If you were a member of a well-heeled eighteenth-century family in Yorkshire you may well have followed the advice of Dr Richard Russell(who wrote about these things) and headed for the Holderness coast for a restorative spell of sea bathing. When the cold grey waters of the North Sea had frozen you senseless you might have followed up your dip with a nauseous gulp of sea-water or sampled the local chalybeate spring water – all guaranteed to cure the colic, the melancholy, the vapours or whatever else ailed you.
To preserve modesty and decorum horse drawn bathing machines were provided for hire – mobile changing rooms that were hauled into the sea whilst within, ladies could shed the encumbrances of petticoats and pantaloons for a shift. The advent of the Miss Wet T-shirt competition was still some couple of hundred years off so these shifts were often made of a heavy material such as flannel or canvas, which ballooned out when wet to conceal a fair lady’s form and figure. Once suitably enveloped, the intrepid bather would emerge straight into the sea for the prescribed dose of three total immersions. She could then retire to the shelter of the bathing machine, modesty intact, to dry off and dress.
In this part of the world, the male of the species was permitted more licence and allowed to disport himself in his birthday suit provided he hired a boat, went off shore a little and dropped discreetly over the side. However, those of a more modest disposition could cover the dangly bits with a pair of drawers.
Eventually, Victorian sensibilities took over, demanding more male modesty. Naked bathing was banned around 1861-2; men and women bathers were to be kept sixty feet apart (presumably so as not to shock or over-stimulate the weaker sex) and proprietors of bathing huts were required to provide suitable bathing attire for their clientele. Those who persisted in the pernicious practice of skinny-dipping were punished – like George Large who was discovered, all rosy pink and starkers, bathing in the sea at Hornsea. He was arrested and fined three shillings plus costs.
Bathing machines arrived in Hornsea around the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Marine Hotel opened its doors to welcome genteel visitors – none of your riff-raff wanted here y’know. Not to be outdone Aldbrough further down the coast followed suit and catered for its visitors’ needs at the Talbot Hotel and the Spa Inn. However in Bridlington, the citizens were a bit more forward-thinking and provided both warm and cold sea water baths, under cover, which gave the faint of heart all the benefits of sea bathing without actually having to brave the ocean itself.
By the end of the eighteenth century sea bathing had taken off and even received the royal seal of approval from George III who being somewhat nesh, gave it a go in the soft southern waters off Weymouth.
Of course the arrival of the railway to the Holderness coast spoilt it all for the wealthy sea-bathers bringing as it did crowded carriages of escapees from daily drudgery all seeking A Good Time. What had been an exclusive practice became common-place fun and games, requiring the rich to seek playgrounds elsewhere wherein to seek cures for their numerous, real or imaginary ills.