Martha Gunn (1726-1815), Brighton 'dipper'

Martha Gunn – Brighton Celebrity

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.

'A Calm' by James Gillray (1810).
‘A Calm’ by James Gillray (1810). Courtesy of Princeton University Library

What was a ‘dipper’? Well, in the 1700 and early 1800s doctors would recommend that people bath in sea water 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.

Bathing machine at Weymouth
Weymouth

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.

V0017100 Martha Gunn, a Brighton bather holding a small child that she has just saved from drowning.
Coloured engraving by W. Nutter, 1797, after J. Russell.
1797 By: John Russellafter: William NutterPublished: 1 June 1797

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 Gunn and the Prince of Wales by John Russell
Martha Gunn and the Prince of Wales by John Russell; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries
The Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV born 1762 and Mrs Gunn

Martha was a large and strong woman and was well respected by the town and she even featured in the caricature below.

A scene at Brighton; some Frenchmen have landed on the beach; others are in broad clumsy boats which have left French men-of-war. In the foreground old women and yokels are dealing with the invaders. A woman resembling Martha Gunn, the bathing-woman, trampling on prostrate bodies, holds out at arm's length a kicking French soldier. Courtesy of British Museum
A scene at Brighton; some Frenchmen have landed on the beach; others are in broad clumsy boats which have left French men-of-war. In the foreground old women and yokels are dealing with the invaders. A woman resembling Martha Gunn, the bathing-woman, trampling on prostrate bodies, holds out at arm’s length a kicking French soldier. Courtesy of British Museum

She died in May 1815 and was buried in the local churchyard.

Hampshire Chronicle, 15th May 1815

Long after her death a plaque was added to the house where she and her family lived.

Plaque on the Brighton house where Martha Gunn lived. It says: Martha Gunn 1727-1815, the original bathing woman lived here.

Featured Image

British School; Martha Gunn (1726-1815); Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

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