Bathing Machines | History of the Seaside

English: "Mermaids at Brighton" by W...

English: “Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seaside Bathing Machines

What was a Bathing Machine?

A Bathing Machine was a wooden hut on wheels which was used to help people participate  in the activity of sea bathing. It had a door at each end and was pulled into the sea by a horse until the water was level with the floor. The steps at the seaward end allowed the bather to carefully enter the water.

As the machines were operated by an attendant they provided safety to the bathers and also preserved the modesty of the fairer sex who could get changed inside away from prying eyes. Some machines were fitted with canopies to provide a private enclosed space so that the bather was completely hidden from view whilst undertaking the act of immersion.

Who invented Bathing Machines?

The Bathing Machine was invented in 1753 by Benjamin Beale. His design was soon widely copied  and Bathing Machines remained in use for the next 150 years.

Were all Bathing Machines the same?

AWKWARD. Modest Old Gentleman (who has swum ou...

AWKWARD. Modest Old Gentleman (who has swum out to sea and whose bathing-machine has, in the meanwhile, been walked off by mistake). “Ahem! Pray Excuse me, Madam My Bathing-Machine I think.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The design of Bathing Machines varied according to local requirements. The type of beach could affect the operation of the machine and had to be taken into account. The beach could be  flat or sloping. It might have sand or pebbles.  It could be firm or soft and the distance to the sea could also vary.

Some Bathing Machines had large wheels, others had small wheels. Some were pulled by horses others were winched in and out of the sea. Some machines were painted in bright colours, others were plain white.

The size and height of the Bathing Machines varied as did the type of roof.

Some had a small window in the side wall.

The type of canopies, if fitted, were also likely to be different depending on who the manufacturer was.

The name of the owner was usually displayed on the side and each  machine had a number by which it could be identified. This was important as at busy resorts there were likely to be many Bathing Machines in operation.

The Bathing Machines were owned either by individuals or companies who made a healthy living providing this service.

Why did people use Bathing Machines?

When people first started going to the Seaside it was for the health benefits of seawater and the bracing sea air. Most people could not swim and bathing of any kind was not practiced. On their first visit they had never seen the ocean before and therefore going into the sea was a daunting experience for the uninitiated.

Bathing Machines enabled people to be taken into the sea and “dipped” by experienced guides who were usually stout, mature ladies who stood in the water as the Bathing Machines came and went.  They would help the occupants down the steps and then hold them whilst they immersed themselves in the sea.

How were the  Bathing Machines operated?

Sea Bathing generally took place in the early morning. Those wishing to use the Bathing Machines would go to a waiting room where they would pay a fee before putting their name on a slate to indicate their place in the queue. Whilst waiting they could take tea, read newspapers and magazines and make small talk with other customers. Going to the Bathing Machines was a kind of social outing. From the waiting room customers would proceed down the beech to the designated Bathing Machine and take their turn. Families would go together or single people could share with members of the same sex.

Sometimes there were arguments over queue jumping and in rowdier places  jostling and pushing in occurred.

Why did Bathing Machines go out of fashion?

Eventually people began going into the sea for pleasure. The coastal resorts became ever busier and people did not want to wait in long queues for the Bathing Machines.  Bathing costumes were invented and swimming became a popular recreation. The Bathing Machines were no longer required.

Bring your Seaside Topic to Life!

Book a Seaside Workshop Day for your school.

 Related Articles

A Seaside Railway Journey

History of the Seaside – Timeline

The Origins of Sea Bathing



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