Eighteenth-century bathing machines

During the eighteenth and into the nineteenth-century it became fashionable and beneficial to enjoy the pleasures of swimming in the sea so, in order to preserve modesty, bathing machines were invented. These allowed the swimmer to enter the contraption fully clothed, undress and get into the water virtually unseen; to swim then return to the machine to get dressed again and leave through the entrance they had arrived through – all very discreet.

Holidaymakers on Scarborough Beach by T. Ramsay
Holidaymakers on Scarborough Beach by T. Ramsay; Scarborough Collections

Scarborough, Yorkshire was reputed to have been an excellent place to swim in the 1730s, but as to whether they had bathing machines we’re really not sure.  Certainly, by the 1770s as you can see above, the bathing machine was very much in evidence.

The first reference we came across of a bathing machine was in the Caledonian Mercury, dated 14th August 1750, although such a machine was believed to exist prior to this.

That the BATHING MACHINE will, from Monday next, be attended close from half flood to half ebb, every lawful day by Thomas Weir Carter in Leith; his station with the same is to be upon the sands to the west of the glasshouse, in order to carry such ladies and gentlemen who want to bathe. And no weather needs to stop the use of it, as by the contrivance persons may bathe securely, without being any ways exposed to the weather. It will hold four persons easily, furnished with pins to hang up their clothes, and clean napkins will be there ready for rubbing.

In 1754, the Whitehall Evening Post carried an advertisement for the

New invented machine for bathing in the sea. The machines move on four wheels, on which is erected a commodious dressing room, furnished in a genteel manner. The machine is contrived, that the persons who bathe descend from out of the above room into the bath, which forms itself in the natural sea, seven feet in length and five in breadth, all enclosed and railed, which renders it both secure and private. The machine during the last season met with genteel approbation; and in order to make still more useful, the proprietors have this season provided an additional machine with proper conveniences for bathing at all times. A woman is appointed to attend the ladies if desired.

As the fashion for swimming in the sea along with its reputed benefits grew, more and more coastal towns had their own machines, set up on the beach from Tynemouth, in the north, to Brighton in the south and everywhere in between.

Figures and Bathing Machines in the Bay below Tynemouth Castle by Ralph I Waters
Figures and Bathing Machines in the Bay below Tynemouth Castle by Ralph I Waters; Laing Art Gallery

One of the most famous people to develop a bathing machine was a Quaker, Benjamin Beale. However, in 1767 there was an immense storm in Margate and his bathing machines were damaged, as they had been twice before, in 1763 and 1764. His loss on this occasion was estimated to be worth over £1,000 and it totally wiped out his business. So much so that Sir John Shaw and a Dr Hawley, of Great Russell Street, sought assistance for him, to enable him to rebuild his business. This was successful and the business was rebuilt, and Benjamin continued his trade until his death in 1775.

On the Sands at Brighton Figures Walking on the Shore by John Dixon. Yale Centre for British Art
On the Sands at Brighton Figures Walking on the Shore by John Dixon. Yale Centre for British Art

As the fashion for sea swimming caught on others developed their own business too, such as these trade cards shows for the ‘The Dunn’s machine’ and ‘The Phillpot’s machine’.

In 1770, Margate became so popular that it even produced its own holiday guide containing

a particular account of Margate, with respect to its new building, assemblies, accommodations, manners of bathing, remarkable places in its neighbourhood and whatever else may be thought necessary for the information of strangers.

Swimming in the sea was a risky affair and there were quite a few incidents recorded of accidental death due to drowning. Other incidents were less dramatic, but somewhat embarrassing, such as the one noted in the St James Chronicle of 1778 when a bathing machine containing ten people capsized. Most escaped to shore… but minus their clothes. There were also reports of people having a few too many drinks, climbing into the bathing machines to sleep off their excesses and the tide changing and them waking up the next morning to find themselves in the sea.

British Museum
British Museum

Apparently, in 1794, two dignified ladies decided as a wager to swim from one bathing machine to another, one was seized with a cramp, but not being out of her depth was rescued. Hopefully, the wager wasn’t too high!

Men and women were segregated for the sake of women’s modesty, but occasional incidents happened where women had to be saved by a gentleman when they swam out of their depth – a few red faces there then!

Margate, Kent a woman diving off a bathing wagon into the sea Coloured etching, ca 1800 Wellcome Library
Margate, Kent a woman diving off a bathing wagon into the sea Coloured etching, ca 1800 Wellcome Library

Here’s a bit of newspaper gossip for you from The Public Advertiser, October 1791.

Man caught in bathing machine with woman, both naked at the time.

Sorry to spoil your fun, it transpired that they were actually husband and wife, but still, it made the newspaper.

Of course, when in Weymouth, the royal family enjoyed a swim, especially George III but apparently his daughter, the Princess Royal, less so as she appeared to feel the cold more and looked half-frozen after her swim.*

To finish we couldn’t resist sharing this image of Prinny, The Prince Regent – no words!

Prince of Wales. 1819. Wellcome Library
Prince of Wales. 1819. Wellcome Library

Source

London Chronicle 8 September 1791

Featured Image

Bathing Machine on Southsea Common. c1788. Yale Centre for British Art

Not such a typical English summer’s day: a whirlwind hits Scarborough in 1823

Scarborough from the Spa by H.B. Carter (Government Art Collection)
Scarborough from the Spa by H.B. Carter (Government Art Collection)

On Tuesday 24th June 1823 the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough experienced a sudden and ferocious whirlwind. The weather had been unseasonably cold for at least a fortnight, with a bracing north to north-east wind; in fact, the whole summer that year was one of the coldest known since monthly records began to be kept in 1659. On this day, just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a thunderstorm burst from the west, but although the claps of thunder were loud enough to alarm everyone, the accompanying rainstorm was soon over and the lightning did no damage.

Ten or fifteen minutes later some people who had ventured back onto the beach were struck by the unusual appearance of the sky: storm clouds were brewing, one heading in from a south-westerly direction, with another, much lower one, scudding in from the north-east. When these two clouds met, they were described as being in:

violent agitation; an upper dense and dark stratum seemed to be pressing a lighter one down to the earth. They were then blended into one dense column, which descended to the ground . . .

Terrace Steps by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Terrace Steps by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

The resulting whirlwind, which originated near the village of Falsgrave, sped overland over the turnpike road and, uprooting two large elm trees, passed by some bemused labourers at the waterfall below the terrace on Scarborough’s seafront, then ruined the day of a poor gardener by destroying his cabbage plants in a garden to the left before it passed onto the sands.

Spa Terrace by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Spa Terrace by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

On the beach the whirlwind continued its mayhem by dashing a machine which contained a camera-obscura into the sea, smashing it into a hundred pieces. The sand on the beach was whipped up to a height of sixty feet, blinding a man who had decided that the bathing-machine in which he had been sheltering was no longer safe, and who had decided to make a run for it.  It was as well that he had done so for the bathing-machines were now directly in the path of the whirlwind. There were reported to be around forty bathing-machines on the seafront at Scarborough in 1813; these were now tumbled over into the sea, some ending up without their wheels or roofs.

Sea Bathing by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Sea Bathing by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

There were two piers at Scarborough, one old and ancient, the other newly built using stones from the nearby White Nabb quarry and there for the security of the harbour. People were now seen running from these piers as quickly as they could. Some vessels were moored between the two piers, and in one, where the occupants were enjoying a glass of wine in a cabin, they were alarmed by a boy rushing down from the deck, shouting:

“The bathing-machines are running into the sea, – many have turned over, and some heels-over-head”.

With that their own vessel broke its anchorage and turned over on its beam-ends ‘to no small destruction of their glasses and Falernian [wine]’. Only the pier saved it from further damage.

Wreck off Scarborough by John Warkup Swift, 1863
Wreck off Scarborough by John Warkup Swift, 1863 (c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The whirlwind was now between the piers and heading for the harbour, the only port between the Humber and Tynemouth where ships of large burden could usually find a safe refuge from the violent easterly gales which often prevailed along the coast. It was not so safe on that day, however, with the column whipping up the water and sending foam and spray to the height of a ship’s topmast – the smaller boats were tipped upside down and broke free from their moorings. At last, the column rose ‘over the battery in rapid volutions, whirled into the clouds, and disappeared‘.

Cornelian Bay by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813
Cornelian Bay by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Many experienced seamen thought it had been a water-spout, but it left no trace of water when it first passed over the land. The sea had been taken up by the column but in the form of spray and foam.

From an eye-witness account of the destructive column:

It was quite perpendicular, and seemed at first to be thicker at the summit than below, resembling a trumpet. Its density was so great, that many persons thought it was the smoke of some fire on the sands; but the most compared it to the steam from a large brewhouse or steam-engine. The gyrating motion resembled a screw or the Cornu ammonis . . . the noise was very peculiar, and brought many people to their windows to see what was the matter. Some describe it as imitating the roaring of a great wind; some a crackling noise, like a house on fire; a military gentleman [said] it resembled the explosion of a mine underwater; but the majority considered it like the rumbling of heavy carriages.

No great damage seems to have been caused, and no lives were lost, but it was recorded that many small items such as baskets and umbrellas were blown away, never to be seen again.

A tailor in a high wind by George Cruikshank, 1819 (Lewis Walpole Library)
A tailor in a high wind by George Cruikshank, 1819 (Lewis Walpole Library)

Sources used:

http://www.augustana.edu/SpecialCollections/colorplate/scarborough_images.html

The Monthly Magazine, or, British Register, vol. 57, 1824

York Herald, 28th June 1823

History, Directory & Gazetteer of the County of York by Edward Baines, vol. II, 1823

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813, illustrated by twenty-one plates of humorous subjects coloured by hand from original designs made upon the spot by J. Green and etched by T. Rowlandson

Header image: Wreck below the Grand Hotel; Robert Ernest Roe; Scarborough Collections