Sea Bathing had long been praised as “the cure” for everything from general malaise to broken bones and deadly diseases. A few people even considered it pleasurable. By the 18th and 19th centuries, sea bathing was in full swing. Following are five of our favorite secrets of Georgian and Victorian Era sea bathing.
Bathing Machines were small carts that were rolled into the sea either by horse or a sturdy human. Even Queen Victoria had her royal bathing machine and personal dipper. For women, these professionals were called “dippers.” For men, “bathers” were the professional of choice.
Following Victorian Era codes of sea bathing etiquette, people changed into their swim costumes in privacy. This of course always applied to women although some men followed the rules as well. Once the bathing machine was in the sea, the bather stepped out from behind a curtain or a modesty canopy. That’s when the fun began.
Admittedly, many early etchings and cartoons make the experience look about as fun as bathing a cat. Since few people knew how to swim, sturdy helpers of the same sex were often essential. The professional would dunk the bather in the sea. When the fun seeker had enough, the professional yanked him or her back to the safety of the bathing machine.
According to photohistory-sussex, Lewes Journal posted this ad for sea bathing business in March of 1780:
“Five strong women, all used to the sea” have “fitted up a set of NEW MACHINES (wheeled bathing huts), with a careful man and horse to conduct them in and out of the water. “
The Brighton New Guide, 1800:
“By means of a hook-ladder the bather ascends the machine, which is formed of wood and raised on high wheels; they are drawn to a proper distance from the shore and then plunge into the sea, the guides attending on each side to assist them in recovering the machine, which being accomplished, they are drawn back to the shore. The guides are strong, active and careful, and in every respect adapted to their employment”.
Martha Gunn of Brighton was considered the goddess of sea bathing. Yes, she was born in 1726, long before the Victorian Era. But we must include her since she set the bar so high for sea bathing professionals until long after her death in 1815. Martha Gunn did not retire until 1814. She became a local celebrity. She also dipped many “celebrities” including George Augustus Frederick, the Prince of Wales. (Imagine what TMZ would do with a Martha Gunn today.)
In Brighton In The Old Time With Glances At The Present (1892) John George Bishop writes:
“The machines Martha Gunn superintended were always the most in request, for she was immensely popular with bathers. Like Smoaker, Martha was a “character.” Martha Gunn was a great favourite with the Prince of Wales; and had, accordingly, acquired a right of entry to the Royal kitchen, the servants being very good to her.”
Also from Brighton, John “Smoaker” Miles was born in the 1720s. He too was a friend of the Prince of Wales. The Prince was said to have named a racehorse after him.
A popular song of the time said it all:
There’s plenty of dippers and jokers,
And salt water rigs for your fun:
The king of them all is old Smoaker,
The queen of ‘em old Martha Gunn.
Women and men were separated on many of the Victorian Era beaches. This ensured modesty and kept women safe from prying eyes. That said, “boys will be boys.” If you look closely at the far right edge of the above etching you can see two men with spy-glasses pointed at the lovely women in their revealing sea bathing costumes.
The following film by George Albert Smith was shot in 1900. Although it does not take place seaside, the title tells all. “As Seen Through A Telescope.”
Sea Bathing for health has been around for a few years. In Coast: Our Island Story: A Journey of Discovery Around Britain’s Coastline, Nicholas Crane says:
“little is known of British bathing habits in the centuries after the Romans left, although a monk on the Northumbrian coast in AD 731 wrote that there were both salt springs and hot springs in England, and that the ‘waters flowing from them provide hot baths…’”
-Before the 1760s even the lower class locals of Lancashire engaged in sea bathing in the Ribble Estuary. That was long before “the upper classes began dipping their toes in the briny” according to Crane.
-In the 19th century a traveler was told that “each August and September on the Lancashire coast, ‘(There) is physic in the sea, a physic of a most comprehensive description, combining all the virtues of all the drugs in the doctor’s shops and of course a cure for all varieties of disease.’” Nicholas Crane
-In 1753, Dr. Richard Russell published The Uses of Sea Water in which he encouraged people to visit what is now Brighton to take his sea cure to heal diseases. The cure included both drinking and bathing in seawater.
-In 1769 William Buchanan published a layman’s medical guide called Domestic Medicine. His book promoted the practice of sea bathing especially in winter. His belief in the healing properties of sea bathing continued to sway people until it’s last printing in 1846.
Until the Victorian Era, sea bathing was largely available only to coastal locals or those wealthy enough to travel. All that changed with the expansion of railways in the mid-19th century when new lines offered affordable travel to the sea. Towns blossomed along the coasts of England, France, Australia and America to accommodate growing crowds.
The working class continued to believe in the health benefits of sea bathing, particularly in August and September. Although Pleasure Piers were offering exciting new entertainments in coastal cities around the world, the good old-fashioned lure of sea bathing remained high.
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