The Bathing Machine

Dear CF,

I love reading autobiographies because of their incidental revelations. Here’s Agatha Christie explaining that amazing Victorian contraption intended to keep the sexes decorously apart: the bathing machine. Below, I’ve illustrated her account of what it was like to bathe in England. Note: everything after the three stars is quoted from p.162-167 of her autobiography except for one or two interjections in brackets.

* * *

A great social change came when I was about thirteen. Bathing as I first remember it was strictly segregated. There was a special Ladies’ Bathing Cove, a small stony beach, to the left of the Bath Saloons. The beach was a steeply sloping one, and on it there were eight bathing machines in the charge of an ancient man, of somewhat irascible temper, whose nonstop job was to let the machines up and down in the water. You entered your bathing machine–a gaily painted striped affair–saw that both doors were safely bolted, and began to undress with a certain amount of caution, because at any moment the elderly man might decide it was your turn to be let down into the water.

At that moment there would be a frantic rocking, and the bathing machine would grind its way slowly over the loose stones, flinging you about from side to side. In fact the action was remarkably similar to that of a Jeep or a Land Rover nowadays, when traversing the more rocky parts of the desert.

The bathing machine would stop as suddenly as it had started. You then proceeded with your undressing and got into your bathing dress. This was an unaesthetic garment, usually made of dark blue or black alpaca, with numerous skirts, flounces and frills, reaching well down below the knees, and over the elbow.

Once fully attired, you unbolted the door on the water side. If the old man had been kind to you, the top step was practically level with the water. You descended and there you were, decorously up to your waist.

You then proceeded to swim. There was a raft not too far out, to which you could swim and pull yourself up and sit on it. At low tide it was quite near; at high tide it was quite a good swim, and you had it more or less to yourself. Having bathed as long as you liked, which for my part was a good deal longer than any grown-up accompanying me was inclined to sanction, you were signalled to come back to shore—but as they had difficulty in getting at me once I was safely on the raft, and anyway I proceeded to swim in the opposite direction, I usually managed to prolong it to my own pleasure.

(Above: “A Swimming-class at Brighton, 1871.” Below, a photograph of women welcoming a newcomer into the water in Brighton. (h/t))

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There was of course no such thing as sunbathing on the beach. Once you left the water you got into your bathing machine, you were drawn up with the same suddenness with which you had been let down, and finally emerged, blue in the face, shivering all over, with hands and cheeks died away to a state of numbness.

This, I may say, never did me any harm, and I was as warm as toast again in about three-quarters of an hour. I then sat on the beach and ate a bun while I listened to exhortations on my bad conduct in not having come out sooner. Grannie, who always had a fine series of cautionary tales, would explain to me how Mrs. Fox’s little boy (“such a lovely creature”) had gone to his death of pneumonia, entirely from disobeying his elders and staying in the sea too long. Partaking of my currant bun, or whatever refreshment I was having, I would reply dutifully, “No, Grannie, I won’t stay in as long next time. But actually, Grannie, the water was really warm.”

“Really warm, was it indeed? Then why are you shivering from head to foot? Why are your fingers so blue?”

Beacon Terrace in 1888, 2 years before Agatha was born

The advantage of being accompanied by a grown-up person, especially Grannie, was that we would go home in a cab from the Strand, instead of having to walk a mile and a half. The Torbay Yacht Club was stationed on Beacon Terrace, just above the Ladies’ Bathing Cove, and although the beach was properly invisible from the club windows, the sea around the raft was not, and, according to my father, a good many of the gentlemen spent their time with opera glasses enjoying the sight of female figures displayed in what they hopefully thought of as almost a state of nudity! I don’t think we can have been sexually very appealing in those shapeless garments.

(The French, of course were an entirely different story—see below:)

The Gentlemen’s Bathing Cove was situated farther along the coast. There the gentlemen, in their scanty triangles, could disport themselves as much as they pleased, with no female eye able to observe them from any point whatever.

[Still searching for a photo of the mythical men’s “scanty triangles.”]

The first thing mixed bathing entailed was wearing far more clothing than before. Even French ladies had always bathed in stockings, so that no sinful bare legs could be observed. I have no doubt that, with natural French chic, they managed to cover themselves from their necks to their wrists, and with lovely thin silk stockings outlining their beautiful legs, looked far more sinfully alluring than if they had worn a good old short-skirted British bathing dress of frilled alpaca. I really don’t know why legs were considered so improper: throughout Dickens there are screams when any lady thinks that her ankles have been observed. The very word was considered daring. One of the first nursery axioms was always uttered if you mentioned those pieces of those anatomy: “Remember, the Queen of Spain has no legs.” “What does she have instead, Nursie?” “Limbs, dear, that is what we call them; arms and legs are limbs.”

[snip]

Not Agatha's rock--these ladies are in Ontario--but a delightful photo nevertheless, no?

Bathing dresses continued to be very pure practically up to the time I was first married. Though mixed bathing was accepted by then, it was still regarded as dubious by the older ladies and more conservative families. But progress was too strong, even for my mother. We often took to the sea on such beaches as were given over to the mingling of the sexes. It was allowed first on Tor Abbey Sands and Corbin’s Head Beach, which were more or less main town beaches. We did not bathe there anyway—our beaches were supposed to be too crowded. Then mixed bathing was allowed on the more aristocratic Meadfoot Beach. This was another good twenty minutes away, and therefore made your walk to bathe rather a long one, practically two miles. However, Meadfoot Beach was much more attractive than the Ladies’ Bathing Cove: bigger, wider, with an accessible rock a good way out to which you could swim if you were a strong swimmer.

The Ladies’ Bathing Cove remained sacred to segregation, and the men were left in peace in their dashing triangles. As far as I can remember, the men were not particularly anxious to avail themselves of the joys of mixed bathing; they stuck rigidly to their own private preserve. Such as arrived at Meadfoot were usually embarrassed by the sight of their sisters’ friends in what they still considered a state of near nudity.

It was at first the rule that I should wear stocking when I bathed. I don’t know how French girls kept their stockings on: I was quite unable to do so. Three or four vigorous kicks when swimming, and my stockings were dangling off altogether or else wrapped round my ankles like fetters by the time I emerged. I think that the French girls one saw bathing in fashion plates owed their smartness to the fact that they never actually swam, only walked gentle into the sea and out again, to parade the beach.

A pathetic tale was told of the Council Meeting at which the question of mixed bathing came up for final approval. A very old Councillor, a vehement opponent, finally defeated, quavered out his last plea:

“And all I say is, Mr. Mayor, if this ‘ere mixed bathing is carried through, that there will be decent partitions in the bathing machines, however low.”

2 Responses to The Bathing Machine

  1. Carla Fran says:

    Two thoughts:
    Scanty triangles: possible slang for shirtwaists, a la the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (of infamous burning). And thus, shirt waists were the under shirty thing that you put shirtfronts and whatnot onto?

    Have you seen the New Yorker piece on Dame Agatha? The best portrait of her, really one meant to ripped out and hung over a desk.

  2. Connie says:

    What a wonderful story. I don’t recall ever hearing about bathing machines until reading a Victorian novel by M. C. Beaton. I had to do a search to find out just what it was. So glad I found this article. Very informative and I loved the pictures.

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