In-Depth: Seawater and Sea Bathing

It has been rather a while since the last In-Depth article, in which the Gin Craze was explored. Therefore, it seemed that a return to this section of the blog was more than a little overdue.

In the Georgian era, sea bathing became a rather modish activity.[1] Seaside resorts grew up along the south coast to cater for those ladies and gentlemen who wished to indulge themselves in a fabulously fashionable holiday.[2] While Bath had long been the go-to destination for the fashionably-minded, by the later stages of the eighteenth century it had been supplanted by the likes of Weymouth and Brighton.[3] It was no longer the in-thing to take the waters at Bath, instead plunging into the sea was now de-rigueur.

Indeed, the growth of Brighton demonstrates the growing popularity of this holiday activity. Brighton went from being a small fishing town, going by the name of Brighthelmstone, to being the favoured summer residence of the Prince Regent.[4] When A Guide to All the Watering and Sea Bathing Places for 1813 was written, it was said that this formerly humble town now had more than 2,000 houses, 12,000 permanent residents and at least the same amount of visitors each year.[5]

In Brighton, a lady or gentleman could not only engage in sea bathing, but could also take advantage of hot and cold baths. The construction of these baths began in 1758 and, with the use of an engine, they were supplied with sea water.[6] It was possible to take out a subscription to these baths for one, two or three months.[7] Ladies and gentleman could also pay for a one-off dip, if they so wished.[8]

However, the popularity of both sea bathing and Brighton went beyond the fact it was a fashionable thing to do and a fashionable place to be seen. Just as taking the waters in Bath had been linked to health benefits, sea bathing was something of a health craze as well. If we continue to take Brighton as an example, its popularity was not only derived from the patronage of the Prince Regent, but also by the work of a physician by the name of Dr Richard Russell. Dr Russell had a practice in the town and published a treatise which detailed the healing properties of sea water.[9] A Guide to All the Watering and Sea Bathing Places for 1813 reflects this, commenting that Dr Russell had been instrumental to the growth of Brighton as a go-to destination.[10] Highlighting the health element in the popularity of sea bathing, this same text also detailed the fine air which was to be had at Brighton.[11] This fine air was said to be highly recommended ‘for the recovery and preservation of the health.’[12]

Nevertheless, it was felt that sea bathing as a treatment could be misapplied and misused.[13] [14] Certain practices were recommended. For example, the timing of sea bathing was considered important. Regarding the time of year, it was said that autumn was the best season for sea bathing.[15] Regarding the time of day, it was generally felt that it was best to bathe early in the morning and before breakfast.[16] Plunging oneself into the sea on all full stomach was held to be a rather bad idea.[17]

But early morning bathing was not considered suitable for everyone, or for all circumstances. So for instance, while it would usually have been thought best for a healthy man to bathe early in the morning, this would not have been the case if he had over-indulged himself the night before.[18] It was also said that ladies who generally slept late were too easily fatigued if they suddenly starting getting up early to bathe.[19] These ladies were advised to have a light breakfast, early in the morning, and then delay their bathing by two hours.[20] They would then bathe by about 10 o’clock.[21] Practical Observations Concerning Sea Bathing also advised that invalids – whether they were ladies or gentlemen – should avoid bathing early in the morning.[22] Instead, they were told take a gentle walk before breakfast and refrain from bathing until it was past midday, or at the very least until some hours had passed since they took their breakfast.[23]

It was also said that hot baths, such as those to be had a Brighton, were sometimes more suitable for patients who were not well enough to go into cold water or the sea directly.[24] These baths were also said to be of particular benefit to those who did not have the courage to venture into the sea.[25]

Yet bathing in the sea was not the only way by which a lady or gentleman might profit from its lauded health benefits. Sea water was also drunk and was even bottled and sold to those living away from the coast.[26] For example, it was said that children with worms could be given sea water – perhaps mixed with milk – to drink.[27]

To conclude, it would seem that sea bathing and sea water were seen as both fashionable and healthy. The case of Brighton provides a clear illustration of this. And it would also seem that many of us owe our yearly (and frequently cold and rainy) trip to the sea side to our Georgian and Regency forbears.

Please note that this article is a discussion of history and is not offering medical advice or suggestions.  

 

Footnotes

[1] Worsley, Lucy, If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p. 119.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Le Faye, Deirdre, Jane Austen: The World Of Her Novels, (London: Francis Lincoln, 2002), p. 28.

[4] Anon., A Guide to All the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places for 1813, (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1813), p. 82, p. 85, p. 86.

[5] Ibid., p. 85.

[6] Ibid., p. 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Murray, Venetia, An Elegant Madness: High Society In Regency England, (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 114.

[10] Anon., A Guide to All the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places, p. 83.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Reid, Thomas, Directions for Warm and Cold Sea-Bathing, 2nd Ed., (London: T. Cadel and W. Davies, 1798), p. 1.

[14] Buchan, A. P., Practical Observations Concerning Sea Bathing, (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1804), p. xi.

[15] Ibid., p. 1.

[16] Ibid., p. 49-50.

[17] Ibid., p. 50.

[18] Ibid., p. 53-54.

[19] Reid, Directions for Warm and Cold Sea Bathing, p. 9.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Buchan, Practical Observations, p. 50.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Anon., A Guide to All the Watering and Sea Bathing Places, p. 93.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Murray, An Elegant Madness, p. 115.

[27] Buchan, Practical Observations, p. 148.

 

 

Bibliography

Anon., A Guide to All the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places for 1813, (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1813).

Buchan, A. P., Practical Observations Concerning Sea Bathing, (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1804).

Le Faye, Deirdre, Jane Austen: The World Of Her Novels, (London: Francis Lincoln, 2002).

Murray, Venetia, An Elegant Madness: High Society In Regency England, (London: Penguin Books, 1998).

Reid, Thomas, Directions for Warm and Cold Sea-Bathing, 2nd Ed., (London: T. Cadel and W. Davies, 1798).

Worsley, Lucy, If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011).

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