Vicky Meets… Sylvia Endacott, local historian

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Vicky Meets… Sylvia Endacott, local historian

The newly unveiled Bognor Regis Time PortaI celebrates local lady Mary Wheatland. For those who don’t know, who was she?

Born in Aldingbourne in 1835, Mary moved to Bognor c1871 and became a Bathing Machine Operator. It was deemed necessary for swimmers to retain their modesty in the 18th and 19th century and the Bathing Machine allowed people to change in and out of their clothes and swimwear. Bathing machines were like huts on wheels that were rolled into the sea on large wheels, allowing the person inside to retain their modesty until they could hide themselves in the water.

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Mary also taught swimming and saved more than thirty people from drowning. She was awarded medals for saving so many lives. She was also known as ‘Grace Darling of Bognor’ and ‘the Mermaid of Bognor’.

Sylvia Endacott, local historian, with 'Mary Wheatland'Sylvia Endacott, local historian, with 'Mary Wheatland'
Sylvia Endacott, local historian, with 'Mary Wheatland'

Was Mary a trail blazer of sorts?

Mary Wheatland was not really unique. Her customers would have been female and around the coast the bathing person was usually female. But the work would have been arduous – seven days a week and long hours. She worked from the beach for 62 years, supervising, encouraging and saving lives. She also entertained the crowds by diving off the end of the Pier. Spending hours in the water in her unique outfit [made from thick serge twill] caused her to suffer badly with rheumatism in later life.

Was Bognor very popular as a seaside resort in Mary’s time?

The first town guide dates back to 1807. By the 1880s The Bognor Observer issued a visitors list, mostly of the rich. From 1900 guides extolled the merits of a visit, including the benefits of the town, the sea, the local countryside and the sea air. In 1926 the town guide spoke of ‘a golden strand set beneath a golden sun.’ Sunshine has always been important to visitors to the town.

Has history always fascinated you?

I joined the history society In1979 for something to do. I wondered what the buildings had been and I started asking questions. My research has totally covered Bognor Regis and Butlin’s, and I have written a large number of articles in newspapers and magazines as well as providing talks both in the town and surrounding areas. And even Goldsmiths University.

What is the best way to explore local history?

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By being enquiring about your surroundings. Start with a small specific area, a person or building. Learn where research materials are and then expand your interest.

Mary is back in the spotlight, but which other ‘Brilliant Bognorians’ should we celebrate?

Sir Richard Hotham, a hatter who is widely regarded as the founder of Bognor Regis, developer William Tate, philanthropist William Fletcher and also J.C. Hawes, an architect with a large presence in Australia.

Where can we find further information?

The Bognor Regis Time Portal is a free-to-use immersive experience. Being updated for the bank holiday weekend, it is located on the Promenade opposite the Place St Maur Bognor Museum is at 25-27 West Street.

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