Posted in Country House, Decorative Arts, Fashion History, History, Horticultural History, Literature, Museum, Vintage, World War One

Bathing Beauties

Beach huts, Bournemouth beach, Dorset.

This year the British Summer has not been conducive to swimming in the sea which is a shame because I enjoy sea-bathing and am fortunate enough to live on the South Coast of England.  However, we have had a few scorching hot days and on one such day, a couple of week’s ago, I hopped on a ferry to the Isle of Wight and made an impromptu visit to Osborne House.  I usually visit Osborne two or three times a year, it is such a special place, beautiful gardens and stunning architecture.  The impetus for this visit being the recently restored private beach which opened for visitors to Osborne on 27th July.  I certainly was not disappointed, it is a magical and peaceful place. I walked from Swiss Cottage on the estate, down through the woodland walk and onto the beach.

View on approach to the beach at Osborne House.

I sat quietly in the exedra, a limestone alcove, decorated inside with exquisite examples of Minton tiles.  The alcove was completed in 1869.  This is the exact spot where Queen Victoria quietly perused her paperwork and indulged in her passion for watercolour sketching.

Queen Victoria’s beach alcove, Osborne House.
View looking out from the beach alcove at Osborne.
Roof of the beach alcove which is decorated with Minton tiles.
Dolphin detail underneath the wooden bench in the alcove.
Queen Victoria’s bathing machine.

Victoria’s Bathing Machine has also now been relocated from Swiss Cottage to the beach. The bathing machine was installed at Osborne in 1846 and first used during the summer of 1847.  The veranda had curtains hung across it to protect Her Majesty’s modesty. A ramp, 146 metres long, stretched from shore to sea and the machine’s wheels were guided along by the grooves. The beach pavilion, which dates back to the 1940s when it was built for convalescing officers during World War Two, has now been restored and transformed into a beach café for visitor refreshments.

The beach is now a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation and boardwalks have been erected to protect the fragile areas of vegetation on the foreshore.  Victoria and Albert’s children loved to play on the beach. Albert enjoyed swimming and when at Osborne tried to do so everyday. He encouraged Victoria to swim regularly too.  Victoria’s love of the beach at Osborne can be seen in a number of her journal entries. Here is one lovely entry in particular:

We are very sorry and this is our last day in this dear place,….enjoyment of which will I am sure add many years to our lives……A very fine bright day, but still very cold.  We walked down to the beach and played about with the children.  In the afternoon, our last here, which is so sad, Albert drove me about.  The country was looking so lovely and the sea so blue.

(24th September, 1845, Osborne House, Isle of Wight. Original entry can be read here . The complete on-line collection of Queen Victoria’s journals from the Royal Archives.)

Sea bathing became popular in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth centuryKing George III (1738-1820) is credited with its inception, after having made a number of visits to Weymouth in Dorset to ‘take the sea air’.  Doctors promoted the health benefits of sea immersion believing it to be a cure for all ills and effective in treating scurvy, jaundice and gout.

Advert from a London newspaper, 1895, offering trips to the seaside by train.

It wasn’t really until railways connected coastal towns to major cities, c.1885, that the sea bathing really began to take-off.  Along the south coast towns such as Lyme Regis, Lymington, Southsea, Bournemouth, Southampton, Weymouth, Brighton and Swanage prospered as a result of this new craze.

Strict Victorian moral codes meant that no flesh could be shown by the female bather and swimming costumes that failed to cover the entire body were considered indecent. The invention of the bathing machine enabled the bather to be horse-driven/wheeled right-out into the sea away from prying eyes. The bather would then discreetly descend into the water without anyone seeing them.  Men were expected to wear a bathing suit as well and segregated bathing continued, in many resorts, until well into the Edwardian era.

Lyme Regis, Dorset.

Lyme Regis – Dorset

A picturesque coastal town, described by Regency travel writer M. Phillips in Pictures of Lyme-Regis and Environs (1817) as:

The charms of this amphitheatrical bay is considered, as it unquestionably is, – one of the most enchanting spots for a Watering-place, that can be found around the British Islands. The scenery altogether is magnificent…The invalid, from the fine sea bathing and sea air, for such it may be truly expressed, rarely visits Lyme without great benefit.  In the spring and autumn, when the frequent variations of the atmosphere operate so unfavourably at most other fashionable resorts for sea bathing…The Assembly and Card Rooms are elegant and spacious, and are delightfully situated opposite the Three Cups Inn….Sedan chairs are kept for the accommodation of the company.

The Bathing Rooms afford another superior attraction, and accommodation, and are situated at the eastern part of the town; and another equally commodious, at the Cobb, where hot and cold baths, are as complete as can be desired.  It is but just to observe, that an eminent Physician, Dr. Baker, in analysing the sea water at Lyme to be more saline and heavier than the sea water at any other part of the coast.  At the upper baths is also a commodious Reading Room, where London and Country papers are to be seen. The pleasant walk adjoining the baths, is for the use of Subscribers.

(Phillips, M., 1817, pp. 6, 7, 13 & 14)

This was the period before the railway had reached Lyme Regis. Phillips would have travelled to the town on board the interconnecting Mail Coach service. According to Phillips, the distance from London to Lyme Regis was one hundred and forty-two bone shaking miles. The railway came late to Lyme Regis, it arrived in 1903. The town had a station up until 1963 when it was closed down.  The nearest station today is Axminster. Lyme Regis did suffer as a result of the delayed arrival of the railway and in the latter part of the nineteenth century lost a lot of its visitors to the nearby coastal resorts of Bournemouth and Swanage.

Some of the pretty seafront architecture in Lyme Regis.

Hot and cold inland bathing houses also flourished during the Regency and Victorian periods.  By the 1820s, Lyme Regis had three such bathing establishments, including one owned by J. Bennett, an enterprising shoemaker who saw a business opportunity and opened Bennett’s Hot Baths in 1824.

Local businesses often rented out bathing machines to visitors who preferred to swim in the sea rather than use the bathing houses. In the early part of the nineteenth century bathing machines would have been horse-drawn. Although the aim for the bather, during this period, was to engage in full sea immersion rather than traditional swimming.  The first bathing machine to be rented-out in this fashion in Lyme Regis was one owned by the proprietors of The Three Cups Inn.  By 1834, there were four machines in operation along the sands between the town and the famous Cobb.

During the Edwardian era and after the arrival of the railway, Lyme Regis saw its visitor numbers begin to increase. In Edwardian Lyme Regis, by Jo Draper (2008) there is a description, taken from Seaside Watering Places (1900-1901), which describes the town during this period thus:

The season is during July and August.  The parade – a terraced walk above the beach – is sheltered on one side by the famous Cobb, and on the other by smaller houses built close to the water’s edge and Church Street…The beach is hard, and good for walking on when the tide is out…There is good bathing, either from the machines, for which tickets must be obtained in town, or before 8am, from the Victoria Pier.  The sands to the east of Lyme are firm and a good walk can be taken along them, when the tide is out, to the village of Charmouth about 2 miles off.

(Draper, J., 2008, p. 18)

Lymington – Hampshire

In 1825, there were two bathhouses in Lymington, Legge’s Baths and Mrs Beeston’s Baths, the latter located on the edge of the sea marsh.  A warm bath cost 3/6; shower 2/6; cold bath with guide 1 shilling; cold bath without guide 6d.  The guide was a gentleman whose job it was to help the bather along with the aid of a rope harness tied under the bather’s armpits.

Lymington Sea Water Baths.

In 1833, The Lymington Sea Water Baths opened, they remain open today making it the oldest surviving Lido in Britain.  It was built by William Bartlett and Mrs Beeston ran it from 1872. Shortly after the Sea Water Baths opened, a bath house was opened nearby (now Lymington Town Sailing Club).  Historian, Vivien Rolf, in Bathing Houses and Plunge Pools writes of the bath house at Lymington:

Built in a neo-classical style, the central building was hexagonal, with an upper floor for social gatherings, and ground floor vaulted entrance hall which echoed the design of the subterranean baths below, where salt water flowed in at every high tide and was heated in the boilers.  Hot, cold and ‘vapour’ bathing was available, with separate wings of the building catering for ‘ladies and gentleman’.  Outside was an extensive open-air swimming pool.

(Rolf, V., 2011, pp. 47-48)

Lymington also had Assembly Rooms which provided facilities for those taking the waters or partaking in seabathing activities. The railway came to Lymington on 12th July 1858.  Nearby the towns of Milford-on-Sea and Barton-on-Sea were already emerging as popular seaside resorts. Although there were no bathing machines on offer as these two resorts.

Publicity poster for Southsea resort. Portsmouth City Museum.

Portsmouth and Southsea – Hampshire

A Pump-Room was set-up on the site of Clarence Pier, Portsmouth in the early 1800s and extended in 1825-6.  This extension included Assembly Rooms, Reading Rooms and marble seawater baths.  Southsea gained in popularity as a family resort after 1860 when the railway came to town and in 1885 the branch line was extended from Fratton to Granada Road. Bathing in Southsea remained segregated until 1910 with men and women’s bathing machines positioned at least fifty yards apart from each other.  Bathing machines fell-out of fashion in the 1920s when a trend emerged to have suntanned skin. Covering-up with head-top-toe bathing outfits was no longer favoured, bathers now wore suits that just covered the trunk of their body.

However, in Portsmouth and Southsea there were protests until the late 1950s early 1960s, about women wearing bikinis on Southsea promenade.  It all came to a head on the weekend of June 25th and 26th 1960, when a decision, once and for all, was made as to whether bikinis should be allowed to be worn along the promenade. The question was put to the vote among the (all-male!) committee of Portsmouth City Council.  The result was a resounding ‘yes’.  Gwen Robyns, the then Women’s Editor of the Daily Mirror, commented about the incident:

A bikini on the right girl in the right place and at the right time is an appealing sight.  It makes a girl feel deliciously feminine.  Fifty per cent of all bathing suits sold over the counter this summer have been bikinis. But you’ve got to be firm all over to wear them.  It’s fatal to have spare tyres and tummy bulges.

(Monday, June 27th, 1960, Daily Mirror)

Queen Victoria would not have been amused! I have found a fun British Pathé film made in Southsea in 1933, ‘Rehearsal Time: Meet ‘The Juggling Demons’ – Southsea’. Notice the male and female swimwear fashions of the period. CLICK HERE.

1930s, woollen, male swimming suit on display at Portsmouth City Museum.
Ladies 1930s stretch synthetic swimming costume and matching hat. Red House Museum and Gardens, Christchurch, Dorset.
Snazzy, vintage rubber bathing hat. Portsmouth City Museum.

Hilsea Lido – Hampshire

Hilsea Lido was designed by City Engineer Joseph Parkin and opened on 24th July 1935.  It is a stunning example of 1930s, Art Deco architecture. During the interwar years Lido lifestyle was all the rage, a place for the body beautiful to be seen and admired. This lifestyle was a far cry from the Victorian and Edwardian viewpoint that bathing was a solitary and private activity. Hilsea was a social hub where swimming and diving competitions, water polo matches, aquatic galas, novelty events and re-enactments of Naval battles using model boats regularly attracted 1,000 spectators.  The pool was built in the 1930s, during the Depression era, where jobs were scarce and money too tight to mention.  Hilsea Lido was nicknamed the ‘People’s Pool’ because it was built by the local people for the local people.  The Lido is thriving today and is still known as ‘Hilsea Lido: Pool for the People’.

Southampton – Hampshire

Although a bustling and thriving sea port, Southampton was once considered to be a fashionable spa resort.  In the mid to latter part of the eighteenth century, fashionable ladies were transported in their bath chairs from the main High Street, passing through Biddle’s Gate en-route to the Assembly Rooms.  The most famous establishment at the time was Mr Martin’s Baths.  The ladies wore flannel gowns and covered their heads with silk material or a leather bag.

Portsmouth resident Jonas Hanway, writing in his Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames; through Southampton, Wiltshire, etc. (1756) commented on Southampton’s emerging popularity as a sea bathing resort:

In this reign of saltwater, great numbers of people of distinction prefer Southampton for bathing; but you agree with me, that the bathing-house is not comparable to that of Portsmouth; not only as being smaller and uncovered, but here is no water, except at certain times of tide; whereas at Portsmouth one may always bathe. Shall you forget the proof we saw here of the fantastical taste of the age we live in, by the bathing vestments, intended for the ladies, being flounc’d and pink’d?

Swanage, Dorset.

Swanage – Dorset

Known as ‘Swanwich’ in the early part of the nineteenth century, Swanage became an important seaside resort along the south coast of England and its popularity increased when the railway arrived in 1885.  Shortly afterwards, the Pleasure Pier opened in 1896.  Swanage was a popular destination for day-trippers who travelled to the town by paddle-steamer right-up until the outbreak of World War One.

William Morton Pitt, MP (1754-1836) worked hard to promote the town as an up and coming Watering Place.  He even went as far as turning the Old Mansion House into a Hotel, re-naming it Manor House Hotel.  It was later renamed the Royal Victoria Hotel following a one-night stay by Princess Victoria. In 1825, Pitt built his seaside complex, Marine Villas (which included the renamed Royal Victoria Hotel).  The aim of the Villas was to accommodate the influx of visitors wishing to take the waters but wanting a high standard of residence whilst doing so.  Marine Villas housed the cold salt water baths, billiard and coffee rooms. The sea water would enter the baths via grills at the north side of the villa when at high tide would reach a height of five feet.  The Baths closed in 1855.  Pitt died in 1836, a bankrupt having sunk all of his fortune into transforming Swanage into a flagship sea bathing resort.

Ariadne guarding the cold water plunge bath in the grounds of Stourhead, Wiltshire.

Stourhead – Wiltshire

If you were wealthy then creating a plunge bath or bathing grotto in the grounds of your country retreat was one alternative to travelling to the seaside and mixing with the hoi polloi.  That is exactly what banking magnate Henry Hoare II (1705-1785), or Henry the Magnificent as he was also known, did on his vast estate in Wiltshire.  In 1743 he began to transform the landscape around his country seat, Stourhead, making the lake a central feature. The landscape of Stourhead is full of references to the text of Virgil’s Aeneid. There is a grotto which contains a cold plunge bath and displays a mix of classical, pagan, Christian and literary references.  At the edge of the bath is an inscription, translated by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), of a classical poem:

Nymph of the grot these sacred springs I keep

And to the murmur of these waters-deep

Ah spare my slumbers gently tread the cave

And drink in silence or in silence lave.

A Final Word on Bathing from Samuel Pepys

I cannot write a an article on the fashion for bathing without a nod to inland city of Bath Spa, Somerset.  On Saturday 13th June, 1668, diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) visited the famous Cross Bath in Bath Street. There had been a warm water spring at this location since Roman times. Pepys wrote:

Up at four o’clock, being by appointment called up to the Cross Bath, where we were carried one after one another, myself and wife and Betty Turner, Willet, and W. Hewer.  And by and by, though we designed to have done before company come, much company come, very fine ladies; and the manner pretty enough, only methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water…..Strange to see how hot the water is; and in some places, though this is the most temperate bath, the springs so hot as the feet not able to endure. But strange to see, when women and men herein, that live all the season in these waters, that cannot but be parboiled, and look like the creatures of the bath!  Carried away wrapped in a sheet, and in a chair home.

The Cross Bath has now been restored and is opened to the public again. For more information on the recent restoration of The Cross Bath, Peter Carey has written an excellent article, CLICK HERE.

Bathing at The Cross Bath, Bath, Somerset, 17th Century.
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