Did a balloonist take this view of bathing machines?

THE recent spell of warm weather has made me think about sea bathing and in particular the use of bathing machines.

Seaford had several bathing machines which were mainly in use between the Martello Tower and Dane Road. The bathing machine was probably invented in Yorkshire in the mid 18th century as engravings of the seaside at Scarborough appear to show them in use although Margate in Kent also claims to have been the first resort to use them.

When sea-bathing became popular during the Regency period it was not permitted for men and women to bathe together and this rule was strengthened during prudish Victorian times when local by-laws made mixed bathing a criminal matter.

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Although bathing machines were used by both sexes (although not at the same time!) men had more freedom as they could wear shorts and wade into the sea or leap into the waters from a hired boat. The long bathing dresses worn by women made such antics impossible so they tended to use the bathing machine which was a wooden shed-like structure with a door at each end and large wheels.

The Scottish writer Smollet gave a good example of what it was like to use a bathing machine in his book The Expedition of Humphry Clinker '¦ 'The bather, ascends into the wooden compartment 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. He then moves and fixes the horse to the other end. The person within being stripped opens the door and plunges headlong into the water.'

Groups of ladies would often use one bathing machine which would be large enough to accommodate six people. Inside there were shelves and clothes hooks to ensure your day clothes remained dry.

The bathing machines at Seaford were indeed pulled into the water by horses although in some cases human power or in later years a steam driven winch was employed.

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The photograph shows an unusual aerial view taken above The Esplanade. Nine bathing machines are shown on land at the seaward end of Dane Road on the site now occupied by the Beachcomber pub. They have probably been removed from the beach to over-winter or because of rough weather. The wooden steps on each are clearly visible.

The large house in the foreground is Telsemaure which was built in 1860 and (as I mentioned in an earlier item about Seaford gas works) was the first house in town to be lit by gas. Seaford railway station and the long row of Pelham Terrace can be seen in the background. In front, the site of Morrison's supermarket is still a field.

I must admit I have difficulty in dating this picture. According to my records the Eversley Hotel was built opposite Telsemaure in 1897 but the Wright Brothers did not make their first flight until six years later. Presumably, the photograph was taken from a balloon; maybe one made in the balloon factory of Henry Coxwell which was situated in Richmond Road in the upper left of the picture. The photograph was probably taken in the mid 1890s.

Mixed bathing was finally made legal in 1901; bathing machines became unfashionable and within 10 years had mostly disappeared from our beaches.

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Tents appeared on Seaford beach and the machines were broken up or turned into garden sheds.

One bathing machine, however, did survive and can still be seen inside Seaford Museum. It has been carefully restored and visitors are often surprised at how large were both the structure and the wheels.

Seaford Museum has now reverted to summer opening times. It is open from 2.30-4.30pm Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday and also on Sunday mornings from 11am-1pm. Next time you visit, make a point of seeing the bathing machine which was once such a common sight on our beaches.