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Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying and bracing — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the sea breeze failed, the seabath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.” ― Jane Austen, Sanditon

Inquiring readers, I have spent this week at the seaside with my extended family, an unusual occurrence for us, but one that a Regency traveler would have easily understood. The great grandparents are resting in a cool spot, while grandparents and parents have taken the grandchildren and great grandchildren to the beach. A lady’s companion and an auntie (me) are also in attendance, doing what is required to maintain family unity, feed the masses, and provide comfort and mobility for the elders.

A Calm, 1810, Gillray

A Calm, James Gillray, 1810

Life near the sea shore today is different than depicted in this 19th century image by James Gillray. Or is it really?  We still come to the beach to relax and holiday with friends and family, and to enjoy the bracing sea air and the entertainments that are available for the entire family. While modern sea-goers are more scantily dressed, we still enjoy sitting on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking along the seashore, watching ships or dolphins pass by, eating fresh seafood, reading the latest best sellers, and ogling others.

While we no longer swim behind bathing machines that have been pulled into the waters by sturdy horses, we use other equipment to make our swims more enjoyable – floats and surf boards or paddle boards. Like the women in the image, many of us wear hats for protection from the sun and sit under beach umbrellas. We comb the sands for shells and the waters for clams and crabs.

My family frequently vacations at Bethany Beach in Delaware, where my brother owns a vacation house. Each year, new vacation resorts seem to spring up on what once were cornfields and farmlands. If it weren’t for my GPS system, I would get lost, for so many of the landmarks I once knew are disappearing. It was much the same in Jane Austen’s day, when fashionable sea resorts also sprang up to satisfy the masses.  London became a convenient day’s ride from the coast as roads improved, and the benefits of fresh air and sea water were appreciated for invalids and healthy alike. In this passage from Sanditon, Mr. Parker’s and Mr. Heywood’s topic of discussion is similar to the one I had with my family as we lamented the increasingly crowded conditions and traffic jams, even as we confessed our addiction to the sea:

“Yes, I have heard of Sanditon,” replied Mr. Heywood. “Every five years, one hears of some new place or other starting up by the sea and growing the fashion. How they can half of them be filled is the wonder! Where people can be found with money and time to go to them! Bad things for a country, sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing, as I daresay you find, Sir.”

“Not at all, Sir, not at all,” cried Mr. Parker eagerly. “Quite the contrary, I assure you. A common idea, but a mistaken one. It may apply to your large, overgrown places like Brighton or Worthing or Eastbourne, but not to a small village like Sanditon, precluded by its size from experiencing any of the veils of civilization; while the growth of the place, the buildings, the nursery grounds, the demand for everything, and the sure resort of the very best company, those regular, steady, private families of thorough gentility and character who are a blessing everywhere, excite the industry of the poor and diffuse comfort and improvement among them of every sort. No, Sir, I assure you, Sanditon is not a place …”

“I do not mean to take exception to any place in particular,” answered Mr. Heywood. “I only think our coast is too full of them altogether. But we had not better try to get you …”

“Our coast is abundant enough. It demands no more. Everybody’s taste and everybody’s finances may be suited. And those good people who are trying to add to the number are, in my opinion, excessively absurd and must soon find themselves the dupes of their own fallacious calculations. Such a place as Sanditon, Sir, I may say, was wanted, was called for. Nature had marked it out , had spoken in most intelligible characters. The finest, purest sea breeze on the coast, acknowledged to be so, excellent bathing, fine hard sand, deep water ten yards from the shore, no mud, no weeds, no slimy rocks. Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid, the very spot that thousands seemed in need of! The most desirable distance from London! One complete, measured mile nearer than Eastbourne, Only conceive, Sir, the advantage of saving a whole mile in a long journey. But Brinshore , Sir, which I daresay you have in your eye, the attempts of two or three speculating people about Brinshore this last year to raise that paltry hamlet, lying as it does between a stagnant march, a bleak moor, and the constant effluvia of a ridge of putrefying seaweed, can end in nothing but their own disappointment. “

Alas, our sojourn at the beach has ended. We must pack up our belongings and return to our daily routines. Would that vacation had lasted a week longer!

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Gentle readers: I am on vacation at the shore. The hot weather has cooled and the crowded beaches are empty, except for a few bathers and the shore birds. Yet, somehow my Internet connection is spotty and my ability to add images is nil. So, here is a link to an article I wrote for Suite 101 over a year ago about Martha Gunn and John Smoaker Miles, famous sea dippers who helped men and women into the sea waters at Brighton.

Martha Gunn, dipper

Martha Gunn, dipper

In 1750, Dr Richard Russell wrote a dissertation advising his patients with glandular conditions to swim in the ocean and drink the iodine-rich sea water. The Prince of Wales, who first visited Brighton in 1783, began taking the sea cure for his swollen glands on his second and third visits. Brighton was a mere 6 hours by stagecoach from London, and where the prince went, the fashionable crowd followed. The town quickly became the seaside resort of choice for people seeking a pleasant diversion, or a cure for gout and other illnesses caused by rich food and lack of exercise, and a thriving industry devoted to bathing soon developed.

Bathers were drawn into the ocean inside bathing machines constructed of wood. Men and women were required to enter the water at specified times in different sections of the beach. The women used the beaches on the east side of town near the Brighton aquarium, while the men were diverted to the west end beaches. This custom ensured that the sexes could not view each other in revealing bathing costumes, or while swimming in the nude, a practice that the men followed often and the women more infrequently

Read more at: Sea Bathing in Georgian Brighton: Martha Gunn and John ‘Smoaker’ Miles

Other posts on this topic:
Martha Gunn, Brighton’s Queen of the Dippers|

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Contributed by Tony Grant, all rights reserved. Images by Tony Grant.

Brighton, the old Pavilion and Steyne, Charles Richards

Towards the end of her life Jane Austen was writing a new sort of novel, Sanditon. It appears to have been, in it’s far from completed form, an analysis of change going on in the world of the 18th century.The main female character in this story, Charlotte Heywood, is an observer of Sanditon, its development and its occupants. Through her eyes we the reader can see the social and environmental forces that are unfolding at Sanditon and the forces that act on its attempts to be attractive to people.

Brighton pier

In our own day we are creating new communities that we hope will be sustainable in materials, energy production and lifestyle. A community called Bedzed, near Croydon in Surrey, is just such a new development.

Brighton today

Sanditon is an 18th century exploration of how a new settlement may have occurred and mistakes made and Bedzed is a modern version showing how we can learn from the past.

Royal Pavilion at Brighton

Charlotte soon learns on her way to Sanditon that there are two Sanditons. There is the old fishing village set in a sheltered valley leading down to the sea and there is the new Sanditon high on a hill with cliffs overlooking the sea. The old home of the Parkers is set in the valley just outside the fishing village and it has orchards, gardens and meadows, all the resources for self-sufficient living and it is in a sheltered aspect away from gales and the worst of the elements.

Scarborough Beach

..in a shelterd dip within 2 miles of the sea, they passed by a moderate-sized house,well fenced and planted,and rich in the garden,orchard and meadows which are the best embelilishments of such a dwelling.”
The new Parkers home, Trafalgar House, is set high on a hill with no orchards and meadows and gardens and when they first arrive is being windswept by a minor gale.

Mr Parker has a concept of a seaside settlement centred around fresh air and spectacular views. Two very good ideals but missing many other requirements for a comfortable community to work.

Trafalgar House ,on the most elevated spot on the down, was a light elegant building, standing in a small lawn with a very young plantation around it about a hundred yards from the brow of a steep, but not very lofty cliff.”

Bedzed

Bedzed, near Croydon, has been created to revolutionise people’s lives enabling them to live without wasting the resources of this planet and to live sustainably. It is situated outside a well-established town with major roads and rail links very close by. It is for people who live ordinary lives and it is designed to help them improve those ordinary lives and the planet they live on.

People move to Bedzed with typical lifestyles, and over the years change their behaviour significantly.”

The purpose of Sandition was to attract people to the seaside for health reasons. Seawater and sea air were considered, in the 18th century, the panaceas for all known ailments. They were the elixir of life. While people were there it was also hoped by Mr Parker, that they would spend their money in the new shops, buy the latest fashions, stay in the smart hotels and take part in the events of the new town, billiards, going to the library, buying presents in the gift shops, hiring bathing machines and eating the local produce.

Bedzed

Bedzed was designed for people to interact in ways that improve their lives. Much of what is hoped for Bedzed are things that communities over the ages have provided for their people. It is small enough and big enough to create what is termed a,” a community spirit.” People come together in sports teams, community events such as fetes and to meet and make community decisions; a sort ground level politics. What is necessary for our modern age is to do it sustainably.

the community have created their own facilities and groups to improve quality of life and reduce their environmental impact.”

Sustainability in the 18th century has many of the elements we think of today as sustainability. People grew their own produce, many house roofs were made from straw or reeds, recycled waste was used as food for animals or dug it into the soil to fertilise it, as with human waste and they used the natural elements as a power source. The wind to dry clothes, animals to move machinery and dead wood or sustainable forestry were used to provide fuel. Clay for bricks, rocks, slate and large amounts of wood were also taken for building and these might not have been sustainable practices even the 18th century. The increasingly massive use of coal certainly was not.

A calm, Gillray, 1810

The old fishing village of Sanditon and the Parkers first home, set snuggly in the valley, kept to these mostly sustainable principles. The new Sanditon, on the hill got rid of many of these essential practices. All the services, shops, hotels houses and transport were imposed on the hill and materials had to be got up there.

Ramsgate

People become the secondary thought in that they were expected to fit in. The new Sanditon is what Mr Parker thinks people want. It is an example of modernisation removing peoples connection with the world they live in. It is an example of the designers of our world not listening to the people they are providing for. The new Sanditon is a vision of the way the world has gone. The old Sanditon is an example of where we could go.

Bedzed

Total sustainabliltiy in our modern age is technically possible. Bedzed is run completely on sustainable practices. Water is recycled, the use of insulation, materials from sustainable sources, some of it recycled, the use of local materials as much as possible to reduce transport costs and pollution, the sharing of electric cars and the provision of sustainable energy from it’s own pwoerplant fuelled by waste materials are all sustainable practices. What is most important of all, the people who live in Bedzed make the choices and think of the ideas that create the world they live in.

the design solves problems such as heating and water usage.” And “the design and services offered help people make sustainable choices such as walking rather than driving.”

Windmill, sphagnum moss roof, recycled water

One of the most encouraging things I have seen in recent years in south London, is an enormous DIY store that has recently been built about half a mile from where I live. It uses rain water to flush the toilets, has a sphagnum moss roof, triple glazing for extra insulation, solar panels, a heating system where water is heated naturally through underground pipes, and one enormous windmill surmounting the lot. Impressive? You bet!!!!!! There is a new high rise office tower in central London that looks as though a knife has sliced off the top at a sharp angle. There are three gigantic oval holes in this angular top. Each oval hole contains a wind turbine. The world really is adapting.

Sliced off top and wind turbines

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Inquiring reader, in honor of this week’s tepid heat wave in Richmond, I continue my coverage of all things seaside during the Regency era. To our moderns eyes, Regency fashions by the seashore covered as much of the body as ordinary clothes, and were as complicated as regular fashions. Let’s take a closer look.

Becky Sharpe (Natasha Little) in bathing costume, Vanity Fair 1998

Becky Sharpe (Natasha Little) in bathing costume, Vanity Fair 1998

I question this image from 1998’s Vanity Fair, in which Natasha Little as Becky Sharpe looks more like a Victorian seaside gamboller than a proper Regency lady. In addition, she would have changed into this bathing costume inside the bathing machine and gone into the water largely unnoticed. She is shown in full view of both men and women on the beach wearing this outfit, which was clearly meant for swimming.

This Belle Assemblee fashion plate depicts a more demure approach to seaside fashion. The muslin gowns are rather plain, meant for the day, but it is only 1810 after all, when dress silhouettes were still classically severe. These dresses could be worn in full view of other vacationers on the beach. One sees the “wrapping” in the style of the turbans and pelisse and cape. A seaside outing was meant to be bracing and restorative, and therefore people would venture to the beach regardless of the weather.
1810_October sea beach costume

The women are sitting, or else the length of the dress would become obvious. The length of dresses meant to be worn when walking along the shore were cut a little higher, one supposes to accommodate a walk along the beach when sand and waves would wreak havoc with delicate hems. The lady in the illustration is dressed for the evening, perhaps for a fete on a public pier, who knows? Either way, she is dressed to be seen in high style, even if the tiered lacy hems of her bloomers are showing.

Bathing place evening dress, 1810

Bathing place evening dress, 1810

Famed illustrator James Gillray showed seaside fashion in all its glory. From the high tide hem of the lady in the center, to the completely covered up garb of the women sitting on the beach. This lovely illustration from 1810, “The Calm,” shows the seashore on a calm day, with our fashionable miss as exposed as she can decently be – her arms and neck bare, her head covered by a small straw bonnet, and her tiny parasol barely protecting her delicate skin from Sol’s harmful rays.a calm 1810 gilray
This illustration shows the sea shore on a raw day that many Britons will recognize, with the winds whipping up waves, woolen capes, and muslin skirts. Even covered up, this lady exposes more to prying eyes than was appropriate!

A squall, Gilray 1810

A squall, Gilray 1810

Taking cold dips in the ocean and drinking foul-tasting spa water were two of the health benefits derived from visiting a seaside resort. Inhaling the fresh sea air was another. These fashions again show how thoroughly one covered up before venturing out of doors.

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Regardless of their location in or out of the water, non-swimmers remained covered up. It is ironic that once in the water, so many men and women would swim completely naked, but there you have it: Seaside, Regency style.

Steps to the sea, Vanity Fair, 1998

Steps to the sea, Vanity Fair, 1998

On a side note, a dog lover like myself will find the Gilray prints and the Scarborough print quite interesting, for dogs are prominently displayed as realistic touches.

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Martha Gunn, dipper

Martha Gunn, dipper

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.

floating with billowing skirt vanity fair 1998Brighton’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.

Sea Bathing machine

Sea Bathing machine

On page 233 in a Directory of Brighton published in 1790 the bathers are listed as follows:

Martha Gunn Toby Jug

Martha Gunn Toby Jug

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.

Martha's grave

Martha’s grave

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Bathing machine

Some historians attibute the invention of the bathing machine to Benjamin Beale, a Quaker and a glove and breeches maker who lived in Margate, a coastal seaside resort in England, during the 18th century. This was not so. Beale’s actual contribution in 1750 was the invention of an awning attached to the rear of the bathing machine. The cloth hood became popularly known as a modesty hood. It could be lowered in front of the machine down to the water and provide a private bathing area for the modest swimmer. There were variations to the hood, such as a  canvas awning called a lift, which could be extended over the back of the cart like a tent and completely hide the bather from view. An additional benefit of the hood was that it also protected delicate skin from the sun.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, people did not bathe in the sea for pleasure but for their health. After the publication of the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands by Dr Richard Russell in 1752, sea bathing became more fashionable.

Ramsgate bathing machines off the High Street

Ramsgate bathing machines off the High Street

The engraving above is an early version of the of the lower High Street in Margate in Benjamin Beale’s time before the Bathing rooms were constructed. The view from the bay shows how the Bathing Machines were accessed from the lower High Street.

Woman swimming in the sea; the need for privacy in such a situation is acute

Woman swimming in the sea; the need for privacy in such a situation is acute

It was considered inappropriate for the upper and middle classes to swim in the waves together, thus bathing machines became popular. Modesty and decorum dictated that the opposite sex should bathe in isolation from each other, for nude bathing for both sexes was common until the Victorian age.  “It is believed that naked bathing continued until 1862, when a law was passed stating that male and female bathers were to be segregated by not less than 60 feet, and that all owners of bathing machines would provide gowns or dresses to female bathers and drawers or similar to male bathers.”  After swimming, bathers would re-enter the bathing machine, dry off, and change back to their street clothing. The bathing machine would be wheeled back to the beach and the bather would emerge fully dressed. “The hiring charge for a bathing machine in 1770 varied from 9d for two or more gentlemen bathing themselves to 1/6d for a gentleman taking a machine with a guide.”*

Bathing machine and attendants

Bathing machine and attendants

Imagine to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, til the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressingroom, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up – Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people. – The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771

Beale bathing machine

Beale bathing machine

Beale did not get rich off his invention, and he was reduced to poverty after his machines were destroyed in storms.

“The public are obliged to Benjamin Beale, one of the people called Quakers, for the invention,” writes the author of A Short Description of the Isle of Thanet, published in 1796. But it was the old story; the public became grateful after the inventor had been ruined by his enterprise. His successors had reaped the harvest. Old Benjamin Beale’s widow could remember in her last days the first family that ever resorted to Margate for the purpose of bathing being carried into the sea in a covered cart. In 1803 Beale’s machines were one of the institutions of Margate. It was alarmingly claimed for them that “they may be driven to any depth into the sea by careful guides.” – New York Times, August 11, 1906

southsea_common from a lithograph from A. Pernell 1865

The design of the bathing machine changed little in 150 years, and most, except those built for the rich, remained nothing more than damp wooden boxes on wheels. In the 1865 lithograph of the Southsea above, Beale bathing machines can be seen with their awnings fully unfurled to the water.

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In the image of the seaside above by James Gillray (A Calm, 1810) one can see the high hem of a typical seaside dress of the day, and the bathing machines lined along the water. Bathing in the sea, especially during the cold season, became fashionable in seeking a cure for many illnesses. The following is a short passage from The Bathing was so delightful this morning: The bathing experiences of Jane Austen and others from The Jane Austen Society of Australia:

Within the Austen family there was a preference for using spas for ill health and visiting the seaside for pleasure. Edward Austen visited and James Leigh-Perrott lived in Bath for treatment of their gout. Jane and Cassandra Austen visited Cheltenham in 1816 to try to cure Jane’s declining health. Their visits to the seaside were planned as recreational visits only, with no specific medical purpose attached to them. It was only the prospect of annual visits to the seaside that made the move to Bath tolerable to Jane.

In fact, during the Regency Era few men and women wore bathing costumes. They often swam nude, and entered the sea in separate beaches sheltered by rented bathing machines drawn by horses (much like those in the photograph above, taken in 1885-1890). Bathers changed in and out of their clothes in these portable dressing rooms. An 18th century description of a bathing machine from The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker gives one a good idea of what being in one was like:

Imagine to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up – Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people.

In 1901 it became legal for women and men to bathe on the same seashore (one presumes they are clothed) and bathing machines became less popular.

 

Learn more about bathing and seaside resorts during this era on the following site:

Update:

Here are two more posts about bathing in the Regency Era:

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