Long summer days make most people want to head to the coast to dig their toes in soft sand and luxuriate in calming breezes and refreshing seawater. Things were no different during the Regency. Then, just like now, people fled to seaside resorts to escape the heat.
One of the most popular coastal resorts during the Regency was the town of Brighton. Brighton’s transformation from a struggling fishing village to a fashionable seaside resort began in 1750 with the publication of Dissertation in the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Gland by Dr Richard Russell. After the book was published, people began to flock to Brighton for the perceived health benefits of the seawater, which led to the development of the town. It was during this phase that George, Prince of Wales, visited and became taken with Brighton (more on this in my next post).
Going to the beach was a bit different during that time. The opposite sex did not swim together, but rather had separate swimming areas. They entered the water in bathing machines, which were essentially wooden wagons with wheels which were drawn into the water by horses or bathing attendants. Men and women could change into their bathing costumes inside the wagons, though some people chose to swim in the nude since their fellow swimmers were of the same sex.
Once in the water, people employed as bathing attendants would push swimmers through the waves, help them float, and later assist them in returning to the bathing machines. Many of the swimmers, particularly ladies, probably could not swim. It’s interesting to note that men “bathed” while women “dipped.” Accordingly, the male attendants were called “bathers” and the female attendants were referred to as “dippers.“
Brighton’s most famous dipper (known as the Venerable Priestess of the Bath) was a woman by the name of Martha Gunn. She was a large, robust women who helped ladies dip from 1750 until 1814 when she retired due to heath issues. She was so well known and beloved, that the Prince of Wales allowed her free access to the kitchens at the Royal Pavilion, among other privileges.
Martha Gunn passed away in 1815 at the age of 88 years. She is buried with her husband in St. Nicholas’s Churchyard.