‘The Bathing was so delightful this morning’
Jane Austen was well aware that when people like Mrs Bennet claimed ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever’ they were using imagined ill health to achieve their real aims of novelty, entertainment and pleasure.
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 1817, when Jane Austen began Sanditon, she was well aware that the success of a new bathing resort depended on how well it advertised the healthful aspects of its situation and facilities. When he has his accident, Mr Parker is in search of a doctor to lure to Sanditon in the hope that a medical man on site will attract more visitors to the place. He is also very enthusiastic in his praises of the benefits of the sea to be found there:
The Sea air and Sea Bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every Disorder...
As well as the quality of the air, the water, the sand and the situation, together with all the amenities of watering places such as circulating libraries, assembly rooms and so on, bathing places needed to provide their visitors with the means to bathe in the socially acceptable manner. This meant bathing machines and the paraphernalia that went with them.
The gentry at the seaside at Scarborough, 1776.
Scarborough was the first seaside resort at which
bathing machines were seen, recorded in a
1736 Setterington engraving.
Scarborough was the first seaside resort at which bathing machines were seen, having been recorded in an engraving by John Setterington in 1736. It did not take long before they became a mandatory feature of every fishing village on the coast that aspired to cater to the gentry. The best description of a bathing machine is given by Tobias Smollett in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker.
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; 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, p.213
He then goes on to describe the arrangements for ladies:
The guides who attend the ladies in the water, are of their own sex, and they and the female bathers have a dress of flannel for the sea; nay, they are provided with other conveniences for the support of decorum. A certain number of the machines are fitted with tilts, that project from the sea-ward ends of them, so as to screen the bathers from the view of all persons whatsoever – The beach is admirably adapted for this practice, the descent being gently gradual, and the sand soft as velvet; but then the machines can be used only at a certain time of the tide, which varies every day; so that sometimes the bathers are obliged to rise very early in the morning —
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, p.213
Sea bathing in York in 1814
The ‘tilts’ are the modesty hoods invented by Benjamin Beale in the 1750s and used at some resorts. Margate, the home of Mr Beale, was particularly fond of them. They were like large canvas awnings attached to the back of the bathing machine. If a lady was too modest to be seen in a bathing costume the hood could be let down and she could enter and exit the water in total privacy. If desired, she could also be dipped under the shelter of the hood and out of sight of prying eyes.
One of the most amusing accounts of bathing machines and their guides was recorded by Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay) when she was at Weymouth with the court of George III in 1789:
The bathing-machines make it [‘God Save the King’] their motto over all their windows; and those bathers that belong to the royal dippers wear it in bandeaus on their bonnets, to go into the sea; and have it again, in large letters, round their waists, to encounter the waves. Flannel dresses, tucked up, and no shoes or stockings, with bandeaus and girdles, have a most singular appearance; and when first I surveyed these loyal nymphs it was with some difficulty I kept my features in order.
Nor is this all. Think but of the surprise of His Majesty when, the first time of his bathing, he had no sooner popped his royal head under water than a band of music, concealed in a neighbouring machine, struck up ‘God save great George our King’.
Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol 5, pp. 35-6
The bathing machines remained in active use on English beaches until the 1890s, when they began to be parked on the beach. They were then used as stationary changing rooms for a number of years. Most of them had disappeared by 1914.
Dippers or guides were an essential accompaniment to the bathing machines. They were mainly local women and some men who escorted their customers into the water and dipped them. As the bather emerged from the machine the dipper ensured they were immersed deeply enough and then dipped them into the oncoming waves or, if the sea was calm, pushed their heads under water. For medically prescribed bathing the standard dip was apparently three total immersions, and this number can probably be traced back to early Christian baptisms where adults were immersed in water and dipped under it three times.
Some of the dippers became quite famous. If they had dipped members of royalty they advertised it to attract more people to their town and particularly to their bathing hut. Two of the most famous were at Brighton – Martha Gunn and Old Smoaker. Martha Gunn worked the Brighton beach for decades and in August 1806 The Morning Herald reported:
The Beach this morning was thronged with ladies, all anxious to make interest for a dip. The machines, of course, were in very great request, though none could be run into the ocean in consequence of the heavy swell, but remained stationary at the water’s edge, from which Martha Gunn and her robust female assistants took their fair charges, closely enveloped in their partly coloured dresses, and gently held them to the breakers, which not quite so gently passed over them.
Life in Brighton, p.199
Both Martha Gunn and Old Smoaker dipped the Prince Regent. In 1787 Old Smoaker had to persuade the Prince not to bathe because the sea was too dangerous:
‘I shall bathe this morning, Smoaker.’
‘No, no, Your Royal Highness, its too dangerous.’
‘But I will.’
‘Come, come, this won’t do … I’ll be damned if you shall bathe. What do you think your royal father would think of me if you were drowned?’
‘He would say, ‘this is all owing to you, Smoaker. If you had taken proper care of him, poor George would still be alive.’
Beside the Seaside, p.25
While Old Smoaker was probably right to stop the Prince from harming himself, he rather overestimated George III’s feelings for his son.
The dippers did not last as long as the bathing machines. Some of the latter were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and then completely disappeared in the following years.
Bathers who went to the seaside primarily for pleasure, while perhaps using health as an excuse, often dipped rather more than the three times prescribed by the medical men:
The Ladies in the morning when they intend to bathe, put on a long flannel gown under their other clothes, walk down to the beach, undress themselves to the flannel, then they walk in as deep as they please, and lay hold of the guides’ hands, three or four together sometimes.
Then they dip over head twenty times perhaps; then they come onto the shore where there are women who attend with towels, cloaks, chairs etc. The flannel is stripp’d off, wip’d dry etc. Women hold cloaks around them. They dress themselves and go home.
Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century, pp.404-5
Jane Austen was one who enjoyed bathing too much to confine herself to the regulation three dips. In 1804 she wrote:
The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. I shall be more careful another time, & shall not bathe tomorrow, as I had before intended.
Jane Austen’s Letters, # 39
It is possibly this sort of enjoyment at being in the water that led to the disappearance of the dippers. As fewer people went to the seaside for medical reasons there was less need for strong women to push reluctant bathers into the sea.
The ritual for bathing in the resort towns like Scarborough, Brighton and Weymouth was based on the rituals of spa towns like Bath. Elizabeth Grant gives an account of bathing Ramsgate-style in 1811:
Early in the morning we all went down to the sands to bathe, not in Seaham fashion, but in a respectable manner, suited to a crowded watering-place. A little table on which lay a great book stood within a railing enclosing all the bathing-machines. Each party, on entering the gate of this enclosure, set their names down in the book, and in their turn were conducted to a bathing-machine, roomy boxes upon wheels, shaded at one end by a large canvas hood that reached the water when the horse at the other end had proceeded with it to a sufficient depth; the driver then turned his carriage round with the hood to the sea, and unhinging his traces went in search of another fare, leaving the bathers to the care of a woman in a blue flannel jacket and petticoat and a straw bonnet, who soon waded into view from another machine, and lifting up the canvas shade stood ready to assist in the fearful plunge. The shock of a dip was always an agony: that over, we would have ducked about much longer than the woman let us. It was rather frightful bathing when the waves were high, at least to the timid ones. Some people went into the sea when they really might have been carried away by it, when they and the women had to keep hold of the ropes while the waves went over them. We never emulated these heroines.
Memoirs of a Highland Lady, pp.106-7
As a seaside town grew the enclosed railing became a building on the sands in which the bathers could drink tea and coffee, read the newspapers and gossip while they waited their turn in a machine. If demand was great enough the number of buildings as well as bathing machines increased. The visitors to the town would pay their subscription to use the facilities and machines of only one of the buildings during their stay.
The bathing houses at Margate in the 1780s charged half a crown for the season. Margate grew so large that by 1816 it had eight of these bathing rooms and between them they operated more than forty bathing machines.
Far from the fashionable resort towns, in an isolated beach shack on the coast of Ireland, Elizabeth Ham enjoyed much more relaxed and informal bathing:
I never enjoyed such bathing before or since. We had made our bathing dresses of green baize, and used to threaten to trim them with seaweed and cockle-shells, but this we never did.
Elizabeth Ham by Herself, p.147
I had to wonder if a bathing dress was what Aunt Norris was so in need of when she so hurriedly removed the baize curtain from Mansfield Park after the theatricals were aborted!
In spa towns like Bath, men had to wear bathing costumes as set down by the authorities in the town. In Bath all males over the age of 10 had to wear drawers and a smock in the public baths. If they wanted to bathe naked they could pay more and bathe at one of the private baths. The Duke of Kingston’s bath opened in the 1770s and to bathe there cost five shillings a time.
At the seaside they were able to bathe naked. They did however make use of the bathing machines for changing into and out of their clothes. Prudery did not win out until the 1860s.
Nude swimming in rivers and lakes was common, particularly among the students at Oxford and Cambridge, although Cambridge did try to stamp out the practice, but to no avail. As nude bathing was customary, the producers of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice series got it wrong. In the interests of historical accuracy, we should have seen much more of Colin Firth – his wet shirt scene should have been a nude scene. Drawers, or caleçons as they were called, did not become widely used until the 1860s. Even then there were many who protested against them and wanted to remain in the nude.
There is a degree of certainty about men’s bathing costume that is not there for ladies. In public baths men wore the costumes as ordered by the town authorities. In rivers, lakes and streams they swam in the nude.
For ladies, contemporary prints by artists like Thomas Rowlandson depict women bathing in the nude. On the other hand, costume books and some contemporary accounts indicate that in the sea they bathed in a chemise-like garment of flannel or other strong material.
Female bathing costume in particular has been derived from what was worn at Bath and other spas. By the 1670s nude bathing there had given way to clothed bathing. In 1687 Celia Fiennes gave a detailed description of the standard attire for women.
The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.
Quoted in ‘That Frightful Unbecoming Dress’, pp 48-9
While it had become custom to bathe clothed, it was not law to do so. To rectify this and to maintain a suitable level of decorum the Bath Corporation made clothed bathing official in 1737:
It is Ordered Established and Decreed by this Corporation that no Male person above the age of ten years shall at any time hereafter go into any Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a Pair of Drawers and a Waistcoat on their bodies. And that no Female person shall at any time hereafter go into a Bath or Baths within this City by day or by night without a decent Shift on their bodies.
Quoted in ‘That Frightful Unbecoming Dress’, p.50
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker was published in 1771 and its description of ladies’ bathing costume is different to that of Celia Fiennes a hundred years earlier:
The ladies wear jackets and petticoats of brown linen, with chip hats, in which they fix their handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces; but, truly, whether it is owing to the steam that surrounds them, or the heat of the water, or the nature of the dress, or to all these causes together, they look so flushed, and so frightful, that I always turn my eyes another way.
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, pp.68-9
Penelope Byrde points out that Smollett’s description may not be accurate, for he describes a two-piece costume, not the one piece shift or smock that most people describe and is depicted in contemporary prints. His description does, however, tally with Elizabeth Grant’s description of the guide’s costume at Ramsgate in 1811. The only difference is in the fabric the costumes are made of. Flannel, however, was a common fabric for sea bathing costumes as many believed the warmer fabric was necessary in cold water.
The only example of an early chemise-type bathing costume that I have been able to find is one that is believed to have belonged to Martha Washington in the United States:
This blue and white checked linen gown has several construction details similar to the chemise, a women’s undergarment of the period. ... Of particular interest are the lead disks which are wrapped in linen and attached near the hem next to the side seams by means of patches. No doubt these weights were used to keep the gown in place when the bather entered the water.
Women’s Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States, p.14
From the details we have of Jane Austen’s life we cannot tell whether or not she had a bathing costume of her own or whether she used the garment provided when she hired a bathing machine. Given that she had several years of regular summer visits to the seaside with her family and later lived in Southampton for some years (which in the early 19th century was trying to market itself as a seaside resort), it is likely that she would have preferred to have her own bathing costume rather than use one anyone might have worn. If she didn’t want to make the garment herself, they were available ready made. The Bath Journal was running advertisements for bathing linen as early as 1744, and from the 1790s the Manchester newspapers were running advertisements for a George Cook who included bathing caps and dresses among his groceries, millinery, drapery and books.
In addition to bathing costumes, the seaside gave rise to fashions to be worn during a visit to the seaside. Dedicated followers of fashion could take an entire new wardrobe with them, which would only be worn there, or if the town was large enough, they could have new wardrobes made for them at their destination, as Camilla Stanley plans to do in Catharine, or the Bower.
Left: Seaside bathing dress, 1815, La Belle Assemblee,
Right: Bathing place evening dresss, La Belle Assemblee, 1810.
Most of the fashion magazines printed fashion plates featuring seaside costumes. One printed a fashion plate in 1815 of a Seaside Bathing Dress , which looks as if it is to be worn during the day at the seaside, not actually bathed in. It has a relatively short hemline, presumably so that it is safe for the wearer to walk along the seashore without getting her dress wet.
In September 1810 La Belle Assemblee published a fashion plate entitled ‘Bathing Place Evening Dress’ . As well as having an unusually high neckline for an evening dress, it also has a short hemline. Below the hem of the dress and clearly visible are ‘trousers of white French cambric which are trimmed the same as the dress’.
After searching through numerous costume books I have been unable to find any reference to women wearing trousers this early in the 19th century. There are, however, references to women wearing drawers as early as 1806. As this pair was part of a seaside costume they may have been given the name ‘trousers’ because they were a garment worn by sailors and other seafaring men. This pair of trousers sounds remarkably like the undergarments that went variously by the names of drawers, pantaloons and pantalettes.
Even though they were fashionable, not everyone wanted them to become a permanent part of ladies’ dress:
They are the ugliest things I ever saw: I will never put them on again. I dragged my dress in the dirt for fear someone would spy them. My finest dimity pair with real Swiss lace is quite useless to me for I lost one leg and did not deem it proper to pick it up, and so walked off leaving it in the street behind me, and the lace had cost six shillings a yard. I saw that mean Mrs Spring wearing it last week as a tucker. … I hope there will be a short wearing of these horrid pantalets, they are too trying. Of course I must wear them for I cannot hold up my dress and show my stockings, no one does.
Quoted in The History of Underclothes, p.114
Above: 'Evening Promenade, or Sea Beach
Costumes', from Ackermann's Repository, October, 1810.
Image courtesy Bob Whitworth, www.printsgeorge.com
First figure. --- A Grecian wrap gown, with high Armenian collar, bordered with treble rows of narrow muslin, or with three rows of appliqued beading. And Egyptian tunic of pink or lilac shot sarsnet, ornamented up the front with silk cord and buttons; round the bosom and cuffs to correspond. A Hamlet hat of white imperial chip or straw, tied across the crown with white or lemon-coloured ribbon. A foundling cap of lace, exhibited in front, ornamented with corn-flowers. Pale tan gloves, and shoes the colour of the pelisse.
Second figure. --- A white muslin robe, with biassed bosom, formed of French net; a high rounded collar, sitting close to the throat, and finished with a double plaiting of net; a sash of amber shot ribbon tied on the left side. A Circassian mantle of fine India muslin, with deep border of needle-work or lace. Head-dress composed of a square veil of lace, fancifully disposed over the hair, and confined with a broach in center of the forehead. York tan gloves, and Roman slippers of amber-coloured kid.
Dress fashions for the seaside changed rapidly, even more rapidly than did the fashionability of seaside resorts. Jane Austen did not live long enough to complete Sanditon so we do not know if it ever did become the favourite place of the select few or even of the hordes. If it did become fashionable it is to be hoped its popularity and Mr Parker’s fortune were more enduring than the young lady’s pantalettes.
26 March 2007