Posts Tagged ‘Regency Brighton’

Martha Gunn, dipper

Martha Gunn, dipper

In a scene in 1998’s Vanity Fair with Natasha Little as Becky Sharp, she visits Brighton with her husband and friends. The film, set during the Regency era, depicted a scene in which one of the party is taken from a bathing machine and dipped into the cold waters by a large woman. The bather floats on her back with her bathing costume billowing from the trapped air. This comical scene was based on fact. Brighton during the late 1790’s early 1800’s  employed some twenty male and female “dippers”” whose jobs were to vigorously dip their clients into the sea and push them through the waves, keeping them afloat, then help them back into the bathing machine.

floating with billowing skirt vanity fair 1998Brighton’s most famous dipper was Martha Gunn, a large, sturdy woman whose fame exists to this day. Bathers were separated by sex, a restriction that remained until 1930 in Brighton, and were drawn  into the waters by horses hitched to bathing machines. The bathers would be inside the vehicles changing into their bathing costumes, or not, for, screened from the world and the opposite sex, they would enter the waters au naturel. The terminology for immersion differed for the sexes. When men immersed men into the waters, it was called bathing. When women immersed women into the waters, they were dipping.

Sea Bathing machine

Sea Bathing machine

On page 233 in a Directory of Brighton published in 1790 the bathers are listed as follows:

Martha Gunn Toby Jug

Martha Gunn Toby Jug

Born in 1726, Martha Gunn dipped seaside visitors from around 1750 until she was forced to retire through ill health around 1814. She was such a popular figure that the Prince of Wales granted her free access to his kitchens.  The dipper was known as ‘The Venerable Priestess of the Bath’ by the locals. Large and  strong, well known and respected by the townsfolk as well as the visitors, Marth appeared in comic caricatures of the times. “Life for Dippers and Bathers was not easy – standing all day in the sea even in August calls for a tough constitution and Martha Gunn’s ample size was no doubt one of the reasons for her success in the cold waters.” ( Martha Gunn) Mrs. Gunn died in 1815 and is buried in the yard at St Nicholas Church. Her portrait hangs in the tea-room of the Royal Pavilion, and her house still stands on 36 East Street. Her fellow dippers and bathers continued to perform their duties in Brighton until the mid 19th century.

[Dippers] were also technicians of the ritual process: on-site masters of the requirements of the sea-bathing treatment. They judged the waves, the state of their clients, and their daily requirements: bathing at such and such a time or for so long. Many of the bathers could not swim: Dippers, often women, were essential figures of dependable strength and assurance. This might explain the inordinate affection of them. The ritual purging and bathing, the ministrations of the Dipper, and the natural influence of the seashore itself with its salt water, sea air, and ‘ozone’ were vital ingredients in both the reality and perception of a Cure. – Ritual Pleasures of a Seaside Resort, Chris Jenks, p169.

Martha's grave

Martha’s grave

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brighton westallBrighton as It Is 1836 has been posted electronically online. A fascinating tour guide, it offers many peeks into a world that is long gone. Most interesting is this page that lists the fares for hiring a sedan chair, bathing machine, pleasure boats, and carriages. One may also find the subscription to the reading room and circulating library. The book is only 108 pages long and a must read for those who are fascinated with Brighton during this period.

Rates for hiring public conveyances

Rates for hiring public conveyances

Update: Compared to the prices of hiring a guide (sedan) chair in Bath in 1806, there was very little difference:

Bath guide chairs, John Feltham, 1806

Bath guide chairs, John Feltham, 1806

Letter of the learned W. Clarke, selected from Nichols’ Anecdotes (p. 6-7):

“July 22, 1736

“We are now sunning ourselves upon the beach at Brighthelmstone, and observing what a tempting figure this island must have made formerly in the eyes of those gentlemen who were pleased to civilize and subdue us. The place is really pleasant; I have seen nothing in its way that outdoes it: such a tract of sea, such regions of corn, and such an extent of fine carpet, that gives your eye command of it all. – But then the mischief is, that we have little conversation besides the clamor nauticus, which is here a sort of treble to the splashing of the waves against the cliffs. My morning business is, bathing in the sea, and then buying fish; the evening is, riding out for air, viewing the remains of old Saxon camps, and counting the ships in the road, and the boats that are trawling. Sometimes we give the imagination leave to expatiate a little-fancy that you are coming down, and that we intend to dine one day next week at Dieppe, in Normandy; the price is already fixed, and the wine lodging there tolerably good. But though we build these castles in the air, I assure you we live here almost under ground. I fancy the architects here usually take the altitude of the Inhabitants, and lose not an inch between the head and the ceiling, and then dropping a step or two below the surface, the second story, is finished something under twelve feet. I suppose this was a necessary precaution against storms, that a man should not be blown out of his bed into New England, Barbary, or God knows where. But as the lodgings are low, they are cheap: `we have two parlours, two bed chambers, pantry ‘ &c. for five shillings per week: and if you really will come down’ you need not fear a bed of proper dimensions. And then the coast is safe, the cannons all covered with rust and grass, the ships moored no enemy apprehended. Come and see…

Bathing machine in Brighton, Vanity Fair

Bathing machine in Brighton, Vanity Fair

Also from the book (p. 8 )

Public attention was first directed to the spot by a treatise of Dr. Russell on the advantages of Sea-bathing, which he successfully recommended in scrophulous and glandular complaints. It was he, too, who caused the valuable chalybeate spring to the West of the town to be enclosed, prior to the erection of the present building. His successor, Dr. Rhellan, continued to add to the reputation of Brighton by publishing a Natural History of the town in 1761.

We now arrive at a period when the increasing popularity of the place was to receive a new stimulus from the presence of the Prince of Wales, afterwards George the Fourth. His first visit was in the summer of the year 1782, when the Prince resided with his Royal relatives, the late Duke and Duchess of Cumberland. He afterwards usually passed the summer and autumnal months at a mansion on the Steyne, then the property of the Lord of the Manor, which, after it had undergone several alterations, he finally purchased in 1814; and shortly after pulled it down to make room for the present Pavilion.

My other posts about Brighton, Transportation, and Seaside Resorts:

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During Jane Austen’s time, Brighton, a town along the south Sussex Coast and seen above in a John Constable painting, was the popular resort destination. Bath’s desirability had plummeted among the Ton, as it had gained the reputation of being a stodgy tourist attraction for the elderly and infirm. By the time the Prince Regent’s fashionable set frequented Brighton, it had grown from a sleepy seaside village of 3,000 in 1769 to a booming tourist town of 18,000 by 1817-1818.

The lengthening of the formal season helped in establishing Brighton as a holiday destination. By 1804 the season started late July and lasted until after Christmas, and by 1818 it had been extended until March. Visitors of note were always mentioned in Brighton’s newspaper, and there were a host of them. (Illustration below is of Fashionables in Brighton, 1826)

The first notables were both members of the Royal Family, the Duke of Gloucester in 1765, and then the Duke of York in 1766. From 1771 the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland were regular visitors and the town’s popularity with his uncles might have been one reason why the Prince of Wales came in 1783 and why he stayed for eleven days.

The Prince of Wales, after he became Prince Regent, began to spend enormous sums of money refurbishing Brighton Pavillion to his own fanciful specifications, using John Nash’s designs. Click here for my post on this beautiful palace.

In the early 18th century visitors were left to their own devices to find entertainments, but by 1810 guide books pointed out sites of interests in surrounding villages, amusements to be had, and picturesque walks. The sea was also used for entertainments such as yacht races and water parties which were watched from the shelter of the Steine. Military manoevres on the Steine and the Downs were popular.

Read more about Brighton here:

Quotes: Georgian Brighton, 1740-1820, Sue Farrant, University of Sussex Occasional Paper No. 13

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In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to manDown to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When I visited

Brighton Pavilion in Brighton, a charming seaside town in Sussex’s South Downs, I found it more beautiful and fantastic than the drawings, paintings, and photos I’d seen. The building, rebuilt between 1815-1822 by John Nash, the Prince Regent’s architect, is starkly white and stands in the center of town. Approaching it on foot, one is astounded by the intricacy of the architectural details, from the exterior domes, spires, and columns, to the interior with its gothic touches, fantasy rooms, and exquisite color combinations and patterns.

The Prince Regent was known for his excesses and expensive tastes, and his architect John Nash succeeded in fulfilling the Prince’s most outrageous wishes. The Gothic Revival was in full swing during the Regency Era, including the love for all things mid-Eastern, Chinoise, and Arabian. This Arabian Nights fantasy in stone has been well documented in picture books and on the web. I will merely point out a few spectacular rooms and some of the details that struck me as being particularly beautiful or unusual.

The kitchen, a cavernous room created to comfortably accommodate the Prince’s idea of an intimate dinner, is depicted on this web page. Click here and scroll down to the kitchen. You can also see a panoramic view of the kitchen on the page if you have a real player. It was not unusual for the Prince to throw a banquet with 36 courses, hence the kitchen was designed to accommodate the scores of cooks and enormous amounts of food stuffs and ingredients required to prepare these foods.

The long gallery is indeed long. The colors are riotous, and one feels as if one is traipsing through a fantasy land.

On the left is a picture of John Nash’s long gallery. On the right is a photograph of the long gallery today.

The banquet room also lingers in my memory, with its long, long banqueting table, the exquisite details in the ceiling, and the fantastic carved dragons peeping out from chandeliers disquised as palms.

Salon & Music Room

Images of Brighton in the 19th Century:
Evening Gathering at Brighton Pavilion in the Yellow Room

Brighton, a seaside resort

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