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28 October 2014

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Remembering the days of bathing machines
Phillip Carter
Phillip Carter at Teignmouth Pier
A Devon man is researching the history of bathing machines...and he's uncovered some bizarre stories!
By: Jo Bishop.
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Bathing machines...once an essential part of the seaside experience, but these days, sadly, a rarely seen relic of days gone by.

Often the cause of much mirth (I mean, could you imagine them being used NOW?!), they are a lovely reminder of a much more genteel era, when modesty was everything.

One man trying to find out more about them is historian Phillip Carter, from Newton Abbot.

Phillip has been researching the history of bathing machines in Devon, on behalf of the South West Coast Path Association.

And he's already uncovered some interesting facts. For example, the annual festive dip is nothing new - the Victorians also enjoyed a winter swim.

But it came at a higher price than going for a dip in the summer.

Bathing machines in Torquay in 19th century
Bathing machines in Torquay in the 19th century

Among the papers he found he noticed that to hire a bathing machine in Dawlish in 1817 would cost 6d from June to September, but one shilling for the rest of the year.

Phillip said: "It seems a bit hard that you had to pay more when the water was cooler."

Bathing machines are believed to have originated in Margate or Scarborough as early as 1735 and later that century they arrived in Devon, probably first being seen in Exmouth and Dawlish.

The idea was to preserve bathers' modesty and some bathing machines had hoods to cover people right until they got into the water.

"Like stage-coaches they live in folk memory as something 'Dickensian' from the mid-Victorian period. In fact, like stage-coaches they were in use for a much longer period than that," said Phillip.

"Different proprietors were often allocated different portions of the beach and bathers who did not wish to use machines were then forbidden to bathe there."

The machines had few facilities, probably not much more than a hook to hang clothes on and no windows, again to preserve modesty.

There were also separate areas for men and women to bathe, often separated by a pier if there was one.

There was a case in Paignton where a man was taken to court because he had bathed next to the ladies bathing machine.

In fact mixed bathing only came about in the 20th century. And Eastbourne fought against it until after the First World War.

Bathing machines were in use on beaches in Torbay until the mid 1930s.

As people became more liberated they were gradually phased out, but continued in use as garden sheds.

Article published: 26th December 2004.

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