We’re not quite sure that Martha’s claim to fame would work in today’s celebrity culture, for Martha, who was born Martha Killick daughter of Friend and Anne Killick in 1726 (baptized 19 September 1731), was a ‘dipper‘. Much has been written about her already, but we thought we would add a few extra bits.
What was a ‘dipper’? Well, in the 1700 and early 1800s doctors would recommend that people bath in seawater to restore their health. Needless to say, this concept was terrifying for many, so in places such as Brighton people were employed as ‘dippers‘.
Huts on wheels, like the one below were used to allow the bather to protect their modesty, the bather would climb into the hut, change into their swimming attire, the machine was then pulled by dippers into the sea. Dippers were also expected to ensure that people were not swept away by the current, arguably like a modern day lifeguard, so they would need to be very strong.
This occupation in itself was never going to give Martha celebrity status, but her royal connection to the Prince of Wales, later George IV, did. She was a favourite of his and apparently enjoyed special privileges including free access to the kitchen at the Royal Pavilion.
The portrait of her below is reputed to show Martha holding the Prince of Wales as a small child, however, this is not feasible as the Prince did not visit Brighton until September 7th, 1783, he was 21. So despite the annotation at the top of the painting this must have been added at a later stage.
Todd’s print catalogue of 1799 simply described the painting as being with an unnamed child.
There was also another copy of the piece produced by William Nutter which is now held by The Met, dated 1797. It does not state that the child was the Prince of Wales, but that the original was in his possession and this one was dedicated to the Prince of Wales.
It also appeared in the following catalogue which confirmed the artist to be John Russell – ‘A catalogue of all the capital and valuable finished and unfinished original works of the distinguished artist, John Russell, Esq. R.A where it was to be sold along with other paintings by Mr Christie on February 14th, 1807.
Martha was a large and strong woman and was well respected by the town and she even featured in the caricature below.
She died in May 1815 and was buried in the local churchyard.
On Monday last, died, in the 89th year of her age, at Brighton, that well-known and esteemed character, as a bather, Martha Gunn, of that town. Her remains were followed to the grave by a large train of mourners and others.
Hampshire Chronicle, 15 May 1815
Long after her death, a plaque was added to the house where she and her family lived.