Sea Bathing and the First Bathing Machine at Scarborough: Part I

This is an article originally published in the Yorkshire Journal (Spring Issue, 2012) by Sarah Harrison. She has kindly given permission for her work to be republished here.

Sea Bathing and the First Bathing Machine at Scarborough

Scarborough rapidly became a fashionable spa town and the first original English seaside resort after the discovery, in about 1626 (by a Mrs. Farrer) of natural mineral springs at the South Bay. It also saw the arrival of the first bathing machines in 1735.

“Taking the Waters” quickly became Scarborough’s accepted medicine and its fame promptly spread.

Dr Robert Wittie of Hull was the main medical supporter promoting the mineral waters, and in 1660 he published his book Scarborough Spa, in which he proclaimed “the waters” as a cure for all ills. He also began promoting the health benefits of sea bathing. Furthermore, at around 1730, Peter Shaw, a popular spa doctor and chemist in Scarborough wrote about the advantages of ‘Bathing in the Sea’ at the end of his ‘Dissertation upon the Scarborough Waters’.

Indeed, at this time, doctors began promoting sea-bathing as a healthy pastime. They gave plenty of advice on the best way to bathe: briefly, healthy males for five minutes before breakfast daily; the ‘weaker sex’, invalids and children for three dips of two minutes duration three hours after breakfast three times a week!

To encourage sea bathing a horse-drawn box on wheels could be hired to take the bather out into the sea, enabling the occupier to undress before ‘dipping’ in the sea.


Above: John Setterington’s engraving of the first bathing machine at Scarborough, 1735. The engraving shows an elaborate wooden hut on four wheels, with a window, located close to the water with an attendant holding the door open for a bather. A carriage rider and three people, one with a horse, are visible on the beach. In the sea nearby are four swimmers. This engraving s the first recorded evidence of the use of a bathing machine, and can be seen in Scarborough Public Library where copies are available for sale (published here via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2012)

The bathing machines was first pioneered at Scarborough’s seaside resort for women, who entered the sea clad in vast garments, helped by female servants, from horse drawn wooden sheds on wheels. It was quite acceptable for men to bathe or swim naked from boats or the sands. When the railways came, in 1845, greater numbers of trippers crowded onto the beach. Rules were quickly introduced specifying bathing areas, distances to be kept between men and women and bathing clothes to be worn, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.


Above: The gentry at the popular seaside town of Scarborough in 1776. A number of bathing machines can be seen on the seashore – two are close to the sea itself (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2012)

Respectability was enforced, but attitudes changed in 1871 when it was thought absurd that a ‘house’, a horse and an attendant were necessary to get someone into the sea. By 1904 Scarborough had bathing tents beyond the Spa and on the North Sands.


Above: The North Bay at Scarborough, looking south towards Castle Hill on the headland and the new Marine Drive. This old photo shows the beach populated with holidaymakers, deck chairs and bathing machines (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2012)


Above: This old photo shows the Grand Hotel, which was completed in 1867, being one of the largest hotels in the world and one of the first purpose-built hotels in Europe. The cliff tram does not appear in the photo – it was built in 1875 after this photo was taken. On the sands below are a number of bathing machines awaiting the day’s bathers. The horses await their turn to draw the machines with their occupants into the sea (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2012)

The bathing machines in the photo are Walshaw’s and Browne’s. Other Scarborough proprietors were Morrison, Crosby and Rawling. Mr Rawling also owned Rawling’s Field, close to the North Bay, which he eventually sold to the Scarborough Corporation for the development of the North Bay Bathing Pool.

To be continued…


To see the article in its original format, please visit the Yorkshire Journal (Spring, 2012). All copyright retained by the author.

Many thanks to Sarah for sharing this article with Stories From Scarborough! Look out for part 2, coming soon…