Beside the seaside

It’s a bright and sunny winter’s day, just right for a bracing walk by the seaside. If you were living in the eighteenth century, that would have been positively encouraged.

Caroline Powys was a great believer in the restorative powers of the sea air:

I certainly was better for the sea air [at Ramsgate]… After taking our usual walk on the Cliffs for an hour before breakfast… tis certainly wonderful the effect of the sea breezes, as I’m certain had I walk’d in such Winds at Fawley, I should immediately had violent Colds and I do not remember I had one the whole 3 weeks I was there.¹

And sea bathing was almost as fashionable as taking the spa waters. Resorts sprang up from Blackpool to Brighton, and those such as Scarborough that could boast both beach and springs were at an advantage. Tobias Smollett provides a fascinating description of bathing machines in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

Betwixt the well and the harbour, the bathing machines are ranged along the beach, with all their proper utensils and attendants. You have never seen one of these machines — Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below — The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end — The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water — After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up — Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people. The guides who attend the ladies in the water, are of their own sex, and they and the female bathers have a dress of flannel for the sea; nay, they are provided with other conveniences for the support of decorum.²

Sea bathing was as much for medical as for leisure purposes. John Anderson, Physician to the General Sea-Bathing Infirmary at Margate, told of many miraculous ‘cures’, including this one (although of course he did have a vested interest):

A Miss P–, at No. 18, Holborn, aged eighteen, came to Margate, in Autumn, 1792, to bathe in the sea. She was of a pale chlorotic complexion, and had been four years in the hands of the faculty for bilious bowel-complaints, and irregularity of her monthly terms, which never were in due quantity: in short, she had no one secretion or excretion that went regularly on. She would be frequently contripated, attended with racking pain and distention of her stomach and bowels. Her complexion was livid; her lips pale, eyes dull and languid, and her temper exceedingly fretful and impatient. On her coming from the third bath she felt herself extremely sick and squeamish at stomach, which increased with great commotion and disturbance through her whole frame; and by the next day her hands were much swelled and inflamed, and full of small limpid serous vesications. Mr. John Silver, her surgeon-apothecary, called me instantly to her before any thing was done. I desired her to make herself easy, and to be thankful; for that nature, by virtue of the sea-bath, was doing great things for her, by expelling the morbific matter from the internal habit on the safest part of the body; and that we had only to assist nature, as she pointed, in her salutary efforts, to exterminate noxious humours and the causes of them, and supply their room with more kindly particles to enter in and assimilate with the blood.

I simply ordered a fomentation to her hands of a decoction of mallow leaves and elder flowers twice a day, and cataplasms of barley-meal made with the same loquor, to lie on intermediately; and by the next day the inflammation and pain abated, and a serous limpid humour began to run, which increased in quantity, at every dressing, twice a day, and was so intolerably fetid as even to forbid her mother coming into the room. Thus it ran for a week, and then kindly dried up; when her feet became in like manner affected, discharged, and healed up also in a week. After these discharges she found herself in the enjoyment of perfect health, and every thing became regular in her constitution. She took two or three doses of gentle physic, and then went round the town of Margate to shew what a miracle the sea-bath had performed on her: she took only one diaphoretic julep during the time.³

The practice was not universally lauded, however. Physician and bestselling author William Buchan acknowledged ‘it is now fashionable for persons of all ranks to plunge into the sea’, but cautioned that ‘many lives are lost, and numbers ruin their healths, by cold bathing’. As a safeguard he recommended ‘bleeding, purging, and a spare diet’ to avoid the danger of ‘bursting a blood-vessel, or occasioning an inflammation of the brain’. Not exactly a summer holiday!

1. Caroline Powys, Journals, August 23, 24, 25 1801, British Library Add. 42162.

2. Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 1771.

3. John Anderson, A Practical Essay on the Good and Bad Effects of Sea-Bathing, 1795.

4. William Buchan, Cautions Concerning Cold Bathing, and Drinking the Mineral Waters, 1786.