Category Archives: Village Fetes

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

Wicked Ladies – Some Legendry Highwaywomen

In an earlier blog I mentioned what was possibly one of the few true stories of a Highwaywoman, now for some whose reality is much less certain.

I first came across the most famous of all legendry highwaywomen in Haunted England by Christina Hole (1941), a fascinating collection of traditional ghost stories, which includes the tale of the wicked Lady Ferrers.

Markyate Cell, near Dunstable, was long haunted, and perhaps still is, by the ghost of the “wicked” Lady Ferrers. She is said to have taken to highway robbery in the seventeenth century from sheer love of excitement and power. She used to leave the house by a secret way at night and ride about disguised as a man, robbing such belated travellers as were abroad on Watling Street and killing those who showed signs of resistance.

She had a secret room prepared against emergencies which was reached by a concealed staircase in the kitchen chimney. Here she fled one night, after being badly wounded in a fight, and died at the foot of the staircase. Her body was found there next morning, and after her funeral the staircase was bricked up. But if the family hoped the curious circumstances of her death would be forgotten, they were disappointed.

Her ghost haunted the neighbourhood, sometimes swinging on the branch of an old tree under which she was supposed to have buried the proceeds of her robberies, sometimes riding along the roads or over the tree-tops. She was also seen near the kitchen chimney and in various parts of the house. Like Peg O’Nell, she was regarded as the author of every local misfortune, and three serious fires in the house were ascribed to her.

Historians have pointed out that, for example, Lady Ferrers never lived in Markyate Cell, and though she had owned the property it had been sold years before she died. However folk tales have never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story and this is a good story. It was read by a, sadly almost forgotten but very fine, novelist Magdalen King-Hall. Inspired by the tale she wrote Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945), this novel was dramatized as The Wicked Lady a classic 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood (and a very poor 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway).

 Wicked Lady 1


This tale includes one detail that is to be found in most stories of Highwaywomen, and which I think almost guarantee’s its fictional nature, she is supposed to have dressed as a man and ridden a horse. Whilst cross dressing is, of course, perfectly possible, riding astride is more doubtful. If she had learnt to ride she would naturally have been taught to ride side saddle, riding astride is a very different skill. To learn this would have taken time, and would have to have been accomplished in secret.

This is just one of the reasons I find the following story doubtful.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 23 July 1763

 We find the following extraordinary Letter in the London Chronicle of this Day:

SIR,    July 19

You may depend on the Truth of the following Robbery. – Last Friday a Gentleman and his Lady were attacked on the Harrow Road by a supposed Highwayman, who demanded their Money with the usual Imprecations, making them dismount. The Gentleman, after delivering his Money, imagining all was over, was going to remount, when the Robber unbuttoning, shew’d herself to be Woman, and insisted he should go into yonder Lane to her a Favour; which being backed by his Lady, he withdrew with her. Being under a thick Hedge, the real Highwayman made his Appearance, and insisted that the Gentleman’s Spouse should retire with him for the fame Purpose, saying, One good Turn deserves another. All being reconciled, they were about part, when our former Highwayman whisper’d the Gentleman, that she heard the Ticking of a Watch when under the Hedge; and should be glad if he would make her a Present of it: which with some Reluctance he did. We hear these Blades are of the Hatters Gang; and that the Posse of a certain Magistrate is now in Pursuit of them. I am your constant Reader and humble Servant, R. C.

An extraordinary letter indeed.

I think I should return to the ghost of the wicked Lady Ferrers

The last record of her appearance being early in the present (20th) century, when she was seen by a number of people at a parish tea. One cannot help wondering whether this manifestation does not go to prove the survival of a sense of humour in ghosts; it is difficult to imagine Lady Ferrers taking an interest in anything so humdrum as a parish tea except from a desire to frighten the company.


Filed under Georgian, Ghost story, Village Fetes

Jour de Fête

A disclaimer, this blog is not about the wonderful film by Jacques Tati, if you haven’t seen it, why not? It is a delightfully comic film, if you enjoy humour in a film you will love it. But this blog is not about that film.

I live in rural Dorset, the road described in chapter two of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, as ‘plodding northward for a score of miles’, runs a few hundred yards from my front door. Now rural life is said to be governed, or at least marked, by the seasons and this is very true. We are now in the Fete Season.

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Fordington fair

In Dorset this season begins with Fordington fair, on the Saturday nearest to St Georges Day, it is really an outlier to the main season but it’s origins were not like other fetes which tend to be simply charitable fund raisers, but began as a form of local protest in order to protect the village green. Be that as it may, the fete season proper begins at Whitsun and runs until late July, when there is a hiatus for harvest, then there will be flower festivals and produce shows until early September when the big County Show brings these dissipations to a close.

Around us the season is now in full swing, we have had Alton Pancras, Charminster, Piddletrenthide and Plush, followed by Piddlehinton and so on up and down the valleys of the Piddle and Cerne.

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Charminster Fete in the grounds of the Manor House

Many of these events are held in the grounds of one of the larger houses in the village, so they give an opportunity to see interesting eighteenth and nineteenth century houses, usually invisible behind walls or high hedges. But when you are inside, they tend to be very similar, plant stall, book stall, cake stall, bric a brac, tombola and tea tent. But they vary in the details, one always has a good plant stall, another a good book stall, tombola’s also vary in what you can win. From several bottles of reasonable quality wine on one day, to an appalling picture frame on another. Whilst there are local specialities, for example Charminster fete always has a stall selling watercress, why I don’t know, it isn’t grown in the parish.

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Traditional activities at Piddletrenthide

Then there is the music and entertainment, a group of local musicians play or a gymnastic team from the local school give a performance. Nothing particularly entertaining, unless a dog gets loose and ends up taking part. Dogs, by the way, are always welcome at fetes, our one enjoys them, probably all the different smells.

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Less traditional display at Sydling St. Nicholas

However there is one thing that that you must do, at every fête you attend, is buy something. It doesn’t matter what, but you will get very funny looks if you leave a fête empty handed (after all you can always give it to a charity shop afterwards). So I will look out for the next fete in the neighbourhood, attend and have fun.


Filed under Village Fetes