For centuries the touted benefits of breathing deeply of sea air and “taking the waters” were loudly proclaimed. Whether it was cold ocean water or warm mineral spas, bathing in and drinking of the water was deemed wise and downright miraculous. Personally, the thought of diving into the frigid waters surrounding England sounds insane! These people must have been tough.
Mineral spas, such as in Matlock and Bath, were typically designed with private rooms for those wishing to immerse themselves into the water. Bathing in the ocean was a bit more problematic. Men tended to be braver. They would find a nice secluded cove, strip down to their underwear or lily-white skin, and launch into the waves to frolic at their leisure.
Modest, demure, impressionable women who would never dream of seeing a naked man swimming or have one see her in a wet, clinging shift needed special accommodations.
Enter the Bathing Machine. It is unknown the precise inventor of this remarkable solution to a nagging problem, but the first recording was in 1736. The above sketch by John Setterington shows bathers utilizing the device at the beach in Scarborough in 1776. In short order they were found everywhere throughout the UK, as well as in France, America, and as far away as Mexico. In 1750 Benjamin Beale is credited with the addition of a ‘tilt’ or large canvas hood that extended off the rear of the machine for increased protection from prying eyes.
This description by Tobias Smollett in his 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker is excellent:
"Image 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."
A man and woman bathing together was not completely unheard of (as long as they were married), but uncommon. Each resort decided upon regulations, so naturally I chose to have Caister-on-Sea allow married couples to bathe together. Imagine the fun that could be had! I sure did.
“Dippers” were same-sex assistants who accompanied the bathers partly to ensure safety in the surf, but primarily to administer the prescribed number of “dips” for whatever ailment was to be cured. The dips completely immersed the bather and would be done in allotted intervals throughout the day. Eventually the need for dippers disappeared as more women began to enjoy swimming as a pastime rather than a health treatment.
Over time the wild claims of seawater as a cure-all would wane. But the joy of holidays at the beach and swimming in the ocean has never gone away. Strict rules on mixed sex bathing and costumes to be worn would vary over the decades, but it wasn’t until well into the mid-1900s that all restrictions were gone.
There is your history lesson for the day! Don’t you feel smarter already? LOL! If interested in more fascinating history from the Regency, buy my novels! In the meantime you can come to my website where I have a glossary and loads of historical info. Sharon Lathan's Darcy Saga