Laurel at Austenprose asked me a couple of days ago to give a little back ground to sea bathing and the medical rewards( or not) of taking the cure-all of sea bathing in the early 19th century ,and here is the post I have written about it for her and you.


The Sea air and Sea Bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every Disorder…

Sanditon, Chapter 1

The process of dipping-sea bathing-in the early 19th century is so far removed form our experience of bathing in the sea, that it  might be worthwhile looking at it in some detail.

The clothes (linen sifts or chemises covering the body from shoulders to ankles and not skimpy lycra swimsuits); the dipping itself (not swimming for ladies, note)aided by “dippers” ; all undertaken from enclosed bathing machines pulled by horses; the heath benefits-all are completely different to what we consider the benefits and joys of swimming by the seaside today.

One of the most thorough descriptions of the whole process of being dipped, is to be found in epistolary novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) by Tobias Smollett. In the letter from Jery Melford to Sir Watkin Phillips written from Scarborough in Yorkshire dated July 1st, we learn all we really need to know:

Betwixt the well and the harbour, the bathing machines are ranged along the beach, with all their proper utensils and attendants. You have never seen one of these machines.Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below.

The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end

The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water

After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do,but to open the door, and come down as he went up

Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people. The guides who attend the ladies in the water, are of their own sex, and they and the female bathers have a dress of flannel for the sea; nay, they are provided with other conveniences for the support of decorum. A certain number of the machines are fitted with tilts, that project from the sea-ward ends of them, so as to screen the bathers from the view of all persons whatsoever

The beach is admirably adapted for this practice, the descent being gently gradual, and the sand soft as velvet; but then the machines can be used only at a certain time of the tide, which varies every day; so that sometimes the bathers are obliged to rise very early in the morning

First lets consider the bathing machines….

This picture- taken from the frontispiece to my 1816 edition of The Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing  Places by John Feltham show the “ tilt” –a modesty hood and -its presumably wicker framework over which it was stretched and held as the bather within was dipped into the water. This is a tiny engraving but if you do enlarge it, by clicking on it, you can see all the amazing detail.

This view of Margate show the machine being pulled out into the sea by horses and the sea looks rather as if it has rather a heavy swell.

You can also see the unused bahting mahines with tilts atatched, waiting to be used at the side of the beach.

Dippers or bathing machine women, who attended women in these machines, or Bathers (who attended men)were an interesting part of the whole process. In her letter to Cassandra Austen  of the 14thSeptember 1804, Jane Austen mentions that her dipper at Lyme was a woman named Molly.

This is a picture of a rather famous dipper, Martha Gunn who operated a series of bathing machines from the beach at Brighton:

This caricature of Martha by the cartoonist Robert Dighton dating from 1801, shows her as a physically formidable woman before her bathing machines ranged on the Brighton beach. Dippers and Bathers had to be physically strong as their occupation required that standing in the water, they took their client in their arms as he/she descended the steps leading from the bathing machine, and to proceed to “dip” the bathers vigorously into the sea water, pushing them through the waves. Martha was famous for dipping the Prince of Wales, and this ditty was created in her honour:

To Brighton came he,

Came George III’s son.

To be bathed in the sea,

By famed Martha Gunn

She was also rumoured to be a procuress but we shall draw a veil over those activities  for today.

Men often bathed naked and care was taken to segregate the sexes on beaches. The clothes women wore were similar to those worn at Bath: a long chemise made of flannel.

This acquatint by Rowlandson, taken from the Poetical Sketches of Scarborough (1813) shows ladies bathing at Scarborough naked. And it seems that in some places naked bathing by women continued into the early 19th century:

Men, with exceptions, continued to bathe naked until the 1870s but women began to provide themselves with bathing dresses towards the end of the 18th century, though nudity was braved by some during the first years of the nineteenth

(See English Costume for Spots and Outdoor Recreation by Phillis Cunnington and Alan Mansfield)

The whole process could be fun but exhausting. As Jane Austen herself discovered. Writing to Cassandra Austen from Lyme  in Dorset in 1804, she remarked:

Friday Evening:

The Bathing was so delightful this morning and Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long as since the middle of the day  have felt unreasonably tired. I shal lbe more careful another time and shall not bathe tomorrow as I had before intended…

And what were the health benefits expected of sea bathing? William Buchan who wrote Domestic Medicine

and whose sensible advice on consumptive patients seems to accord with Jane Austen’s view of the disease as possibly manifested by Jane Fairfax, is helpful in  giving us an insight into the mind of 18th century medical men. Remember that this time the medical profession was guided by the belief that health derived from a balance of the four humors in the body . Physicians and apothecaries focused upon restoring the system’s equilibrium or balance, usually by draining or purging the system of excess humors.

The theory that the body consisted of four bodily humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile derived back to Greek medicine practiced in ancient times. As the ancient Greeks considered that disease was caused by an imbalance of these humors, it was, therefore considered that the duty of a physician was to employ treatment that would restore this delicate balance.

Thus treatments consisted of curing the symptoms of the disease rather than the disease itself. Prescribed therapies were limited to diet, exercise, rest, bath, and “heroic medicine.” Despite its name, heroic medicine was in my opinion,anything but. It consisted of purging, starving, vomiting, or bloodletting, and was thought to relieve the body of symptoms like fever or inflammation by relieving it of various excess humours.

Dr Buchan recommended  sea bathing- cold immersions- for the following set of people and complaints :

The cold bath recommends itself in a variety of cases; and is peculiarly beneficial to the inhabitants of populous cities; who indulge in idleness, and lead sedentary lives. In persons of this description the action of the fluids is always too weak, which induces a languid circulation, a crude indigested mass of humours, and obstructions in the capillary vessels and glandular system. Cold water, from its gravity as well as its tonic power, is well calculated either to obviate or remove these symptoms. It accelerates the motion of the blood, promotes the different secretions, and gives permanent vigour to the solids. But all these important purposes will be more essentially answered by the application of salt water. This ought not only to be preferred on account of its superior gravity, but likewise for its greater power of stimulating the skin, which promotes the perspiration, and prevents the patient from catching cold.

It is necessary, however, to observe, that cold bathing is more likely to prevent, than to remove obstructions of the glandular or lymphatic system. Indeed, when these have arrived at a certain pitch, they are not to be removed by any means. In this case the cold bath will only aggravate the symptoms, and hurry the unhappy patient into an untimely grave. It is therefore of the utmost importance, previous to the patient’s entering upon the use of the cold bath, to determine whether or not he labours under any obstinate obstructions of the lungs or other viscera; and where this is the case, cold bathing ought strictly to be prohibited. The late celebrated Dr. Smollet has indeed said, that if he were persuaded he had an ulcer in the lungs, he would jump into the cold bath: but here the Doctor evidently shews more courage than discretion; and that he was more a man of wit than a physician, every one will allow. A nervous asthma, or an atrophy, may be mistaken for a pulmonary consumption; yet in the two former, the cold bath proves often beneficial, though I never knew it so in the latter.

But he did advise certain cautions:

As it is now fashionable for persons of all ranks to plunge into the sea, and drink the mineral waters, I was desirous of rendering this work still more extensively useful, by the addition of some practical remarks on these active and useful medicines. Finding it impossible to bring these observations within so narrow a compass as not to swell the book, already too large, into an enormous size, I resolved to confine myself to a few hints or cautions; which may be of service to persons who bathe, or drink the mineral waters, without being able to put themselves under the care of a physician.

No part of the practice of medicine is of greater importance, or merits more the attention of the physician, as many lives are lost, and numbers ruin their health, by cold bathing, and an imprudent use of the mineral waters. On some future occasion I may probably resume this subject, as I know not any work that contains a sufficient number of practical observations to regulate the patient’s conduct in the use of these active and important medicines….

People are apt to imagine that the simple element of water can do no hurt, and that they may plunge into it at any time with impunity. In this, however, they are much mistaken. I have known apoplexies occasioned by going into the cold bath, fevers excited by staying too long in it, and other maladies so much aggravated by its continued use, that they could never be wholly eradicated. Nor are examples wanting, either in ancient or modern times, of the baneful consequences which have arisen also from an injudicious application of the warm bath; but as warm baths are not so common in this country, and are seldom used but under the direction of a physician, I shall not enlarge on that part of the subject.

Immersion in cold water is a custom which lays claim to the most remote antiquity: indeed it must have been coeval with man himself. The necessity of water for the purposes of cleanliness, and the pleasure arising from its application to the body in hot countries, must very early have recommended it to the human species. Even the example of other animals was sufficient to give the hint to man. By instinct many of them are led to apply cold water in this manner; and some, when deprived of its use, have been known to languish, and even to die. But whether the practice of cold bathing arose from necessity, reasoning, or imitation, is an inquiry of no importance: our business is to point out the advantages which may be derived from it, and to guard people against an improper use of it.

In what is called a plethoric state, or too great a fullness of the body, it is likewise dangerous to use the cold bath, without due preparation. In this case there is great danger of bursting a blood vessel, or occasioning an inflammation of the brain, or some of the viscera. This precaution is the more necessary to citizens, as most of them live full, and are of a gross habit. Yet what is very remarkable, these people resort in crouds every season to the sea-side, and plunge in the water without the least consideration. No doubt they often escape with impunity, but does this give a sanction to the practice? Persons of this description ought by no means to bathe, unless the body has been previously prepared by suitable evacuations.

Another class of patients, who stand peculiarly in need of the bracing qualities of cold water, is the nervous. This includes a great number of the male, and almost all the female inhabitants of great cities. Yet even those persons ought to be cautious in using the cold bath. Nervous people have often weak bowels, and may, as well as others, be subject to congestions and obstructions of the viscera; and in this case they will not be able to bear the effects of the cold water. For them, therefore, and indeed for all delicate people, the best plan would be to accustom themselves to it by the most pleasing and gentle degrees. They ought to begin with the temperate bath, and gradually use it cooler, till at length the coldest proves quite agreeable. Nature revolts against all great transitions; and those who do violence to her dictates, have often cause to repent of their temerity.

Wherever cold bathing is practised, there ought likewise to be tepid baths for the purpose mentioned above. Indeed it is the practice of some countries to throw cold water over the patient as soon as he comes out of the warm bath; but though this may not injure a Russian peasant, we dare not recommend it to the inhabitants of this country. The ancient Greeks and Romans, we are told, when covered with sweat and dust, used to plunge into rivers, without receiving the smallest injury. Though they might often escape danger from this imprudent conduct, yet it was certainly contrary to sound reason. I have known many robust men throw away their lives by such an attempt. We would not however advise patients to go into the cold water when the body is chilly; as much exercise, at least, ought to be taken, as may excite a gentle glow all over the body, but by no means so as to overheat it. To young people, and particularly to children, cold bathing is of the least importance. Their lax fibres render its tonic powers peculiarly proper. It promotes their growth, increases their strength, and prevents a variety of diseases incident to childhood. The celebrated Galen says, that immersion in cold water is fit only for the young of lions and bears: and recommends warm bathing, as conducive to the growth and strength of infants. How egregiously do the greatest men err whenever they lose sight of facts, and substitute reasoning in physic in place of observation and experience! Were infants early accustomed to the cold bath, it would seldom disagree with them; and we should see fewer instances of the scrofula, rickets, and other diseases, which prove fatal to many, and make others miserable for life. Sometimes indeed, these disorders render infants incapable of bearing the shock of cold water; but this is owing to their not having been early and regularly accustomed to it. It is however necessary here to caution young men against too frequent bathing; as I have known many fatal consequences result from the daily practice of plunging into rivers and continuing there too long.

Interestingly he agrees that early in the morning is the best time to bathe:

The most proper time of the day for using the cold bath is no doubt the morning, or at least before dinner; and the best mode, that of quick immersion. As cold bathing has a constant tendency to propel the blood and other humours towards the head, it ought to be a rule always to wet that part as soon as possible. By due attention to this circumstance, there is reason to believe that violent head-achs, and other complaints, which frequently proceed from cold bathing, might be often prevented.

But he agrees with Jane Austen’s experience about the dangerous of too much  bathing:

The cold bath, when too long continued in, not only occasions an excessive flux of humours towards the head, but chills the blood, cramps the muscles, relaxes the nerves, and wholly defeats the intention of bathing. Hence, by not adverting to this circumstance, expert swimmers are often injured, and sometimes even lose their lives. All the beneficial purposes of cold bathing are answered by one single immersion; and the patient ought to be rubbed dry the moment he comes out of the water, and should continue to take exercise for some time after.

When cold bathing occasions chillness, loss of appetite, listlessness, pain of the breast or bowels, a prostration of strength, or violent head-aches, it ought to be discontinued.

Though these hints are by no means intended to point out all the cases where cold bathing may be hurtful; nor to illustrate its extensive utility as a medicine; yet it is hoped, they may serve to guard people against some of those errors into which from mere inattention they are apt to fall; and thereby not only endanger their own lives, but bring an excellent medicine into disrepute.

So there you are the practise and benefits of early 19th century sea-bathing: the cure all ( or was it?)