The lost technology of bathing

E&T remembers that archetypal British invention - the bathing machine.

There has always been some dispute about the origin of bathing machines. For many years Margate, a seaside resort in the south east of England, claimed them as its invention, while Scarborough, a town on the north-east coast, maintained its own priority. This civic rivalry was to some extent cleared up with the discovery of a 1736 print of Scarborough beach by John Setterington, showing a bathing machine, though it was dismissed by some as simply a hut on wheels. In fact, they generally were little more than that. 

The bathing machine was invented because 18th century manners prescribed that, for the upper and middle classes at least, it was inappropriate to skip and run down the beach and frolic in the waves. Decorum dictated that bathing should take place certainly apart from the opposite sex and preferably in total isolation. Surprisingly, nude bathing for both sexes was quite common at least up until the Victorian age, so some privacy was probably justified, certainly for women, as the seaside was a happy hunting ground for peeping toms.

An old cartoon of Margate shows an excited crowd of slavering men with telescopes, attempting to spy on women. Their excitement was no doubt curtailed with the advent of the voluminous bathing costumes of the Victorian age but segregation of the sexes continued. Margate's contribution to the bathing machine came through a Quaker, Benjamin Beale, who in 1750 invented an awning, known as a modesty hood, that could be lowered in front of the machine down to the water, providing a totally private bathing area. 

Health, not pleasure, was the main reason for sea bathing, at least for the upper classes. Margate became one of the pre-eminent places for this in 1791 with the opening of the Sea Bathing Hospital where sea air and sea water were used as a cure for tuberculosis.

 Bathing and drinking of sea water had been considered health-giving afor most of the 18th century and became even more fashionable with the publication in 1752 of a Dissertation on the 'Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands' by Dr Richard Russell.

As a result, King George III took up the practice at Weymouth, where his bathing machine is still preserved. And, though he seems to have enjoyed the experience, claiming he felt better for it, it apparently had little effect on the state of his mind. Indeed, one imagines that if he was ever immersed in the sea by a burly attendant, as was often the practice, in the gloomy confines of a Beale Machine canopy it might have made matters worse.

His bathing was often a public affair accompanied on at least one occasion by a small band playing 'God Save the King' from an adjacent bathing machine.

The author of an article in 1906 in the Manchester Guardian wondered if sea bathing was ever beneficial, arguing that you naturally felt better after you had ceased such an unpleasant activity.

By the beginning of the 20th century, bathing machines had progressed little technologically. The same Manchester Guardian reporter complained of the total darkness in which one was forced to change and could not understand why skylights had not been fitted. Though it must be said that pictures of bathing machines with small windows can be seen, and there is at least one shown with skylights.

For the most part, the design changed little in 150 years. Many remained nothing more than damp and dingy wooden boxes. Only those belonging to the rich and royal were to be admired.

Fagg's contraption

However, Walter Fagg of Folkestone, on the south coast of England, did make one giant leap forward in 1888 when he patented a device that really could be called a bathing machine. Mounted on a railway of gauge 3-4m, which was laid on the beach down to the sea, were two carriages each containing nine dressing rooms and a small waiting room on either side of a central corridor.

The rooms were positively luxurious and equipped with looking glasses, clothes pegs, hat racks, wash basins and even showers, the latter two supplied from an elevated water tank. There was also a lavatory for each carriage. At the end, facing the sea, was a bathing crate in which nervous non-swimmers could cavort or from which the more adventurous could dive.

The machines, which were raised and lowered by a cable attached to a stationary steam engine, remained in use till 1914 when, with the death of Fagg and the outbreak of the First World War, they were dismantled never to reappear.

Fagg's contraption really was the last hurrah for the bathing machine, though they continued to be used at Margate until 1927.

Bathing machines had become ubiquitous in Britain during the 19th century and can be seen in photographs and engravings in massed ranks on beaches all round the coast: from Aberystwyth in Wales, which had 73 by the 1880s, to Aberdeen in Scotland, and from the more working class seaside resorts of Blackpool and Bridlington in the north of England, to the more fashionable Brighton and Bognor on the south coast. Each town could have several owners competing with each other to hire out their machines by the day, week or month, some being cheap and rudimentary, others more sophisticated and expensive. It was - like all seaside occupations - a precarious and seasonal one, with the possibility of the destruction of the business overnight in an unexpected storm.

The machines were mainly a British device for, without doubt, the country was infected with prudery, but their use also conveyed some sort of status.

It was the influence of British tourists that encouraged their appearance in places like Boulogne and Hardelot on the north coast of France. They were also present in Belgium and Germany. Like cricket, they spread across the British Empire but never really took off in the US, except for Newport, Rhode Island.

Beach huts and bathing tents of lath and canvas replaced them, while some people learnt the intricacies of undressing and dressing under a towel. If bathing machines had one enormous advantage, it was that they avoided that long excruciating walk down a pebble or shingle beach.

 Bathing machines were not among Britain's greatest inventions, though the Beale ones, which became a standard, were exported as far away as the East and West Indies.

Beale himself, however, was reduced to poverty after his machines were destroyed in storms. It is said that at low tide at Margate the ruts made by the bathing machine wheels can still be seen. The ghost of Benjamin Beale, however, has not been spotted.

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