In a scene in 1998’s Vanity Fair with Natasha Little as Becky Sharp, she visits Brighton with her husband and friends. The film, set during the Regency era, depicted a scene in which one of the party is taken from a bathing machine and dipped into the cold waters by a large woman. The bather floats on her back with her bathing costume billowing from the trapped air. This comical scene was based on fact. Brighton during the late 1790’s early 1800’s employed some twenty male and female “dippers”” whose jobs were to vigorously dip their clients into the sea and push them through the waves, keeping them afloat, then help them back into the bathing machine.
Brighton’s most famous dipper was Martha Gunn, a large, sturdy woman whose fame exists to this day. Bathers were separated by sex, a restriction that remained until 1930 in Brighton, and were drawn into the waters by horses hitched to bathing machines. The bathers would be inside the vehicles changing into their bathing costumes, or not, for, screened from the world and the opposite sex, they would enter the waters au naturel. The terminology for immersion differed for the sexes. When men immersed men into the waters, it was called bathing. When women immersed women into the waters, they were dipping.
Born in 1726, Martha Gunn dipped seaside visitors from around 1750 until she was forced to retire through ill health around 1814. She was such a popular figure that the Prince of Wales granted her free access to his kitchens. The dipper was known as ‘The Venerable Priestess of the Bath’ by the locals. Large and strong, well known and respected by the townsfolk as well as the visitors, Marth appeared in comic caricatures of the times. “Life for Dippers and Bathers was not easy – standing all day in the sea even in August calls for a tough constitution and Martha Gunn’s ample size was no doubt one of the reasons for her success in the cold waters.” ( Martha Gunn) Mrs. Gunn died in 1815 and is buried in the yard at St Nicholas Church. Her portrait hangs in the tea-room of the Royal Pavilion, and her house still stands on 36 East Street. Her fellow dippers and bathers continued to perform their duties in Brighton until the mid 19th century.
[Dippers] were also technicians of the ritual process: on-site masters of the requirements of the sea-bathing treatment. They judged the waves, the state of their clients, and their daily requirements: bathing at such and such a time or for so long. Many of the bathers could not swim: Dippers, often women, were essential figures of dependable strength and assurance. This might explain the inordinate affection of them. The ritual purging and bathing, the ministrations of the Dipper, and the natural influence of the seashore itself with its salt water, sea air, and ‘ozone’ were vital ingredients in both the reality and perception of a Cure. – Ritual Pleasures of a Seaside Resort, Chris Jenks, p169.