Sea Bathing and Other Brighton Pastimes
Updated: May 5
by Kara Pleasants, author of The Unread Letter
The first time I ever heard of Brighton, it was in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—the place where Lydia notoriously flirted and then ran away with the villain Wickham. I had always thought that Austen hated Brighton, but found out in the course of my research that this is a common misconception! A transcription error of her published letters misprinted the city “Brighton” in a letter where she wrote that she “dread[ed] the idea of going” there. In fact, the city she dreaded was not Brighton, but Brookham.
The transcription error has been corrected, but the myth of Austen’s dislike of the city lives on. In fact, Jane Austen did enjoy visiting the seaside and partook in the popular activity of sea bathing. While there isn’t historical evidence that Austen visited Brighton herself, she certainly had first-hand knowledge of the place from her brother, Henry Austen, who served there in the militia (exactly the sort who might have thrown Kitty and Lydia’s hearts into flutterings, were it not for the fact that he later became a clergyman).
My novella, The Unread Letter, takes the Bennet family to Brighton and the English Channel after Elizabeth decides (sort of by accident) not to read Mr. Darcy’s letter. Without knowing the dangers that Wickham poses, she and the whole family follow a new path. Writing the novella was a wonderful virtual escape for me, and I enjoyed exploring the Sussex countryside through websites, blogs, family history, and my own memories of a visit as a preteen.
Brighton has a long and rich history, being an important fishing town even before the Prince Regent, George, became fond of the place and turned it into a tourist destination for the rich and famous members of the ton. Brighton was also a place where shipwrights built ships and a busy port where sailors from all around the world mingled together—a multicultural landscape that has not diminished in its popularity ever since it became London-by-the-sea in the early 1800s.
Sea bathing as a cure of ailments dates back at least to the 17th century in England; Dr. Russell from Lewes is famous for popularizing taking the waters of the sea (and even drinking seawater) as a cure at Brighton in the mid 1700s. He prescribed sea bathing as a treatment for patients, and it exploded in popularity. Early sea-bathers went straight into the water, and the first use of a bathing machine happened around 1750. At first, the sexes were mixed, but later the beaches designated separate areas from men and women—a separation that would last all the way through the early 20th century.
A bathing machine was a cart often pulled by a horse into the sea. A “dipper” was in charge of helping female clients and patients in and out of the sea; many of the bathers did not necessarily know how to swim.
Brighton boasted of a famous dipper named Mary Gunn who was admired by the Prince Regent. Apparently, she was particularly good at plunging people into the water. While a “dipper” was in charge of getting ladies into the water, a “bather” was in charge of getting the men into the water. Bathers and dippers were in business from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s.
I encountered some articles that claimed women had to wear woolen garments to bathe, but more probing revealed that often women bathed in the nude and there was some choice involved as to whether or not to put on the garments. I featured this quirk of history in my story, allowing some characters to discard clothes altogether in the water. Other forms of entertainment that cropped up in Brighton in the Victorian period included tea-parties on the water, as depicted in this picture (but alas was a bit after the Regency period and did not factor into my story).
Taking the waters of the sea was not the only way to use water to treat ailments. Another famous figure in Brighton who popularized “vapour baths” was Sake Deem Mohamad—also known as “Dr. Brighton.” Originally born in India, he emigrated to England and established a bathing house in Brighton that was so popular the Prince Regent himself frequented his establishment and had a bath installed at his rebuilt Royal Pavilion. Known as a “shampooing doctor,” Mohamad used traditional massage methods from India. The word “shampoo” was an Anglicized version of the Hindu word “champo,” and over time has evolved from its original meaning of a head massage to how we use the word today.
Going to a house for a massage and taking to the sea were likely liberating experiences for men and women during the Regency period. Although I didn’t explore the bath houses of Brighton in my novella, sea bathing and swimming are featured heavily, with the call of the sea as a running motif. I have always loved the sea. I always related to Elizabeth’s long walks in nature, and so in this story I chose to explore how putting Elizabeth in a new setting—in water—would impact her. The open sea opens up a whole new set of possibilities for her, just as I imagine it did in the minds of people who first popularized sea bathing so long ago.