Taking the Plunge: the therapy and fashion of sea-water

John Williams, Essay on the Utility of Sea-bathing. Portsmouth: S.Mills, 1820. Phillips Collection 615838 WilBelief in the therapeutic properties of sea-water and sea-bathing has a long history, stretching back at least as far the classical Greek physicians, Galen and Hippocrates.

Sea-bathing became particularly fashionable in the eighteenth century, and remained so for many decades afterwards. For those who could afford it, going to coastal resorts, such as Scarborough, Brighton, Weymouth or Peterhead, to sea-bathe and to take the waters became part of the social and seasonal round.

Sea-bathing developed its own conventions and etiquette. Bathers entered the sea in bathing machines (designed to provide the required level of privacy) and were frequently accompanied by ‘dippers’ to help them enter the water itself.

In August 1773 Frances (Fanny) Burney recorded the literally breathtaking experience of sea-bathing. She wrote:

Ever since I went to Torbay, I have been tormented with a dreadful cold and very much advised to sea bathing in order to harden me. I was terribly frightened, and really thought I should never have recovered from the plunge. I had not breath enough to speak for a minute or two, the shock was beyond expression; but after I got back to the [bathing] machine, I presently felt myself in a glow that was delightful – it is the finest feeling in the world, and will induce me to bathe as often as will be safe.

Sea-bathing could even be used to ceremonial advantage. As George III and his entourage visited the South Coast in 1789, he and members of his court were treated to the playing of God Save the King as they bobbed about in the waters off Weymouth. But that was not all. Frances Burney again noted that ‘bathing-machines make God Save the King their motto over all their windows; and those bathers that belong to the royal dippers wear it in their bandeaus in their bonnets...and have it again, in large letters, round their waists’.

Richard Russel, A Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water. 4th ed. London: printed for W. Owen, 1760.By the late-eighteenth century and certainly thereafter, visits to the seaside for bathing were driven not only by a wish to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to benefit from sea-water’s properties to ward off illness, but also by broader social and recreational motives.

Richard Russel, F.R.S. (d. 1759) developed his own particular regime based round bathing in, and drinking sea-water, which was specifically designed to cure various glandular conditions. More generally, his treatment was supposedly useful in addressing anything from rabies to constipation. (Sea-water drunk before breakfast apparently had the necessary beneficial effect.) Russel became a highly fashionable doctor, able to establish an extensive practice in Brighton, with its own accommodation for visiting patients.

John Williams’s Essay on the Utility of Sea-bathing, Portsmouth, 1820, argued strongly for the benefits of salt, over river water for ‘fortifying the body against the influence of disease’. Williams was particularly enthusiastic about cold sea-water, contact with which would render ‘the spirits light and brisk, the appetite increased and bodily vigour materially improved’. The frontispiece to his book is an engraving of (probably) Southsea, with bathing machines being put into use.

An Essay on Sea-bathing, London, 1787, was written in Brighton by Dr Richard Kentish, and dedicated to the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and George IV). Kentish drew upon earlier writings to construct his table of diseases that could be remedied by sea-water bathing. These sources included Sir John Floyer (d. 1734) who had developed a particular interest in the curative powers of spa waters, and Richard Mead (d. 1754), physician, patron of the arts, and book collector.

‘Peterhead’, noted James Millar in his Practical Observations on Cold and Warm Bathing (Edinburgh: Tait, 1821),

is the most northerly watering place of the kingdom...Combining the advantage of a mineral spring with sea bathing [it] has, of late years, risen to just celebrity, and has attracted during the summer and autumn, crowds of visitors, chiefly from the towns of the northern districts. Commodious apartments have been constructed for cold and warm bathing; so that those who do not choose, or to whom it may not be convenient to bathe in the open sea, are not deprived of that benefit.

John Ainslie’s Plan of the Town and Harbour of Peterhead (Peterhead and Edinburgh, 1805) includes map of the baths and nearby hotels in the town itself.There is plenty of evidence to support Millar’s claims. The diaries of James Beattie, (1735-1803), poet and Professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, carry many references to his journeys to Peterhead, of his using the baths, and of his social engagements there.

Charles Taylor’s Remarks on Sea-water with Observations on its Application and Effects, Internally and Externally (London: R. Phillips, 1805. KC x61312 Tay), saw great advantage in taking the sea air, and of moderate and frequent exercise. Further, ‘late hours should be avoided at all times; early to bed and early to rise is a maxim which should be attended to at home and abroad’. Whilst many would have subscribed to his advice (and may still do), fewer now are enthusiastic about his recommendations for the drinking of sea water.

John Feltham, Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places. New ed. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees etc., [1803].John Feltham’s Guide to all the Watering and Sea Bathing Places went through several editions between c.1803 and c. 1825. A popular form of publication, Feltham’s guidebook lists over sixty places in England and Wales which had become fashionable either for their spas or sea bathing facilities (sometimes both). Typically, Feltham gives details of the hotels, circulating libraries, parks, markets and improved transportation and postal facilities that emerged as part of the growth and development of these towns and cities.

His 1803 edition, which came to King’s College as part of the Copyright Act (legal deposit) arrangements then in place, carries an attractive title-page vignette of bathing machines entering the water.