Cliff’s response, ‘what electricity?, it were just gas lamps till after’ut war’.

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Jenny told me that expectations were a lot lower in the post war era. Homes were less comfortable, they had less money and a holiday in Morecambe may take in a show, a walk down the promenade and sunbathing on the sands (come rain or shine – usually without the removal of any clothing!)

I found rather than penny pinching tactics, most landladies were generous and keen to please. And it seemed that the route to the holidaymakers’ hearts was through their stomach! A carefully planned week’s menu of hearty varied home cooking ensured that no guest received the same meal twice. This was often the centrepiece of the landladies’ offer.

A familiar 'No Vacancies' sign.A familiar 'No Vacancies' sign.
A familiar 'No Vacancies' sign.

And in stark contrast to the health-conscious holidays of today, I can imagine many holidaymakers from this era arriving back home a good few pounds heavier than when they left!

Joanne recalls that her gran would take in many coach excursion day trippers and evening meal would always be the same; tomato soup, breaded plaice with green beans, sweetcorn and new potatoes, followed by the dreaded peach melba, … dreaded by Joanne because during the six weeks summer holidays from school, that was her tea!

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Many landladies offered full board which included breakfast, lunch and high tea. (And even supper at 10pm) A non-stop merry-go-round of cooking, laying the table, waiting on (serving) and doing the dishes in time for the next meal. In many guesthouses, a dinner gong signalled the meal although often the gong was reported as a pure novelty as the guests were often queuing well before the dining room doors were opened!

But being a landlady was hard graft, a number of those interviewed gave it up after a few years. Only one of the 20 interviewed made it her entire working life. Too much, particularly if you had a family to raise as well. And hard work if you were a single parent. It was hard to make a decent profit, margins were tight, so penny pinching in some cases was employed.

Examples included no plug sockets in the guest rooms, ‘we don’t want them using hair dryers or kettles’. Julie, a teenager at the time, remembers retrieving the ingredients for the raspberry sundae (left untouched in the cupboard from the previous season) to find weevils in the chocolate flakes. ‘Oh, don’t worry, they won’t notice’, the landlady reassured her!

The children of landladies had to muck in but the tips were good. Waiting on, carrying the luggage in an old silver cross pram from the railway or getting bottles of pop for the Scottish visitors who left the empties (so you could get the threepence back) were all good ways of making money. Landladies’ kids became streetwise quickly.

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First year university students were accommodated by Morecambe landladies in the mid and late 1960s. At that time, the age of majority was 21 so to many students the landladies were acting as Loco Parentis.

Joe initially lodged in a private three-bedroom house. The landlady had rules; we were allowed in the dining room but not the lounge. The Olympic games were on so I settled myself on a couch in the lounge and turned the TV on to watch. This was a big mistake as the husband of the landlady (who was always less than enthusiastic about her taking in guests) decided it was his private domain and I had overstepped the mark. He tore a strip off me that afternoon but I also sensed years of pent-up frustration were coming out. I was asked to leave shortly after!

Deidre went round to a boarding house a little way from the sea front expecting to be met on the doorstep by her boyfriend. Nothing. No one. She waited another minute then knocked on the door. It was eventually answered by a statuesque woman in a wraparound floral pinny. The place was deathly quiet. She glared at me, “You’d best go home” she said in no-argument tones. “None of these lads is leaving ‘ere till I find who put fried egg on t’ceiling and squirted ketchup round it!” The door closed.

Joe later stayed in a guesthouse in Marlborough Road with a few other lads from the university. ‘The landlady was very friendly, she liked to talk but overshared her personal life with us. She was convinced her husband was having an affair. One evening she employed us as amateur detectives and asked us to follow him. We did; he simply went to the pub where he met some friends and had a drink’.

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Dickie fondly remembers her mother’s anecdotes about a couple from Paisley. She used to give him what for. ‘Now no swearing… there are other guests here and try to behave yourself’.

And mum would say to him, ‘don’t you go out getting drunk now’, but he did, every night, it made no difference.

Several landladies were described as an early version of Hyacinth Bucket, decades before Patricia Routledge’s alter ego ever graced the TV. Modifying one’s accent was apparently commonplace, particularly on meeting and greeting, and of course on the phone; but Joanne advised me that five minutes back with her sisters, and her nan would revert to ‘f’ing and blinding’ in broad Mancunium.

Pat was an exception in that she kept house most of her adult life. She accommodated holidaymakers, gangs of Irish construction workers, she also accommodated young unemployed. She moved with the times in order to survive. She showed me that a petition had been raised in her street against her accommodating the construction workers. At the time, most of the other accommodation had been converted into holiday lets. The petition said that workmen were lowering the tone of the street. The local paper ran the story and the following week a letter appeared written by one of the power workers.

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The letter started: ‘Sir, following your story on the petition circulating on Clarence Street, may I say that this house is blessed with a landlady who can only be described as one of the most wonderful individuals anyone could wish to meet. If anyone deserves a medal or some sort of official recognition for the way she so continually gives of her love and understanding to all who need a home and care, from whatever walk of life they may hail, then it is she’.

The petition was immediately abandoned. This same landlady formed the Morecambe Landladies darts team and the Morecambe landladies football team, raising thousands for charity.

Marilyn ran a boarding house in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She has a bubbly personality that she describes as ‘quite mad, actually’ and her experience seemed more a laugh a minute, rather than hard graft and endless cooking. Two old dears from West Yorkshire frequented her establishment religiously three times a year. ‘It was like looking after your auntie. As well as sending a search party out to find them lost on the prom in the dark, one of them had the habit of removing her false teeth and placing them in her handbag during meals. The dog nicked them out of her handbag and lay in his bed with them in his mouth. It took us an hour to get them off him!’

A couple in their 50s signed in furtively and Marilyn showed them up to their room. Minutes later she could hear an argument… ‘would you bring your wife to a dump like this?’ the woman was saying. ‘Dump indeed – the cheek of it’, thought Marilyn!

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Once a year, they looked after a group of children from a children’s home as a kindly act. Marilyn said it was fine until one of them set fire to the bedroom and threw things out of the bedroom window, including the bedside lamp!These stories are but a glimpse into one aspect of the UK’s working-class heritage. They bring moments of nostalgic happiness to many. And in spite of the weather, we remember the warm and friendly faces, and the peculiar and amusing characteristics of the seaside landlady.

But have we lost the seaside landlady for good, and do we miss her? The interviews indicate that she provided that reassurance that we all need when travelling to unfamiliar surroundings. A friendly warm welcome, a smile, good food, a qualified experienced local guide and a cup of tea any time you want, along with the knowledge that it really was no trouble. Many of my storytellers reported individual holiday makers and families keeping in touch and even revisiting the landlady long after she had retired. The seaside landlady was clearly a lot more than just a provider of accommodation and meals whilst on holiday.

Today, many of us will arrive at our holidays to find the key to the accommodation in a key safe and your instructions for the week printed in the ubiquitous laminated folder, ensuring that the essential WIFI password is prominent (otherwise how would we survive?)

A sweetly smiling, floral ‘pinnied’ landlady may be what we really crave, but perhaps most of us have forgotten that she ever existed!