When bathing in the sea was still a novelty and a ritual

Bathing machines at Brighthelmstone, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1788
Bathing machines at Brighthelmstone, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1788

Sea-bathing is now so familiar a sight that it is hard to imagine a time when that was not so.

Sea-bathing is now so familiar a sight that it is hard to imagine a time when that was not so. Yet until the 1750s it was practically unknown, and even when Dr Richard Russell began to preach its benefits, it was with regard to its medicinal properties rather than as a pleasurable activity in its own right. It was he, before the advent of the Prince Regent, who first put Brighton on the fashionable map, as an ideal place to take the briny invigorating waters.

Martha Gunn

Martha Gunn

It was for long regarded as such a novelty, that the guide books helpfully explained what was involved. “By means of a hook ladder,” the Brighton New Guide of 1800 informed its readers, “the bather ascends the machine, which is formed of wood, and raised on high wheels. They are drawn to a proper distance from the shore, and then plunge into the sea, the guides attending on each side to assist them in recovering the machine; which being accomplished they are drawn back to shore.”

The two most famous of these “dippers” were John “Smoaker” Miles and Martha Gunn, both of them legendary locals. “Old Smoaker” was once in attendance on the Prince of Wales when the latter ventured out further than was wise, ignoring his attendant’s warnings. So Smoaker unceremoniously seized him by the ear and hauled him back towards the shore. “I ar’n’t agoen’ to let the king hang me for lettin’ the Prince of Wales drown hisself; not I, to please nobody, I can tell’e,” he remonstrated when they came ashore. And Prinny evidently managed to see the funny side, for he later appointed Miles as Royal Bather, and established the Smoaker Stakes, first run at the Brighton races in 1806, in his memory.

Prinny was also fond of Martha, the ladies’ attendant (ladies bathed between West Street and Middle Street). He often sent for her at the Pavilion, where he enjoyed her quaint conversation. On one occasion, spotting her putting a pound of butter in her pocket, the prince kept her talking while luring her ever closer to the kitchen fire.

In 1780, when it was advertised that “five strong women, all used to the sea, have completely fitted up a set of new machines with a careful man and horse to conduct them in and out of the water, for the purpose of bathing ladies and children, the ladies at one shilling each, and children sixpence”, Martha and seven others - “the old bathers for the last 30 years” - responded with a vigorous advert of their own, and maybe saw off the newcomers.  She was still going strong in 1805, a newspaper punning: “Many of our lovely belles took ‘ducks’ for breakfast this morning, purchased of their cateress, Martha Gunn, who boasts that from the profits she gains by the sale of her ‘ducks’ she is often enabled to purchase a goose for dinner.”  In 1815, now 88, hobbling and toothless, she was still on the beach each morning to supervise the bathing, and confessed: “I ought to be proud, for I’ve as many bows from man, woman, and child, as the Prince hisself; aye, I do believe, the very dogs in the town know me.”

John ?Smoaker? Miles

John ?Smoaker? Miles

The machines were few, and customers would scuffle to secure one. “Some send their footmen, and contend by proxy; others go in boats or on horseback, to meet the machines.”  Not everyone bothered. Fanny Burney and Mrs Thrale, with the three Miss Thrales, all rose at six on a November morning in 1782, “and by the pale blink of the moon into the ocean we plunged”.