Oh, they did like to be beside the seaside!
As summer gets into full swing, English teacher and Jane Austen expert Christine Hughes extols the pleasures of the seaside, Georgian style
Sea Bathing by Thomas Rowlandson, an 1813 work from this collection Poetical Sketches of Scarborough
In 1789 King George III undertook a prolonged stay at Weymouth as an attempt to restore his health after a serious illness. With his son the Prince of Wales simultaneously establishing his patronage at Brighton, it is no surprise that by the late eighteenth century sea bathing at a seaside resort had become a genteel and popular pastime.
Jane Austen, like other members of the Georgian gentry, visited the seaside in search of similar health benefits to those that had long been promoted at spa towns such as Bath. New and novel treatments were also proclaimed by medical experts such as Dr Richard Russell, whose seminal work Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, was published in 1752. In Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, set in a fictional Sussex fishing village, the character Mr Parker shows how other coastal places were quick to capitalise on the trend, declaring that “this young and rising Bathing-place, [is] certainly the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex.”
Bathing machines were a common site along the newly fashionable beaches. Tobias Smolett’s epistolary novel Humphry Clinker (1771) contains the following, vivid, description.
“Betwixt the well and the harbour, the bathing machines are ranged along the beach, with all their proper utensils and attendants. You have never seen one of these machines—image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below—
The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next [to] the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end—The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water—
After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up—Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people.”
As time went on, the Georgians increasingly came to value seaside resorts for their beauty and freedom, rather than for the sea’s healing powers. Describing the Dorset resort of Lyme Regis in Persuasion, Austen writes “the scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation.” “These places must be visited, and visited again, to make the worth of Lyme understood,” she says later.
A print showing a view of Lyme Regis from A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places, John Feltham, 1803
That there is a timeless value in revisiting favourite places and contemplating the view is a something we can still learn from the Georgians.