In Georgian and Victorian times, armies of bathing machines protected a woman’s modesty before she slipped into the waves.
(Image credit: Messy Nessy Chic)
People entered the changing room on wheels while it was on the beach, wearing their street clothing.
In the machine they changed into their bathing suits.
The machine would then be wheeled or slid into the water.
The most common machines had large wide wheels and were propelled in and out of the surf by a horse or a pair of horses with a driver.
Some resorts had wooden rails into the water for the wheels to roll on; a few had bathing machines pulled in and out by cables propelled by a steam engine.
Once in the water, the occupants disembarked from the sea side down steps into the water.
It was considered essential that the machine blocked any view of the bather from the shore.
Some machines were equipped with a canvas tent lowered from the seaside door, sometimes capable of being lowered to the water, giving the bather even greater privacy.
Sea bathing at the time was a serious health business.
I can’t stress enough how not about fun it was.
A sea water cure usually required drinking quantities of sea water each day. A brief plunge into the ocean from one to three times in the morning was obligatory.
Servants called dippers who plunged the (probably non-swimmer) bather’s head underwater for the obligatory dips and heave them back into the bathing machine.
For women, the dipper probably saved them being dragged underwater by the weight of their many layers of clothes.
Meanwhile, men were allowed to swim naked until the 1860s.
They still had to behave with propriety.
In August 187, a man was prosecuted at Paignton for bathing too near the bathing machines, and fined in the Magistrate’s Court.
Dippers and Bathers
One of the most famous dippers, 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 Morning Herald newspaper called her ‘The Venerable Priestess of the Bath’.
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)
When men immersed men into the waters, it was called bathing. When women immersed women into the waters, they were dipping.
Royal Bathing Machines
Royal dippers were a different kettle of fish.
A contemporary description of George III bathing at Weymouth in 1789 describes the king’s dippers thusly:
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.
- Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, vol 5, pp. 35-6
By 1792, a Royal Floating Bathing Machine at Weymouth gave more privacy to the Royal Family.
This was a large structure resembling a house-boat or a floating dock, with dressing rooms and three large baths. It allowed the user to bathe in complete privacy and could be used in pretty much all weathers; it was covered by a roof and sea water flowed in through grills at each end. At one end of the structure were the Royal Bath and Royal Dressing Room and at the other end were baths and dressing rooms for the use of the king’s guests.
Queen Victoria’s bathing machine ran down a ramp into the sea. It even had a lavatory plumbed in.
This was very homely compared to this creation, for King Alfonso XIII.
This palace on the sea has rails and a steam-powered pulley system.
When legal segregation of bathing areas in Britain ended in 1901 and it finally became acceptable for both genders to bathe together, it was the beginning of the end for the bathing machine.
The bathing machine was gradually phased out, but enjoyed a second life as garden sheds!