Nosalgia: ‘Growing fashion’ of sea-bathing

At the landward end of the old pier, overlooking the harbour, Weddells baths had opened in 1812.
At the landward end of the old pier, overlooking the harbour, Weddells baths had opened in 1812.

In the second half of the 18th century, the growth of sea-bathing compensated Scarborough for the decline of the Spa. More visitors were then coming to take the salt sea-waters externally than the mineral waters internally and, after the turn of the century, there was a corresponding increase in the number taking indoor baths in the town.

As early as 1778, in his Tour Through Parts of England, Scotland and Wales, Richard Joseph Sullivan noted that in Scarborough “the bathing is the chief inducement for company to resort hither”. With characteristic exaggeration, William Hutton remarked that in 1803 “Drinking the waters [here] is an ancient custom; bathing is a modern but growing fashion.”

The “growing fashion” of sea-bathing in South Bay can be measured by the increase in the number of bathing-machines shown in contemporary drawings, and mentioned in the town’s early guide books. Settrington’s print of 1735 had shown only one wheeled machine drawn up at the edge of the water, but 10 years later The South Prospective of Scarborough showed five of these “bathing-houses” in the water as well as several more parked on the sands. It seems that horses were now being used to pull the houses into deep water.

By 1787, when James Schofield published the first edition of his guide, he claimed that there were then 26 bathing-machines operating in South Bay. At that time the bathers normally paid as much as a shilling for the horse and vehicle and another shilling for attendants, two females for each of the ladies and one male for a gentleman. Gentlemen bathed themselves in the nude; ladies took to the sea in “flannels”.

A decade later, in his guide of 1797, John Hatfield wrote that South Bay then had between 30 and 40 “large, roomy and commodious bathing-machines” parked on the sea-shore. By 1804, competition amongst them had reduced the cost of hiring one to sixpence, “exclusive of perquisites”.

The best description of sea-bathing at Scarborough is to be found in a work of fiction, the picaresque novel written in the form of letters, Thomas Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, published in 1779.

The bather ascended by wooden steps into a “small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheeled-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, and a bench below”. As the bather undressed inside, the attendant yoked a horse to the carriage which then pulled it forward into the sea until the water was level with the floor. The horse was then unyoked and tied to the rear of the carriage and the bather descended by steps and plunged headlong into the sea. After bathing, he climbed back into the carriage, dried and dressed himself and then the carriage was drawn back on to dry land.

The carriage could accommodate up to half a dozen men. Ladies and children were accompanied and assisted by female guides. Some of their machines were fitted with “tilts” or wooden boards that could be lowered over the seaward end to water level to screen the ladies from prying eyes and male voyeurs.

Female attendants on ladies and children were nicknamed “Mother Duckers”. They had a fearsome reputation for physical strength and ruthless temperament. No mercy was shown to young people: they insisted on a minimum of “three dips” or three total immersions. John Courtney from Beverley, a frequent visitor to Scarborough, actually employed “two or three men” to bathe his son, forcibly if necessary. The colder the water, the greater its efficacy. A ringing in the ears was a sure sign of a cure. As Smollett’s fictional correspondent noted, turbulent salt water “braced every sinew of the human frame” and produced a feel-good body glow.

The most sensible advocate of cold-sea bathing was undoubtedly Thomas Hinderwell. His History of 1811 was rich in good advice. Though immersion was usually effective against gout, rheumatism, scrofula and various nervous complaints, it ought to be taken always with care and caution. He warned the elderly, children, weak invalids and delicate females that sudden and complete immersion might prove too much of a shock and do more harm than good. If their extremities turned blue they should come out of the water at once. Even healthy young men ought not to bathe within three hours after breakfast and even then only on alternate mornings. It was dangerous to bathe in the morning after a night of debauchery and excessive consumption of food and alcohol. As for pubescent boys and girls who suffered from “obstructions”, an ill-managed course of sea bathing might cause “great mischief”. For them it was much better that they took advantage of the other remedies offered by Scarborough – its clean, bracing air, mineral spa waters, and its walks, rides and excursions.

For those who had the means to afford them and naturally feared the cold sea plunge, Scarborough also began to provide indoor warm as well as cold bathing houses. In 1798, Hinderwell’s first edition reported two new houses, one run by Wilson and Travis, surgeons and apothecaries, the other by Willis, who had similar medical qualifications.

However, by 1832, when Hinderwell’s third posthumous work was published, the town had five “neat and commodious structures for warm, sea-water bathing”. Travis still had one, recently modernised, at the entrance to St Nicholas Cliff. He had rooms for steam and vapour baths. At the landward end of the old pier, overlooking the harbour, Weddell’s baths had opened in 1812. Dr Harland’s were at the bottom of Vernon Place and Champley’s across the road had separate suites for gentlemen and ladies. Finally, newly erected in 1829 on the foreshore, were Vickerman’s.

Apart from Weddell’s, which were mainly for the diseased and invalid poor of the town, these establishments were clearly and exclusively for the opulent visitor. Two of Green’s drawings in his Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, published in 1813, one entitled the Warm Bath, the other, the Shower Bath, illustrated the luxury of these places, in contrast to the still rather primitive rough and tumble of cold open-sea bathing.