Celebrating Victorian “girl-power” in Bognor Regis​​​​​​​

Chichester actor Vicky Edwards is delighted to bring back to life the embodiment of Victorian “girl-power”, Bognor’s great unsung heroine Mary Wheatland in a celebration of the town’s rich seaside heritage.
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The Bognor Regis Time Portal will offer a brand-new, free, innovative arts and cultural experience for the town, using augmented reality to bring the past to life through an initiative devised by Bognor Regis-based artist Matt Reed.

Mary Wheatland was a working-class swimming instructor, bathing machine operator and life-saver credited with saving more than 30 lives. Matt will make her world available to you from Good Friday. A brightly coloured, futuristic looking “portal” frame will signpost the location of the augmented reality experience. Using your mobile phone or tablet to scan the portal, you will get the chance to see Vicky speak and move as Mary in a holographic version accessed through a QR code. Next to decking next to the beach opposite the old Brewers Fayre site, it will be activated at noon on Good Friday, March 29 and run until the end of Sept 2025.

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Vicky said: “I became involved because I got a call from Matt. Matt was looking for somebody to play Mary. His approach was that he needed an actress of a certain stature. I said ‘I'm short, middle-aged and round and that's the only stature I have!’ I asked if it was what he wanted – and he sort of said yes! He told me about Mary. I was totally ignorant about her and that was the really exciting thing. The more I read about her, the more interested I became. She was Victorian girl power. She was this little woman. I'm not quite five foot and she was no taller but she did this huge physical work of running the bathing machines which were pretty hefty things and she would haul them out to sea with people inside. And every day she would dive off the pier complete with boots and woollen stockings. And also she would regularly save people’s lives. She was decorated for her life-saving. She saved more than 30 people and on one occasion she saved an entire family which got into trouble. Mary went out there and one by one she brought them back to safety. She was a really inspirational woman. She was somebody you probably would not really remark on but she had this great physical strength but also this great inner strength and this great inner goodness.”

Vicky as Mary. Fiona Elizabeth PhotographyVicky as Mary. Fiona Elizabeth Photography
Vicky as Mary. Fiona Elizabeth Photography

As for research, fortunately Bognor Regis historian Sylvia Endicott had written a couple of pamphlets about her: “Most of our information came from there and Bognor Museum had some information as well so we were able to find out about her life and her work in a very general sense. And I knew that Matt wanted to get her costume absolutely right. There were plenty of photographs and we were able to copy. A wonderful costumier from Glyndebourne did the work.

“Mary was not somebody who has been totally lost to history but she is certainly somebody who has not been celebrated as much as she should have been, particularly now that we are in this age where all those attributes that she had are so encouraged in girls and women. She was doing it all right back in the day!”

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