Changing fashions in dips in the briny

A hundred years ago this week Weston-super-Mare's Town Commissioners, sitting in solemn conclave, drew up regulations for bathing from the beach

A hundred years ago this week Weston-super-Mare's Town Commissioners, sitting in solemn conclave, drew up regulations for bathing from the beach. One of them was that there should be no bathing, except from a machine, within a quarter-of-a-mile of any dwelling-house. When a member remonstrated that this would be a hardship on the poorer classes it was pointed out that men in a state of nudity running about on the beach would be disgusting and drive visitors away.You might think it hardly likely that men would bathe naked on the beach anyway, but fashions in men's bathing costumes had scarcely started to appear and men and boys commonly bathed in the nude from Weston's sands.The fashion for sea bathing developed swiftly from the time in 1789 when tubby George III, following an illness, was recommended by his physicians to bathe in the sea at Weymouth. Each day he was towed a little way out to sea in a bathing machine, and his fat figure emerged to flop about in the water while a band in a nearby bathing machine played God Save the King.With a little luck George III might have done his sea bathing at Weston, and Weston might have had a swifter rise to fame as a seaside resort than it did. Dr Fox, a noted physician of the time, was a firm believer in sea bathing. We are told by his biographer that he was "Commanded to Windsor to see in consultation King George III, and was asked to take charge of the King, but declined to do so."In later years Dr Fox played a notable part in the development of Weston by spending between £16,000 and £20,000 on building four houses, including sea water baths, on Knightstone island, to treat his Bristol and district patients,Bathing from machines on the sands came much earlier than the seawater facilities at Knightstone. This picture of sea bathing from horse drawn machines is given in a guidebook, Sealy's Western Miscellany, of 1845. Weston is all very well whilst the tide is high," it says. "You walk down in the morning towel in hand, and, after hesitating for a while you get into a machine and are trundled into the sea. You plunge in to the water head foremost, splutter and puff a little; you take three steps upon the fine sand, and then place your foot upon something softer, and withal somewhat slimy."Be assured, reader, mud affords very pleasant walking for bare feet, excepting only when its surface is interrupted by a deep hole or a three-cornered stone or live crab. When you slink back into your den you are surprised to find yourself less muddy than you expected. In fact one may take a wash at Weston without getting very dirty."Weston's first guidebook of 1822 says "there are three bathing machines on the sands which can be used except at very low tide", and "there is bathing at Anchor Head at all tides".By Whereat's guidebook of 1855 demand for bathing machines has increased: "... We now take a turn down the Lower Esplanade to the steps leading to the bathing machines. At high water in fine weather these nicely painted and trim-looking vehicles, of which there are about 50, are frequently very numerously occupied, and present quite a busy scene".Describing the view from near Leeve's Cottage at the corner of West Street, Robbins' guide of 1861 says: "To the left is the Esplanade, extending nearly the distance of a quarter of a mile, while below is a beach of fine level sand, stretching towards uphill, nearly two miles. The sea probably is up, and all is pleasure and animation; bathers and bathing machines are here in abundance, while the sands are covered with a gay company enjoying grateful breezes from the sea."Beedle's Visitor's Handbook of about 1870 says: "The shore being formed of sand shelving gradually and very slowly the bathing is both safe and very good. There are plenty of bathing machines for both ladies and gentlemen, and the charges are moderate, and it is contemplated that a covered bathing establishment will be erected on the Kewstoke beach. Beyond a certain point on the sands, gentlemen may bathe without a machine, or they may go to a place beyond the Pier, on the Kewstoke Road called 'Bathing Coves'. In this case they should be good swimmers, for the place is deep, and more exposed to the current."There are also hot and cold baths at Knightstone, and there is an excellent Turkish Bath in Wadham Street, under good management and said to be one of the best in the provinces."An advertisement for the same announced that Ladies' Days at the Turkish Baths were Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Gentlemen's Days on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Ladies might attend on Gentlemen's Days from 7 till 10 a.m., and gentlemen on ladies' days at the same hours."Terms - First-class (single) Bath 2s. 6d., 12 tickets for £1 2s. 6d. - From 6 to 7.30 p.m. with shampooing. For working class, single Bath 1s. 6d.; 12 tickets for 14s. - The Turkish Wash (A Luxury), first class 1s., second class 6d."Curiously enough Jackson in his guide of 1877, which runs to about 300 pages, makes no comment on sea bathing except to extol Knightstone Baths. None of these early Weston guides seem to give much publicity to the therapeutic qualities of sea water, although these were being made much of and Dr. Russell had published his noted "Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Diseases of the Glands" as early as 1750.Did you know that at one time patients were also recommended to drink the sea as well as bathe in it? One specialist used to recommend that it should be mixed with milk.The official town guide for 1911 states: "A few years ago, up to 1903 in fact, the bathing machines numbered about a hundred, but the great gale in September that year demolished some 70 or 80 of these; since then a large number of bathing tents and several new machines have been provided. But those bathers who prefer to take their plunge into clear, green sea-water can now do so in the splendid swimming baths which the Town Council have provided at Knightstone."There was open sea bathing for ladies without machines at Anchor Head, but I hasten to add that it was from a sheltered nook over which Betty Muggleworth presided.Betty, it seems was quite a character. She spread an old sail across the rocks, and under this the ladies changed. To protect their delicate feet from the sharp pebbles she provided them with shoes. When bathing was in progress any mere male who hove in sight was promptly chased off by Betty.There seem to have been several saltwater bath establishments. Mrs Gill had one on a site at the Regent Street-Meadow Street corner. The water was hauled from the beach in a barrel and stored in a tank over the boiler in which it was heated, and, by means of pipes running through the wall, supplied the baths.Historian Ernest Baker recorded that Mrs. Gill also had a shower bath, "a good old fashioned Punch and Judy box affair, in which the victim stood with curtains drawn close all round, whilst a bucketful of sea water was poured over his head from the top by an assistant standing on steps."Just how Puritanical Weston was about sea bathing even as late as 1869 can be gauged from the Local Government Board by-laws on bathing and bathing machines. These laid down that "all such machine as shall be intended to for use by the different sexes, are not to be kept or let within two hundreds yards of each other, and no person shall bathe within that distance of the opposite sex".Another by-law read: "No person shall bathe without the use of machine within one quarter of a mile of any dwelling house".And again: "All bathing machines to be let for hire within the district shall be at all times kept in good and sufficient repair, and be provided with dresses and towels for the use of the persons bathing, and shall be provided with sufficient means, to the satisfaction of the Local Board, for drawing them to and from the water."The by-laws did not mention the style of the bathing dresses, insisted they were tight around the neck and came down to the ankles.The Local Government Board also laid down the charges for bathing from machines: "For one person not exceeding thirty minutes, any sum not exceeding 6d., and the like charge for every succeeding thirty minutes."To ensure that there was strict propriety there was also this by-law: "No boat or vessel let to hire for the purpose of sailing or towing for pleasure shall be sailed or rowed within two hundred yards of any bathing machine within the district."To ensure the good behaviour of bathing machine attendants, rule 6 read: "Every person in charge of any bathing machine within the district, shall at all times conduct himself or herself in an orderly and respectful manner, and obey the reasonable orders of the person or persons using the same."Any person breaking these by-laws was liable to be fined up to 40s..Weston's early bathing by-laws were rigorously enforced, and there is the story of the young Westonian who was fined for bathing nude from the beach opposite the Royal Hotel. The informant was the magistrate's daughter, and telling the tale afterwards the guilty one, who was fined, said "The Magistrate told me he would have fined me a lot more but for the fact that his daughter was short-sighted and couldn't see me very well."Curiously, today Weston is one of the few resorts that have no bathing machines or chalets for people to use. * This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on October 27, 1967


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