Monday, April 13, 2020

Sea Bathing in the Regency Era

By Megan Walker

Regency era physicians had unique ways of treating various ailments and physical conditions in addition to prescribing herbal remedies and routine care such as exercise, nutrition, etc. Sea bathing is one such treatment prescribed by eighteenth century physicians who believed the water, even the cold temperature of the sea, could be a remedy for certain ailments. Because of this new interest in the medicinal properties of seawater, attitudes about the sea shifted from those of fear and uncertainty to excitement and enthusiasm.

Bathing at Bridlington, Yorkshire

Eighteenth century physicians also prescribed drinking seawater, sometimes mixed with honey or sugar, to their patients in addition to bathing in the sea. This fact is proven in an excerpt from an article published in The Atlantic entitled, The Historic Healing Power of the Beach: "In 1750 Dr. Richard Russell published a treatise, A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption, in which he advocated using seawater for bathing and drinking. In one case, Russell describes a man suffering from leprosy; a “most troublesome case.” The patient’s head and entire body was “sprinkled over with leprous spots.” But after being prescribed to “drink a pint of sea water every morning during nine months, without any intervals” the patient recovered. The regimens also usually involved bathing in seawater to strengthen and invigorate the body. As seawater drinking became more popular, these kinds of case studies proliferated. The miracle of the sea seemed to provide infinite therapies."

Though there were many sea towns on the coasts of England, the first of which is thought to be a resort in Scarborough, in Yorkshire. I mainly researched Brighton, a fascinating town with a history of the Royal Pavilion and plenty of tourism. While people of various ailments, including the Prince Regent himself, flocked to the sea for whatever medicinal benefits they believed they'd receive, later, many people came simply for the enjoyment of bathing or dipping in the sea.

Sea Bathing at Scarborough

In order to experience the waters fully, men and women often, if not most of the time, attended separate or opposite ends of beaches for the purpose of maintaining privacy and modesty, since some bathed naked. Careful distance was always rendered in the event that this was not the case. "Bathing" doesn't necessarily mean swimming, though we know from paintings and depictions that both men and women in some respects seemed to know how to swim well. An attendant was always nearby to help the person into the water, and would stay with them if needed. Oftentimes bathing in the sea meant a quick, cold dip in the waters, even in freezing temperatures. Jane Austen's cousin said in a letter to her, "I still continue bathing notwithstanding the severity of the Weather & Frost & Snow which is I think somewhat courageous."

Men’s wardrobes while sea bathing were less of a special event, as many did not require anything new or noteworthy, oftentimes bathing in the nude. Women, on the other hand, often wore flannel dresses, even sometimes with weights sewn into the hems of their skirts so as to keep them from floating up, but some women also enjoyed a private nude dip as well. Some women even had special hairstyles and commissioned dresses that were adorned with frills and lace instead of the typical blue costume many wore.

The new BBC drama Sanditon depicts well what a typical bathing experience would look like. A small wheeled carriage house called a bathing machine would be driven out into the water with person or persons inside. Once changed or unrobed in the tight little room, attendants would be waiting. The person would be assisted down into the waters, or a brave person might jump right on in if they were experienced. How long someone bathed was, as far as I found, entirely up to them. These same practices that were used in sea towns were also used out in the country in lakes or ponds for families and friends. The question of how many people actually knew how to float or swim, especially women, is debated, though it seems likely that more men than women took up the sport.

What little we know about sea bathing comes from paintings, drawings, diaries and other writings. Though the sea was first feared, medicinal beliefs changed the minds of many who saw the waters as a miraculous experience, and even further an enjoyable time. Were the waters of Brighton healing for the people and physicians who believed? As much as there are different people in the world, there are different opinions. Some people believed firmly in the healing powers of sea water. Others thought it a foolish notion. Even Jane Austen had her doubts.

Jane Austen's cousin letter can be found in this article:
The Atlantic article:
More reading on sea towns:


Megan Walker was raised on a berry farm in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where her imagination took her to times past and worlds away. While earning her degree in Early Childhood Education, she married her one true love and started a family. But her imaginings of Regency England wouldn’t leave her alone, so she picked up a pen. And the rest is history. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and three children.

Book Purchase links:

Instagram: @authormeganwalker

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.