Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Life Saver of Bognor Beach

The Illustrated London News, Volume 75, 1879
My research on bathing machines uncovered the inspiring story of Mary Wheatland who saved over 30 lives in her lifetime. Born Mary Norris in 1835,  she was only 14 when she got a job working as a house servant for the bathing woman, Martha Mills, at the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, West Sussex, England. (Source: 1851 England Census) Mary loved to swim and seemed to handle the swift currents and high surf of the Bognor beach well so it wasn't long before Mary was put to work as a bathing assistant helping the patrons who visited the bathing machines. 

By the 1861 census, Mary, a bathing attendant, was married to George Wheatland, an agricultural labourer, and already had 2 of the 6 children who would be produced of the union. From all accounts, Mary's domestic life was a mess and she seems to have raised the children by herself, even while working. In fact, a year after her marriage, Mary was already famous for her life saving skills as proved in an entry in Bradshaw's Handbook for Tourists in Great Britain & Ireland. The gazeteer was published in 1858 and on page 65, one can find the following entry:

Bradshaw's Handbook for Tourists in Great Britain & Ireland entry for Bognor, Sussex

Swimming lessons were often offered as a service - for a fee - in conjunction with bathing machine use, but not everyone recognized the signs of drowning versus playing around, and many were scared to jump into the heavy currents lest they themselves be swept out to sea. Printed material, such as All About Bathing with Instructions, How to Swim and How To Save From Drowning, by Piscatory, was available, but Mary rescued her first drowning victim years before it was published in 1871.

East Parade, Bognor, England between ca.1890 and 1900. LOC Prints and Photographs Division

The Illustrated London News, Volume 75, 1879, reported that an article in a local halfpenny paper, Bersted Parish Magazine, told the story of a local bathing attendant who "...holds the saving of life to be as much the work of a bathing woman as the rinsing of a bathing dress." The article had been written by the Vicar of Bersted who interviewed Mary Wheatland who had recently received an honorary testimonial, on vellum no less, from the Royal Humane Society. After a bit of prodding from the vicar, Mary finally listed the bathers she'd rescued with the first being 20 yrs before (about 1859):

1. The heavy wife of a London brewer, whose soul was drifting into eternity and her body across the Channel.

2. A nurse whom a bathing-man had attempted to save, but gave up. Mary dashed in and completed the rescue.

3. A little foreign lady who was crying out as she drifted back to her Continental home. Mary added, "It was a strong sea and a ground swell. She swam round her, caught her by her dress, and paddled home with her foreign prize in tow."

4. A young lady who had treated Mary well and often brought her hot coffee.

5. Mary didn't remember anything about the lady except that she had snatched her from a watery grave.

6. A gentleman who turned to swim back upon experiencing heart trouble, but "knew no more" until awaking in his own bed. (The author of the article injected that he heard Mary received 20 pounds from the kind gentleman who apparently didn't miss it.)

7.-13. Mary needed some goading to admit this save because she didn't want to betray a confidence, but finally admitted that 5 years before, she came upon "six sportive young nymphs who had played away out of their depths and were drowning in a batch". Mary swam out and brought them in one-by-one while battling their water-soaked garments. Mary pleaded with the author not to say anything about it because the women had paid her "2 pounds back rent and sent her a bit of beef at Christmas".

Mary Wheatland, Bognor Celebrated Bathing Woman

Along with two medals and accompanying certificates presented by the Royal Humane Society for her courageous acts of bravery, Mary Wheatland was presented with another medal for "...saving the lives of six girls who had gotten into difficulty while swimming out to sea." In total, Mary is credited with saving the lives of over 30 drowning people, with one account saying the total is nearer to sixty.

By the 1891 England census, Mary was the owner of the yellow and red striped bathing machines located on the east side of the Bognor Pier, where she continued to work until retiring in 1909. 

According to the accompanying newspaper clipping, Mary didn't let her advancing age stop her from swimming or diving off a boat, although she made her last dive off the Bognor Pier on her 71st birthday. 

On April 1, 1924, at the age of 89, Mary Wheatland died at home. As befitting a woman of the sea, her funeral procession was escorted by Bognor fisherman who carried her to the Parish Church of Bognor, St. Mary Magdalene, where she rests in the church graveyard. 

Mary Wheatland is still remembered by local residents, many of whom are Mary's descendants. In 1999, the Bognor Regis Town Council set out its first permanent memorial to Mary when it held a ceremony to commemorate a memorial bench outside the church wall where weary travellers can rest and look out over the water Mary loved so much. 

Mary Wheatland is an inspiring role model for women of all ages. Mary worked her way through life, giving aid when and where it was needed. She didn't let a troublesome domestic life interfere with what she felt was her calling, and in the process, saved more lives than anyone else of her time. 

If you'd like to know more about bathing machine history, check out my previous posts:
March 5 - Rise of the Beach Machines Part 1
April 5 - Rise of the Beach Machines Part 2


Anita Mae Draper served a 20-year term working on air bases in the communication trade of the Canadian Armed Forces before retiring to the open skies of the prairies. She uses her experience and love of history to pepper her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism as well as faith. 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


  1. What an interesting story! Mary was just a woman doing her job, but she is still remembered almost two centuries later.

    1. Thanks, Vickie. Part of her fame comes from her bathing machine business being across the way from the famous Bognor photographer W.P. Marsh, who produced many photographs of Mary, as carte-de-visite, cabinet cards, and then in the early 1900s as picture postcards. Selling them to the thousands of annual tourists helped spread her fame.

  2. What a wonderful story! Thanks for the post. Funny that I never even knew about bathing machines!

    1. Connie, it's funnier that I never heard of them before I started researching bandstands! Research may be full of bunny trails, but I love the discoveries I make along the way.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and you're very welcome. :)

  3. Anita, Love these stories about bathing machines! Never heard of them before I saw an episode of Victoria on Masterpiece. Andy Mary Bognor! How did she keep from drowning with all those clothes on? My guess is she kept them all on, since to do otherwise might be considered indecent.

    1. In photographs and post cards, Mary Wheatland of Bognor always wore the blue serge "constume" and a straw hat with her name on it. In later years, the words Life Saver was below her name.

      However, I've seen a copyrighted undated photograph of Mary swimming in the huge Bognor surf and while it only shows her head and one shoulder, that shoulder appears to show a striped bathing costume like the one that is shown over her arm in several photos and postcards. Perhaps she only wore it while swimming, or perhaps she wore it under her blue serge costume in case she needed to swim out into the current. I'd like to think that is the case as Mary Wheatland has been described as a strong swimmer who sprang into action when it was required, regardless of circumstances.

      Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn. :)