Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Going For A Dip At Brighton

Brighton was a popular seaside resort for the ton in the extended Regency era, a place where those who could afford extended getaways to take advantage of the fresh sea air and partake in a healthful dip in the waves. A "dip" was more than a short floundering about in the salt water. There were actually professional Dippers. Often they were a husband and wife team who provided a bathing machine and the service of immersing the patron. Bathing machines were wagons topped with enclosed cabins. They would be backed into the shallows and the back door opened to let the bather descend into the water. The cabin gave the bather privacy to dress and a blocked view from the beach. When the bather was ready to go into the water, the dipper would be waiting to help him or her down the steps. Women bathers were always assisted by a burly woman or two who could carry them down and steady them in the waves. Men and older boys were assisted by men called "bathers".

Then came the dip. The dipper would take a firm hold on the bather and force them down into the water for a full immersion. A child's first dip was quite an event. 

One of the most famous dippers was Mrs. Martha Gunn (1726-1815) of Brighton. There was even rhymes about her. The first is most likely about the infant Prince of Wales' first dip by Martha, which was commemorated in a painting:

            To Brighton came he,
            Came George III's son.
            To be bathed in the sea,
            By famed Martha Gunn.

Another rhyme sings the fame of Martha and the bather John "Smoaker" Miles, who taught the young Prince how to swim.

There’s plenty of dippers and jokers,
And salt-water rigs for your fun,
The King of them all is ‘Old Smoaker’
The Queen of ’em “Old Martha Gunn”.

The ladies walk out in the morn,
To taste of the salt-water breeze;
They ask if the water is warm,
Says Martha, “Yes, Ma’am, if you please.” 

Martha began dipping in her 20s and continued into her old age. One hardy woman!

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