Thursday, 10 June 2010


Of the many curiosities of the Victorian age the bathing machine must rank as one of the most curious. At Exmouth in 1872 there were many of them and they were set down in the sea at shallow depths so that ladies and gentlemen might enter them to landward, change in them, and leave them paddling to seaward.

As upholders of public modesty these local machines seem to have been unsatisfactory. There was of course a strict segregation of the sexes. The ladies’ machines were distant from the gentlemen’s but in some people’s estimation they were still far too close for comfort. One anonymous Exmothian wrote to the local paper calling the beach “ a scene of disgusting exposure and gross indecency.” He, or possibly she, wrote, ‘It seems to me that the men’s machines ought to be further away from those set apart for ladies, and that boatmen should not be allowed to pass close in front of machines where ladies are bathing.” For me this last comment conjures up a pretty, Gilbertian image of a summer’s day and a flotilla of rowing boats crewed by wicked, mustachioed young men intent on causing flutter after flutter among the bathing belles of the age.

Another correspondent wrote, “The bathing machines are only just put down to the water’s edge, and the gentlemen wear for the most part no bathing dress of any description. The result is an unblushing exposure which is disgraceful . The indecency of the thing before numbers of little girls playing right in front on the sand is shocking; and it is a virtual prohibition of all modest women walking that way…”

The amazing fact is that it was only social convention and constraint that made anyone queue for these ridiculous machines in the first place. People were free, then as now, to change on the beach and to swim anywhere they wished and many freely did so. It was the fear of appearing not ladylike or gentlemanly that drove the respectable classes into these dark, poky boxes on wheels.

The disreputable and the poor just stripped off and swam.

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