C U L T U R A L S T U D I E S
Promiscuous throng The ‘indecent’ manner of sea-bathing in the nineteenth century
VICTORIANS UNDERSTOOD the need for social distancing. Young ladies, as we know, had to be chaperoned in public, and we might imagine the mid-century crinoline added a measurable seclusion zone. But a much more insidious evil emerged in the nineteenth century, one which threatened the very foundations of British society: indecent – as in naked – male bathing at the seaside.
Men and boys had always stripped off to swim in secluded rivers and lakes, so when sea-bathing took off in the eighteenth century, via segregated beaches, there was seemingly little concern about their doing so in the nude. Plunging head-first into the sea was recommended by doctors in medical tracts from the 1750s. There were different views on the best time of day to bathe and what diet you should follow. Some physicians recommended a fortifying glass of wine before a swim; several warned of the dangers of eating fruit. Few medical texts, however, had anything to say about bathing apparel.
Wealthy Georgians took to the seaside for the same reason they frequented spa towns: for that agreeable combination of health-cure and fashionable society. Then, between 1793 and 1815 when Britain was at war with France, came travel restrictions. The appeal of accessible British seaside resorts grew. Jane Austen’s Mr Parker says that one of the main attractions of the fictional seaside town Sanditon is its most desirable distance from London: “One, complete measured mile nearer
than Eastbourne”. But accessibility had consequences. Ordinary people wanted to enjoy the seaside, too.
The sheer numbers arriving at the seaside after the advent of the railways led the Victorians to call with increasing urgency for new regulations to ensure strict public decency. One specific issue stood out: the danger posed for respectable families by indecent male bathing. A reliable summer feature of mid-century newspapers was the shocked exposé, as it were, of yet another appalling breach of social standards on the beach.
This concern had first arisen at the start of the century. In 1813, Richard Ayton, a travel writer, reported that Swansea, despite its being “a fashionable watering-place”, was witness to shocking scenes occasioned by so-called “bathing-sports”: “While the ladies are walking on the sands, or waiting at the water’s edge for their turn to be dipped, there is usually a parcel of naked men capering and roaring in the sea, who thus force themselves upon observation by startling both the eye and the ear”.
This shameless male behaviour was fundamentally a matter of class. The Liverpool Guide had warned its readers back in 1799 that the “promiscuous throng of sexes and ages” taking to the sea “bids a great defiance to decency”. The Guide was prepared to spell out that the “promiscuous throng” – by which the writer meant a mixed crowd of men and women – didn’t comprise the local inhabitants (“to the credit of the town”) but “families chiefly manufacturers from the interior”. Now, in 1813, Ayton hoped to influence the behaviour of social undesirables by calling for the equivalent of
“Venus Bathing: A fashionable Dip (Margate)”, by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1800
Jane Darcy teaches Comparative Literature at King’s College London a master of ceremonies for the spa town and more carefully covered bathing machines (ie, carts that could be wheeled down to the sea, so the bather could change in them, then step straight down into the water). This personage, he reckoned, could “denounce all bathing-machines that have no awnings, confine all bathers under cover of the awning, and in short, keep all parties asunder during their morning recreation”. If you couldn’t stop the influx of capering young men, you could at least force them to behave decently.
By 1847, an article entitled “Open Sea-Bathing at Brighton” in Hood’s Magazine could proclaim that it had nothing against female bathers, who “invariably used bathing dresses”. It was “the exposure of the person by the males” which horrified, particularly at low tide when such exposure became “most disgustingly complete”. Local authorities should enforce a suitable byelaw. They owe it to “decency, morality, and good taste”, according to Hood’s, “to enforce the wearing of loins, or bathing-breeches by all who use the men’s bathing machines”. You’d have thought loins came as standard issue – the word is not used in the sense of loincloths anywhere else – not even the OED. But until enterprising manufacturers in France and Germany started to make proper maillot de bains, you had the choice of your caleçon – your underpants – or a dedicated pair of cotton drawers.
In an Observer article from 1854, “Sea Side Eccentricities”, the correspondent feels bound to share a particularly objectionable scene:
Not many days since, at Margate, two ladies and a gentleman went down to bathe; the ladies got into one machine, and the gentleman into the other, and the latter desired the proprietor, to put his machine next to that of the ladies. The proprietor, with a greater sense of decorum, took the gentleman as far as possible away from the ladies, but it was of no use; the gentleman was no sooner in the water than he swam to the ladies’ machine, and, in the face of admiring and public applause, proceeded to act the part of bathing woman. The assumption we must make here is that in acting the part of bathing-woman (the usually weatherworn fisherman’s wife paid to stand in the water to help you in), the man was naked. Or the women were. Or maybe the indecency is simply that he touched them.
Now the Observer journalist has to admit that it afterwards appeared that the two ladies were the man’s wife and sister-in-law – we have to admire the intrepid journalist for tracking down the facts – but it is still an outrage. His ire is now directed towards the “crowds of well-dressed people, male and female” who stand and witness such a scene “without a blush, nay, on the contrary, enjoy this indecent conduct”. There is something worrying about what happens to grown men and women once they reach the sea-shore: “both ladies and gentlemen seem determined to set all rules and regulations at defiance”. In fact, it’s the ladies who really worry him: “It is certainly extraordinary that English women, who are held up to the whole world as patterns of modesty and delicacy, should, when they get to the sea, seem entirely to change their natures”. The seaside, he implies, brings out a concerningly frivolous and ungovernable side of women.
Three years later, in August 1857, the Observer’s unnamed seaside reporter (can it be the same person?) has gone back to the south coast, having rounded up a spate of recent references in the press to “the indecent manner in which the bathing is conducted in these places”. The local authorities in Margate and Ramsgate are refusing to take the problem seriously – complainers are “London grumblers who, if they are so easily offended, had better stay away”. But Dover has really tried, passing a resolution that “all bathing, except from a machine, should be strictly prohibited”. The locals don’t like it, however, arguing vociferously that bathing is beneficial to health, and, more pertinently, that “as much indecency is practised where
JULY 3, 2020
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