Wednesday 10 October 2018

Sea Bathing in Brighton

The Georgians go sea-bathing and visit baths at Brighton 

Sea-bathing or washing at Brighton for pleasure and for health by middle class visitors probably began in the 1730s. Local people may have bathed in the sea for some time before then but the arrival of visitors who stayed in this small, poor town started to provide much-needed income. As the

number of visitors increased, local people decided that investing in improvements to the houses and in facilities to amuse visitors such as libraries was worthwhile. Brighton proved to be popular and became a resort, dependent on seaside tourism.

The myth that Brighton was a fishing village before George Prince of Wales arrived in the 1780s was created by the authors of guide books, it made a better story than the real one but overstated the roles of Dr Russell and of George.  Many people helped this resort to develop by investing in the town because they thought that this odd new idea might work. 

Brighton's bathing machines - Aquatint by Whittimore 1820s 

The bathing machines at Brighton were not provided with canopies for privacy. The Margate machines had them, but they were in the harbour, where the water was calmer. Brighton's stood on the beach and getting the heavy wooden 'machine' out of the water complete with its occupier could be a struggle for the horse. The resort season ran from the late summer and the coastal breezes were sometimes strong.

From 1750, Brighton’s resort facilities developed more rapidly than those at Margate and Weymouth even though investment in developments in them at these two resorts began sooner. Brighton’s progress is particularly striking because of the town’s poverty. Whilst the town was visited for leisure and therapeutic sea bathing by 1736, there is no evidence that any resort facilities were built before 1750.

The rate at which leisure facilities were built in Brighton between 1750 and 1780 is particularly striking because of the town’s small size, the lack of a sizable  wealthy resident population to support them and the heavy dependency upon large numbers of seasonal visitors. In 1770 Margate’s resort facilities still rivalled Brighton’s, but during the 1770s the increase in the range of facilities in the Sussex resort reflected a speed of development which Margate failed to achieve and these ensured that in 1780, Brighton was Britain’s major seaside resort.

Morning Dress Brighton early C19th with a fanciful background. 

When sea-bathing began it was very informal and most men and possibly a few women bathed in the nude although most women wore a simple shift. The heavy garments work later were partly due to pressure for both men and women to dress 'with decency' but had bathers quickly learned that during the early part of the season, usually from July on-wards, they could become sun burnt and so covering up was a good idea.

Special outfits were developed for wealthy women to wear to walk to the bathing machines or to promenade. Some were named after Brighton (see above).

By the mid 1730s, the bathing machine was in use at Scarborough and Margate as a convenient and private way to change and from which to be 'dipped' in the sea by the bathing men and women.
Bathing machines for men and women were segregated early on to judge from the letters that survive.

Most of the goods for the resort were unloaded over the beach and so coal dust and also a lack of privacy without the machines may have helped them to become popular. Many resorts made their use compulsory. And banned naked bathing.

This print from a painting by de Loutherbourg  of the seafront at Brighton shows the mix  of beach uses in the 1780s and 1790s and. the low crumbly cliffs between East and West Streets which were the outermost boundaries of the town centre.  Brighton did not have a harbour and most seaborne goods were landed on the beach. Coal, timber, wine, bales of clothe, nails and other building materials included. 

This detailed print is by Eldridge and shows the front at Brighton is 1814. The team of horses might be pulling a heavy cart, a horse and cart is heading down the beach to the vessel. The timber groynes intended to trap shingle to protect Brighton from erosion often needed repairing as you can see in the foreground. 

      The importance of the south end of the Steine for sea bathing and baths

When visitors were first attracted to Brighton, the resort lacked a promenade along the seafront. Erosion was such a problem that not even a road along the cliff tops existed. Vehicles went up and down the narrow streets in the town centre to reach houses along the cliff top.

The town had to find an alternative place for a promenade for all prosperous and fashionable towns had them by 1750. As the season began in the late summer and ran into the autumn, a sheltered site with sea views and around which leisure and health facilities could cluster was the best option. To the east of the town lay a large open area called the Steine which gave the fledgling resort a sheltered promenade for the visitors and an open and so very public setting for the tourism businesses that sprang up.


            Dr Awsiter's baths which stood near the bottom of Pool Valley from 1758.  Published in 1803 in the European Mag. 

The Steine to the east of the old town was invaluable because access for sea-bathing from it was good for it had a gentle slope to the sea just about where the Brighton Pier is now. This slope gave easy access to the beach where, by 1753, bathing machines stood. These wooden contraptions were pulled by horses that stood about in the open and on very hot days horses standing on the beach died.   

‘by means of a hook ladder the bather ascends the machine, which is formed of wood and raised in high wheels; he is drawn to a proper distance from the shore and then plunges into the sea, the guides attending on each side to assist him in recovering the machine which being accomplished, he is drawn back to shore. The guides are strong, active and careful and, in every respect adapted to their employment.’ (Crawford, Guide, 1788, p19).

The bathing machines were a famous feature of the town and they were also regarded as safer than bathing alone and, without the help of the redoubtable bathing ladies and men who ran them. Tales about people who died because they failed to be careful beside the sea were used to remind people of the danger. One man was drowned it was claimed in the local newspaper because he was hanging over a groyne to get some water to drink and a gale of wind blew his great coast was blown over his head.  Drinking seawater was then regarded as good for the digestive system

Development along the southern side of the Steine, sheltered from the westerly winds by the town began in 1752-3. Then Dr Richard Russell built a house for his patients. Russell House on the cliff top was also visible down the Steine and East Street partly because of its large size, but it had the advantage of some shelter by the town from the prevailing winds. From there, Russell could supervise his patients who could easily get to the beach from beside the house. Russell House remained a local landmark long after Russell died in 1759 for it was not demolished until 1826 when the Royal Albion Hotel was demolished.  The Castle Inn  and other facilities arrived at about the same time as Russell House.

In this print based on a painting by Donowell and dated 1779, you can see the Steine looking north from the coast. To you left stands Marlborough House before is was greatly altered and the Castle Inn with its chapel like Assembly Room. Northwards there is Hollingbury Hill.  To you right a library with its little tower within which musicians performed. Russell House is behind you.

Doctors and their houses
Russell was not the only doctor who practiced in Brighton during the 1750s and on his death in 1759 there was brisk competition for his practice in Brighton which suggests that it was very profitable, for all patients paid for their treatment.

Eleanor Lay's Aquatint of this section of the Steine in the 1780s shows us Russell House - on your left. It had a good sea view but blocked off the direct view of the sea from the Steine  and is now under the Royal Albion Hotel.

Dr Poole of Lewes was one of the better known local physicians who came to Brighton for the season and who advertised in the local paper. On Russell’s death he sought the support of local worthies against the better known Dr Schoenberg (also spelt Schomberg locally) who was the son of the Dr. Schoenberg of London whose portrait, by Lawrence, hangs in the National Gallery. In 1762, Poole bought a town house overlooking the Steine, on the eastern side of East Street. He did so well that in 1766 he refashioned his house, taking great care to make it look fashionable. He reminded clients that he was available to treat them with letters enquiring after the well-being of the family when at home.

From the 1760s increasing numbers of well-known London doctors visited Brighton for the season in order to treat patients. Several, such as Doctors Lucas Pepys and Anthony Relhan owned houses close to the fashionable Castle Inn. Lucas Pepys was married to Lady Rothes and their house to the west of the Castle Inn was grand enough to have a very large garden which is clearly marked on the map of Brighton in 1779. That became the Promenade Gardens in the 1790s and then part of the western gardens of the Royal Pavilion. Anthony Relhan married Lady Hart, the widow of Sir William Hart, a banker and the owner of a house in East Street. In 1761, Relhan published the first guide to Brighton which rejoiced in the title of:

A Short History of Brighthelmston with remarks on its Air and and Analysis of its Waters particularly of an uncommon mineral one, long discovered though but lately used by Anthony Relhan, M.D. Fellow of the Royal College of Physicans in Ireland.

By 1794, there appears to have been so much competition for business that at least one doctor who lived on Brighton was prepared to go Lewes without charging for the trip.

Books about the value of seabathing continued to be published by local doctors through the period, many locally. Such was the rivalry between the doctors that when Dr Kentish of Brighton was refused entry to the College of Physicians membership of which gave doctors greater standing, he tried to take legal action against Doctor Reynolds whom he blamed for this. Medical advertisements reveal a range of skills. Dr Scardave was a surgeon and dentist.

The number of doctors and people who offered related services increased throughout the period. In 1821 an observer described Brighton as having a thriving medical tribe as at Bath and Clifton and noted that the group included undertakers.

Medicinal Baths

In 1768, Dr Awsiter decided to publish a book about the medicinal uses of seawater to boost the use of his baths, Brighton’s first. The building stood on the edge of the Pool or Pool Valley where the cliff on which the old town stands slopes down into the mouth of the Pool. There, pipes could quite easily be laid up the gentler slope to pump seawater up to the baths. In order to emphasise the value of these for fashionable visitors and his links with them, Dr. Awsiter persuaded Lady Hart (later Dr Relhan’s wife) and Miss Harriot Cecil to lay the first stone.

Lamprells c1825 is visible just to the left of the brand new Albion Hotel designed by Henry Wilds 

Awsiter’s Baths lacked competition until the 1780s. A scheme to build a second bathing house (or baths) in 1771 failed to gain support.

In 1787 Mahomed built his Indian Shampooing Baths just at the sea end of Little East Street and close to Awsiter’s. In their early days, the Prince of Wales patronised them, offering publicity which Mohamed was quick to use in his advertising. There are various versions of the life story of this intriguing man who ran his baths from c1787 until he retired in the 1820s and his son took over. The baths are under the Queen’s Hotel now. 


Lamprells Baths 

Opened in 1813 by the West Battery, the Artilley Baths became Hobden’s Royal Artillery Baths in 1824, was for a while on the west side of the Grand Hotel from the 1860s and, when it ceased to be used as baths, a sprung dance floor was built over the top of the bath.


Lamprell's and the fountain in the  bath - thanks to the Regency Society web site 

Lamprell’s Royal Swimming Baths, opened in 1823 and described in detail in the Brighton Gazette in 1824 were famous for their shape. The water was, so the owners claimed, had a constant supply of fresh seawater pumped in by steam pump and fed into the circular pool by a fountain and drained out again. It features in many views of the coastline of Brighton. 

Chalybeate spring - St Anne's Well at Wick now in the Wish Gardens in Hove 

One of the series called The Beauties of Brighton - coming away from the Pump House at Wick

Some doctors recommended the use of the chalybeate spring at Wick when they thought that it was appropriate. The spring (which still exists in St Anne’s Wells Gardens,Hove) attracted visitors before Brighton became a resort. In the 1760s it was given a well house by the Scutt family who owned the site and who at some stage landscaped it using fir trees. There was a charge to use the spa and family season tickets were advertised. By 1794 the trees by the spa had grown enough to shelter it from the sea winds that whipped up the ridge. 

Sea bathing began to fall out of fashion in the early 1800s.  So the doctors and the many investors in Brighton had to think up another health idea and they began to write more about sea air and taking an airing. That is reflected in the guide books.