Going for a Dip – Dressed or Undressed

One of the pleasures (for gentlemen) at many of the seaside resorts to be found around the coast in the early nineteenth century, was watching the ladies bathing.

George Cruikshank, Hydromania Detail

There are even illustrations of this, such as this one of Lyme Regis,

V0012257 Five women bathing while a man peeps from behind a tree. Lin

or less realistically at Brighton.

But was this true? did women really disport themselves naked like this? Did Jane Austen, who went bathing at Lyme Regis in 1804, really go skinny dipping? Probably not – at Lyme it cost 1/3 to go bathing. This included the hire the bathing machine, the assistance of the ‘dipper’ – the lady who helped you in the water, as well as the bathing dress.

Bathing Machines were small sheds on wheels that the bather entered and changed. While this was going on the machine was pushed down into the sea, a canvas hood could be let down so that the bather could enter the water virtually unseen from anybody on shore. An anonymous poem, said to have been found in a Bathing Machine in Margate sums it up perfectly.

Though oft I have been

In a Bathing-Machine

I never discover’d till now

The wonderful art

Of this little go-cart

’Tis vastly convenient, I vow.

A peg for your clothes

A glass for your nose

And shutting the little trap-door,

You are safe from the ken

Of those impudent men

Who wander about on the shore.

Though this idyllic view of a Bathing Machine was not shared by my grandmother, who would have been one of the last people to have used one, in holidays on the Kent coast before the First World War. From her description, Bathing Machines were damp, slimy, wet and hot inside, and smelt horrible.

There are also plenty of illustrations of ladies bathing, wearing rather unflattering costumes.

Mermaids at Brighton 1829

At Brighton

Yorkshire bathing machines 1813

And at Scarborough

But sea bathing wasn’t the only sort of bathing available, it was commonplace for bathing pools to be incorporated in improved gardens. I have just been reading The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden by Kate Felus, an absolutely fascinating book, and in her section on bathing she mentions several times that bathing took place naked. In the grounds of country houses, you could be as private as you liked but even here ladies still wore dresses, as this delightful watercolour shows.

Bathing at Dynes Hall 1812-3

Bathing at Dynes Hall 1812 or 13, drawn by the talented Diana Sperling, who’s watercolours were published many years ago as Mrs Hurst Dancing.

But, and there is a but, what about swimming? People tend to conflate the two, but bathing could be just splashing about in the water, fun and doubtless exhilarating, but not actually swimming. This is understandable, could a woman swim in the dress shown? and ladies certainly did swim, there are rare, but definite, references to some ladies being strong swimmers. The most delightful has to be the description of Harriot Hoare, the granddaughter of Henry Hoare, the builder of the great house and garden at Stourhead.

“Dear Harriot dives like a Di Dipper {Little Grebe} and there is no keeping her out of the water this hissing hot weather.”

Here I have had to take advice, as I am not female and cannot swim, but the general opinion is that whilst you could paddle and splash around in a bathing dress but not swim.

There are also a few drawings of ladies swimming naked that do not look like Regency soft porn. These, of the ‘Swimming Venus of Ramsgate’, despite the title, look more like illustrations of how to swim.

A Back-side and Front view of a modern fine lady vide Bunbury or the Swimming Venus of Ramsgate 1

So, mostly dressed, but occasionally undressed, seems to have been the rule of the Regency bather.



Filed under Georgian, Jane Austen, Regency, Village Fetes

3 responses to “Going for a Dip – Dressed or Undressed

  1. Pleasant Street

    I can’t swim either. I enjoyed these drawings immensely, interesting stuff


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