Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Rise of the Beach Machines Part 1

Replica of a bathing machine on Weymouth Seafront. Wikimedia creative commons
King George III led the way in a new trend when he used a bathing machine similar to the replica above and took his medicinal bath at Weymouth to the musical accompaniment of 'God Save the King''. Presumably, his men kept gawkers from looking at his bathing attire.

King George's granddaughter, Queen Victoria, also had a penchant for the bathing machine, a gift from her husband, Prince Albert, who encouraged her and the children to use it. One entry in her Journal shows, "Drove to the beach with my maids and went in the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the 1st time in my life)...I thought it delightful till I put my head under water when I thought I should be stifled." Queen Victoria's Journal, 30 July 1847. 

Queen Victoria's bathing machine, Isle of Wight. Pxhere creative commons
Queen Victoria's bathing machine is open to the public on the section of beach she loved and used on the Isle of Wight. Inside contains a changing room and a plumbed-in toilet. According to English Heritagewhen she was done bathing, a rope and winch pulled the bathing machine back to shore.

The earliest image I found of a bathing machine is an 1806 drawing by John Hassell (1767-1825) which depicts Aberystwyth Castle in Wales with a bathing machine being pulled back to shore in the foreground.  

Aberystwyth Castle, 1806. Wikimedia creative commons

In 1829, British artist William Heath (1795-1840) created a hand-tinted caricature of society ladies enjoying a sea bath which he entitled Mermaids at Brighton.

Mermaids at Brighton, 1829. Digital Public Library of America, Public Domain

In 1865, a chromolithograph of John Leech's work, Scene at Sandbathe, has the description as "The female Blondin out done! Grand morning performance on the narrow plank by the darling x x x x". The image shows a woman with a billowing skirt, walking down a narrow plank between a bathing machine and the shore and eludes to Charles Blondin who inspired a generation of tightrope walkers, including females, after his infamous walk across the Niagara River in 1859 as well as other dangerous heights. 

Scene at Sandbathe. Wellcome Images, Creative Commons

If you look at the back of the bathing machine in the above image, you'll find a variation that appeared in bathing machines for a brief period of the 19th century. Although it's not on the royal bathing machines, you can see it in the 1806 image of Aberystwyth Castle. Here's a closer look at it in a drawing from Punch, 1870. The explanation is that the man has returned after a swim in the sea and apparently, his bathing machine has been walked off by mistake. 

"Ahem! Pray Excuse me, Madam. My Bathing-Machine I think." Punch, 1870. Wikimedia creative commons

Horses were the usual method of getting the bathing machines into the sea, and then walking them off. I wonder what the signal was to let the horsemen know the bathers were done, or did the men keep a watchful eye over the scene? 

Bathing Carts in Wyk, 1895. Wikimedia Public Domain

Bathing machines were also used in Europe, although not always pulled by horses. For example, the next image taken in 1908 from the coastal city and municipality of San Sebastian in Spain shows a bathing machine being pulled by oxen.

Donostia - San Sebastian hacia, 1908  Wikimedia Public Domain

Lest you think women had all the fun with sea bathing, I was excited to find this wood engraving from the Wellcome Library which shows "A man playing with his sons in the sea; his wife and daughters watch from the beach." I'm glad he added that it was his wife on the beach, because at first glance, I thought that perhaps a bathing machine wasn't so private after all if the neighborhood women could watch from the shore with their opera glasses, or field glasses, depending on the year of this undated engraving.

Papa Giving the Boys a Dip, undated wood engraving. Wellcome images Public Domain

In Rise of the Beach Machines Part 2 we'll take a closer look at advertising and rules of the bathing machine industry, fashionable swimwear of the period, and if it had an impact on North America.

Bathing machines can be seen in images from my recent post, From Rooftop Bandstand to King's Hall.

If you had a chance to use a bathing machine, what would be your biggest concern? 


Anita Mae Draper is a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who served twenty years on Air bases with her eyes on the skies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with hardship, faith, and joy. Anita Mae Draper's published stories appear in Barbour Publishing, WhiteFire Publishing, and Guideposts Books. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking out Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at www.anitamaedraper.com


  1. Very interesting! Brings a whole new meaning to getting ready for the beach. What a process it must have been. Thanks for the post.

  2. wow this is interesting. Privacy was such a thing at one time. think my biggest concern with one of these would be, hmm I not sure. It just doesn't seem practical to me or very private.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    1. I agree, Lori. I think the only way privacy would be ensured was if the water went into the structure and allowed you to swim right out and stay in the water the whole time.

      Thank you for sharing. :)

  3. Hi Anita, This whole concept is so fascinating to me. I saw this on the PBS/BBC show "Victoria," and read up on it. It was private because the bathers went out the back door and swam behind the machine, not in front where people on the beach could see you. Still, it seems so bizarre. Seems like those wheels would get pretty rusty.

    1. I've been trying to see the Victoria series, but keep missing the start. If I don't catch it on the next go-round, will invest in the set for sure.

      That's a very good question/observation about the rust on the wheels. I had thought of how the shore and sea bottom must have been hard and clear of seaweed and grasses, but the sea water effect on the wheeled structure hadn't occurred to me. Since I'm still researching this subject, I'll keep a lookout.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marilyn. You're a treasure.

  4. I've never heard of these things. Fascinating! I wonder how many bathing machines got stuck in the water. :)

    1. Vickie, I'm guessing they would just bring more horses or men to pull it out. Queen Victoria had the better set-up where they would winch her bathing machine back to shore. They may have had that on other beaches as well, although they would need a way to roll them down into the water in the first place.

      Thanks for stopping by. More research coming up. :)