This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Victorian councillors finally outlawed all men from nude bathing at Brighton

Posted in Historical articles, History, Leisure, Royalty, Sea on Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the British seaside originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

seaside voyeurs, picture, image, illustration

Forbidden to go within 100 yeards of the local bathing beauties, some Victorian male found a solution with their telescopes by Richard Hook

Queen Victoria was one of the most persistent diary keepers who ever lived. Among the torrent of words which she kept flowing for nearly 60 years we find a multitude of homely references set down without grandeur. These light up many aspects of ordinary life-as-it-was lived in her times, and show how she changed some of these with her people.

The seaside and bathing are examples. In 1846 the Queen and her Prince Consort, Albert, moved into the newly-built Osborne House in the Isle of Wight where the couple were to spend so many happy days with their family of Princes and Princesses.

Within a year of the Royal Family’s occupation of Osborne the Queen made her first physical contact with the sea. When her ancestor King George the Third was thrust into the briny at Weymouth for the good of his health the occasion, we remember, was a public one set to the blaring of brass bands. This would not do for Victoria who was, after all, a “lady,” and is said to have observed, “Ladies have no legs.”

Her Majesty’s first dip took place from the private beach at Osborne, far from prying eyes, but she made good note of it in her diary for 30th July, 1847.

“Drove down to the beach with my maids and went into the bathing-machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the first time in my life), a very nice bathing woman attending me. I thought it delightful till I put my head under the water, when I thought I should be stifled. After dressing again, drove back.”

To this day Queen Victoria’s bathing-machine may be seen by the shore at Osborne, a swagger affair with four wheels, a platform with an elegant wooden roof, a balustraded flight of five steps descending to the sea and room within its four walls for at least four queens!

Of course, by the time that Victoria took to the briny, sea-bathing was growing in popularity at all the expanding resorts, and bathing-machines were not only compulsory but were paying propositions. And very fantastic some of them were, particularly those designed by a certain Benjamin Beale, a Quaker of Margate. If ladies bathed, then they must bathe with modesty, and preferably unseen by anybody. Protection was needed from some gentlemen who, although forbidden to approach within a hundred yards of where ladies were taking to the water, had adopted the practice of keeping their distance but making shamelessly free with telescopes.

Mr. Beale’s machines put paid to this. All of them were fitted at the seaward side with an elaborate contraption known as a “modesty hood.” The “modesty hood” was a vast canvas umbrella, rather like a ladies’ crinoline, which, at the pull of a string, unrolled itself to the water-level, producing within its protection a “sea-bath” measuring some 8 ft. wide by 13 ft. long. Into the murky gloom of these flounced tunnels descended the ladies in what was described as “a manner consistent with the most refined delicacy.”

Refined and delicate the operation may have been, but what a sunless bore for the bather, and what frustration for the spectators.

The “Beale Bathing Machine” was not adopted everywhere. Weymouth liked it, and so did Scarborough, whose first bathers of all, we recall, bathed happily, male and female, without a stitch of clothing.” But these innocents were soon accused of “heathen indecency,” and one shocked young lady writing to a friend observed “living pictures in the Albanian style (whatever that may be!) are on view from morning to night in the full glare of day and sunshine. Here is complete absence of costume, as in the Garden of Eden before the fall of man, and hundreds of ladies and gentlemen look on while the bathers plunge in the foaming waters or emerge from them.”

It was the “emerging” bit which shocked. A Frenchman bathing happily naked at Brighton on a Sunday found to his horror that when after a long swim he was ready to return to his bathing-machine, the tide had ebbed. Shelter was upshore 15 ft. away, and between him and it there sat upon camp-stools three ladies holding prayer-books. What was he to do? He decided upon an “all-fours” crawl up the shingle, hoping that the ladies would take the hint and modestly remove themselves. This was no good. The ladies sat on. So back, shivering, into the sheltering sea, he went thinking. “One cannot swim forever, while one can sit without fatigue for hours.”

The tide was falling all the time, the embarrassing walk growing longer. At length, shuddering with shivers and shame, he emerged and limped as fast as possible over the stones and past the motionless ladies. They raised their eyes from their prayer-books and stared at him coldly. All this, he discovered later, was a deliberate plot by three puritan ladies to punish him for bathing on the Sabbath Day!

The battle for the “decencies” went on. While Margate favoured the “Beale Bathing-Machine,” the more broad-minded Brighton would have none of it. The gentlemen of Brighton, indeed, continued to step shivering down the unprotected steps of the machines stark naked. At last – outcry! And so, for the first time since sea-bathing began, male bathers were required by local legislation to wear what were called “calecons,” or, in English, “short pants”!

And how about the ladies of Brighton without the protection of the Beale umbrella? They and other ladies elsewhere took to wearing long flannel garments from head to toe. The idea of these was that when the wearer stepped into the water the garment floated upwards, surrounding her with a kind of sea-borne umbrella which concealed her naked body.

Resorts began to compete with one another from two points of view – one, the free and easy viewpoint, attracted visitors with the bold proclamation “Mixed Bathing Permitted.” The other was for the more prudish who could visit the shore and waterfront with no shock to modesty.

Oddly enough, Blackpool, the riotous, slap-happy Blackpool which we know today, was once the most straight-laced of all resorts.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.