Teignmouth developed from the mid-eighteenth century to become one of the earliest resorts along the Devon coast and became styled “the Montpellier of England”.
In the late 18th to the mid 19th century sea bathing was a serious business, because it was all to do with the beneficial health effects of seawater. Even drinking large quantities of salty water was considered to be beneficial to health.
Sea bathing was a brief plunge into the ocean from one to three times in the morning. This was assisted by the servants called dippers, who plunged the bather’s head under water for the requisite one to three dips and also served to keep them from drowning. So the main aim in taking a constitutional sea dip was not so much for the paddle or swim, but simply to benefit from the wonderfully soothing healthy minerals the seawater was said to provide.
In 1789 the bathing machine took off in a big way; it was something for the gentry to be seen using. The reason? King George III had one especially custom built, and the place favoured for his bathing activities was Weymouth. To be a royal ‘dipper’ was really something, and a contemporary description describes them thus:
“The bathing-machines make it [‘God Save the King’] their motto over all their windows; and those bathers that belong to the royal dippers wear it in bandeaus on their bonnets, to go into the sea; and have it again, in large letters, round their waists, to encounter the waves. Flannel dresses, tucked up, and no shoes or stockings, with bandeaus and girdles, have a most singular appearance; and when first I surveyed these loyal nymphs it was with some difficulty I kept my features in order.”
It was observed that the King bathed in the nude for its health giving and odour-reducing benefits – and he was not one for just the constitutional dip; he loved to swim, too, and gave many of his assistants anxious times.
The sea bathing ritual often took place before 10 o’clock in the morning, presumably because few other people were about at that time. An attendant assisted bathers to get dressed for the ordeal inside the ‘machine’, and then wheeled it into the sea so that the bather didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being seen from the shore. After dipping their customer in the water, the attendant would then winch the machine back up the beach.
In “A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing places” published in 1803, the bathing machines in Teignmouth were described as “sufficiently commodious and well attended. The beach, composed of velvet sands, with occasional layers of small pebbles, gradually slopes to the sea, which is generally clear and clean, and sheltered from all except the east winds.”
When the pier was completed in Teignmouth in1867 its position in the centre of the resort made a convenient dividing line for the bathing machines – Gentlemen’s machines to the west, and Ladies’ machines to the east.
A photograph at Teign Heritage Centre shows an Edwardian family on Teignmouth beach with a bathing machine. But as times passed and Victorian persuasion dimmed, mixed bathing was the norm and gradually the bathing machines were scrapped or became beach huts.