Den här texten skrevs som avslutande uppgift under en stipendieresa till Brighton i avancerad engelska för journalister, som anordnades av Journalistförbundet i samarbete med The English Language Centre i Brighton. Valet av ämne var fritt och jag tyckte att historien med havsbad i Brighton var intressant, av flera skäl. Vad tycker du?
Brighton has a rich tradition as a seaside destination, with affluent guests traveling here from across Britain to enjoy the health benefits of seawater – possibly also with the social objective to see and to be seen. But how did it all start? And what is left of Brighton’s sea-bathing culture today?
Dr. Russell’s cure contributed to putting Brighton on the map, as a chic and smart destination at the time.
The use of water for medical and health benefits has a history that goes back to prehistoric times and has been practised in cultures all over the world. In Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, it became increasingly popular among the wealthy population to “take the waters” at one of the many wells and spas that existed.
In 1626 in the English coastal town of Scarborough, a Mrs. Farrow is reported to have discovered a stream of water emerging from the cliff. The water was deemed to have certain health properties and soon a spa complex was set up. In due course, seawater was added to the therapies and Scarborough became Britain’s first seaside resort, attracting high-class visitors from the entire country. Books and pamphlets about the medical benefits of mineral water were published by physicians, enhancing the appeal of spas even more.
A versatile cure
From Scarborough, sea-bathing would eventually spread to other parts of the British coast. For instance to the small and poor village of Brighton, or Brighthelmstone as it was called back then, where in the early/mid-18th century, Dr. Richard Russell of Lewes started recommending the use of seawater for both bathing and drinking, which was supposed to heal a variety of diseases and ailments. This is explained by Jackie Marsh-Hobbs, a Brighton-based local historian and specialist guide.
Russell, whose practice was conveniently based a mere stone’s throw from the beach, at the current location of Royal Albion Hotel, proposed the bathing to be done at the crack of dawn for best effect. In addition to that, his patients were advised to drink seawater in prescribed doses. Allegedly, the water could sometimes also be mixed into a dubious cocktail, along with ingredients like crabs’ eyes, milk and baking powder.
In 1750 Dr. Russell issued a Latin dissertation on the use of seawater for the treatment of enlarged lymphatic glands. This was later translated into English and became the first literature to make a connection between drinking and bathing in seawater and improvements in health. Russell’s cure came to be of great importance for putting Brighton on the map as a chic and smart destination at the time. This was further encouraged by the celebrated and sometimes infamous Prince George IV, who moved here in the 1780’s to later reside in what today is called The Royal Pavilion.
Initially, it was only the nobility who could afford to come to Brighton for sea-bathing, which was generally done though Dr. Russell and other medical practitioners, Jackie continues. For the actual act of bathing, there emerged a new class of profession among the former fishermen of the village: bathers and dippers. These were men and women who would “vigorously” plunge the guests into the icy cold seawater. Ladies were bathed by the dippers, while bathers took care of the gentlemen. Most famous of the dippers was a “rotund” woman named Martha Gunn, who is said to have worked/performed the role/held the position for more than 60 years, before retiring due to ill health at the impressive age of 88.
Brighton’s proximity to the city of London made a strong contribution to its growth and development as a recreational resort. To begin with, well-heeled visitors would ride here or travel by carriage. In 1841, the railway between the two cities was inaugurated, enabling more people to make their way to the seaside. Soon the prices for train tickets would drop, which allowed the lower social classes to join the trend as well.
Bathing machines, pools and bath houses
“In addition to bathing straight from the beach there were several seawater pools built by the waterfront, as well as enclosed bath houses”, Jackie says. People who bathed off the beach would do so from so called bathing machines, small wooden huts on wheels. These were usually drawn out into the sea by horses so that the bather could enter the water with some dignity, protected from being seen in their bathing costume.
In the late 18th century, there were six bathing machines each for women and men in Brighton. A hundred years later, in the 1880’s, these figures had increased to a total of approximately 250 units, thereby illustrating the strong progress of Brighton’s leisure industry during this period. At the beginning of the 20th century, bathing machines were taken out of use. Today only remnants of the culture remain visible, in the shape of brightly coloured kiosks that line the beach promenade.
By now, people would no longer bathe exclusively in collaboration with doctors and Dr. Russell’s remedy of drinking seawater ultimately fell out of fashion. However, the introduction of bath houses made bathing possible also for people too ill or too weak to bathe in the cold and often rough sea.
“Many of the bath houses stayed in use until the 1970’s, to serve the local population who had no running water at home, which was still often the case after World War II”, Jackie continues. In 1860 the Brighton Swimming Club was founded, with the purpose of teaching “the useful art of swimming”. At first, members of the club would have to meet up in the early mornings for their sessions, as this was the only time bathing without the use of a bathing machine was permitted.
From detriment to regeneration
Until the middle of the 20th century, mainly British people would come to Brighton on holiday. With the advent of affordable commercial flights though, the number of international tourists started to increase. At the same time, the advance of aviation took place to the detriment of domestic Brighton tourism, as Brits started discovering other beach locations where water temperatures and climate were much more enjoyable. And who could blame them?
The seaside resort of Brighton may have lost some of its former glory, but there is no lack of will to restore it. Along the seafront, various refurbishments are being carried out and in addition to that a new open-air swimming centre has been planned for. The latter will be located at Madeira Drive in east Brighton, about halfway between the amusement park at Palace Pier and Brighton Marina. Behind the project stands Sea Lanes Brighton Ltd, an organisation including among others members of the historic swimming club. At its heart is a year-round heated pool, providing the opportunity for swimmers to gain confidence in a kinder version of open water swimming before transferring to the real deal, which will be accessible by means of a wooden boardwalk.
“In a small way, the development of a new outdoor pool at the beachfront is closing the circle for our tradition of open-air and seawater bathing in Brighton”, Jackie concludes with a smile.
Foto: Johanna Bergström