Doctors and the Invention of the Georgian English Seaside


Women swimming in the sea at Brighton. Coloured etching by W. Heath. Wellcome Library reference: 15654i.

Examining Georgian England’s new craze for sea-bathing.


By Dr. Jane Darcy
Lecturer in Romanticism
King’s College London


The Wellcome Library has a first edition of a book by a Sussex doctor, Richard Russell, published in 1753, entitled A Dissertation Concerning the use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands. Who would have guessed – Russell certainly didn’t – that this serious medical book would have such a dramatic effect? In it he instanced case histories of numerous patients who reported spectacular improvements in their health after bathing in the sea in nearby Brighton. For example, he treats with seawater a farmer’s wife who complained of colic. Over a period of time she “voided 300 stones”. And two years later, she was “delivered of a healthy child,” whether directly attributable to the powers of sea water or not, he doesn’t say.

Sea-bathing machine at Margate, Wellcome Images reference: L0010797.

Other doctors were quick to jump on the bandwagon, recommending trips to the seaside for almost any condition. Along the south coast, in particular, sleepy fishing villages were redeveloped as seaside resorts as patients flocked to their shores. Physicians obviously had a vested interest in insisting that patients took professional medical advice first. Because at a spa town you’d expect both to bathe in and drink the pungent waters, you wouldn’t have been surprised if your doctor encouraged you to drink sea water as well. You could dilute it with milk if you didn’t like the taste. It’s a relief to note that this practice dropped out of fashion.

Medical opinion on a range of seaside-related issues varied considerably. A Dr Robert White, who in 1775 published The Use and Abuse of Sea Water Impartially Considered gives dire warnings to anyone who attempts an unsupervised cure. Several of his patients who wilfully ignore him wind up dead.

Then there was the matter of diet. The Wellcome has a tiny, cheap-looking pamphlet dated 1798 by one Dr Squirrell. He advises extreme caution about the whole thing, but for anyone hell bent on taking to the sea, he recommends “a proper dose of Tonic Powders”. By coincidence at the back of the booklet there’s an advertisement for just such Tonic Powders – prepared by Dr Squirrell himself.

Another doctor criticised those fellow professionals that encouraged patients to starve themselves before bathing. He recommends a “good nourishing diet” of meat. Fruit and vegetables, obviously, are dangerous and should be eaten sparingly. One of his female patients, he says, “was thrown into the most violent pain, and spasmodic convulsions of the stomach” by nibbling fruit. Alcohol, on the other hand, is clearly beneficial. “We may venture to lay it down as a rule, without exception” he writes, that “the moderate use of strong liquors … necessarily make a part of the regimen to be observed throughout the cure”: “beer, spirits diluted with water, or wine cannot do harm.”

Two women bathing in the sea; a woman attendant stands to the left. Wood engraving (J.S.&Co.). Wellcome Library reference: 35237i.

Encouraged by this, I then decided to investigate the nitty-gritty of the seaside dip. What did you wear? Did you actually swim? And who were these ‘dippers’ the doctors wrote of? The Library has a range of revealing 18th and 19th century prints, including some fabulous Thomas Rowlandsons. Dippers feature in many cartoons, cheerful-looking men and women up to their waists in water, whose job it is to encourage, or frequently push, bathers beneath the waves.

Margate, Kent: a woman diving off a bathing wagon in to the sea. Coloured etching, Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1800. Wellcome Library reference: 35132i.

The bathing machine is the only seaside technology (deckchairs have yet to be invented). These sort of horse-drawn beach huts in which bathers could change seem to provide endless amusement. A Quaker, Benjamin Beale, invented a cloth awning so that modest females would be protected from sight. But several of the more saucy images show that not all women bathers worried too much about being seen, even when cliff tops abound with gents wielding hired telescopes.

It all looks rather too much fun. One suspects that the doctors were losing the battle to control the seaside.


Originally published by Wellcome Library, 10.20.2015, under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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