In the early 19th century, Heligoland was British – and poverty-stricken. So when a ships’ carpenter called Jacob Andresen Siemens came up with the idea of turning the island into a seaside resort, most of the locals responded with scorn and derision. But Siemens refused to give up on the idea. After all, English seaside resorts were very popular. And the island needed a fresh vision. Napoleon had been defeated, and the economic blockade of the continent had ended in 1813. So the island had lost its lucrative role as a smugglers’ base and transhipment point.
In 1826, Siemens managed to persuade the necessary sponsors, and Heligoland welcomed its first hundred resort visitors. The idea gained traction – something even the islanders recognised. New jobs and sources of income opened up, especially in providing accommodation services, food and transport by boat. After 15 years, the number of annual visitors had risen to a thousand – another ten years later, that number had tripled.
The holidaymakers’ expectations also increased. By the early 20th century, people were living the high life on board luxury resort ships. “Taking the cure” became fashionable. Spa visitors travelled to the island to “take the air”, especially on the smaller island, Düne. And then, they’d venture into the water – though decency reigned during any bathing activities. In the 19th century, people were still using bathing machines. This was a type of closed carriage that was trundled knee-deep into the sea with the lady bather on board. Once there, ladies in particular could enjoy a bracing seawater bathe without witnesses.
The island’s appearance was also changing. Heligoland became fashionable, with a theatre, assembly rooms known locally as the Konversationshaus and a casino. The visitors were mainly Germans and included many poets and philosophers like Heinrich Heine and Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who had caused offence at home with their revolutionary ideas about a "united German fatherland".
The sophisticated spa culture came to an end when the Nazis came to power and launched a military build-up on the island. But by 1953, the first day-trippers were heading back on to the ferries enjoy a relaxing time on Düne.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland