The bathing machine, once a familiar sight at British seaside resorts, has all but become extinct, its legacy only really reflected in the beach huts which still line coasts up and down the United Kingdom.
In this special blog we take a look at some of the wonderful photographs and illustrations of bathing machines that can be found using the British Newspaper Archive.
There is some conjecture as to where the bathing machine originated – some say it was developed in Margate, others in Devon – but what is under no doubt is how the contraption became popular across the country by the turn of the eighteenth century, retaining its popularity for at least another hundred years.
Created to allow bathers a sheltered place to change, bathing huts would be wheeled out into the shallows, where their occupants could then enjoy the benefit of sea-bathing. This was born out of a necessity to preserve modesty – bathers were segregated by sex during the Victorian era – but that did not mean that all bathing machines were entirely modest in their design.
Whilst we don’t think these illustrations found in society magazine The Queen reflect the norm in terms of bathing machine interiors, they are truly something to behold. Depicted first is simply the ‘Sea Bathing Machine,’ which is adorned with the following:
Hangings and twin pockets in butcher’s blue linen, relieved with powderings in red and white cross-stich and écru lace. Glass and table drapery in chintz or art-coloured muslin, dado in matting, bamboo stool with cane or upholstered seat. Linoleum on the floor.
The second illustration depicts a private bathing machine to be found at Trouville, which is furnished to provide the utmost luxury for the bather (including a footbath!):
Wall hangings and door curtain in red Turkish sails cloth, veiled with écru fish netting, and finished off with ball fringe. Valance to match, carried round the draped ceiling in the plain cloth, and looped up with bows to form a wall pocket. Drapery round looking-glass, windows, dressing table, and chair with side pocket. Silk blinks embroidered with crest and interlaced monogram, fans, flowers, foot bath, and folding stool.
But the bathing machine, for all its luxury, was not without its dangers. The Illustrated Police News, in its especially lurid mid-Victorian and melodramatic fashion, relates with relish two deaths in a bathing machine.
One Mrs Silvester, bathing in Dieppe, got into difficulties in the water, and ‘was at once carried into the bathing machine. She gave a faint sigh and expired almost immediately.’ Another unfortunate victim that summer was Sarah Ball, aged forty-six, who died in a bathing machine at Great Yarmouth. She too had got into difficulties, and exclaimed “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall die” as she was assisted back into her bathing machine.
Both women were found to have died from natural causes – their deaths unrelated to the bathing machines which they had used.
By 1912, however, the bathing machine was beginning to have its detractors. Moreover, the relaxation of the stringent morality that had governed bathing etiquette saw less of a need for the contraption. One commentator in The Bystander is especially scathing of the device, writing how ‘the bathing machine is the stupidest device ever thought of outside Bedlam.’
The writer is not keen on the British seaside holiday in general, although he acknowledges with some bitterness how ‘the British public will continue to go to the seaside in August so long as a sea has a side left to go.’
But within the pages of our Archive we were able to find evidence that bathing machines were still in use up until at least 1920. In a spread for The Sketch, dancer Nancy Leslie is pictured taking ‘a moment’s rest on her bathing machine.’
You can discover more wonderful photographs and illustrations in the British Newspaper Archive by performing a search for ‘bathing machine’ and filtering your results by ‘illustrations.’