“Promiscuous Bathing” Shocked England In The 1850s

by Mimi Matthews

“Indecency among the Margate Bathers comes round as regularly as the season itself.” – The Era, 23 July 1865

In Victorian England, it was generally believed that the sexes should be kept apart when bathing. To that end, the gentlemen’s wheeled bathing machines at the beach were often kept as much as a quarter of a mile away from the ladies’ machines. This allowed both ladies and gentlemen to enter their respective machines, change into their swimming costumes, and descend into the waves for a swim all without exposing themselves to the lascivious gazes of the opposite sex. There was only one problem — many Victorian ladies and gentlemen actually wanted to swim in company with each other. When they did so, the scandalous practice was known as promiscuous bathing.

margateThe Harbor, Margate, England, 1890-1900 (Library of Congress)

Though promiscuous bathing was quite popular on the continent, especially in France, in Victorian England the sight of men and women bathing together was still considered to be rather indecent. In the seaside town of Margate, this indecency was exacerbated by the fact that some gentlemen did not feel the need to put on their bathing drawers and, instead, emerged from their bathing machines in what the 2 September 1854 edition of the Leeds Times describes as an “entirely primitive state.” Once in the water, these naked gentlemen had no compunction about approaching the female bathers nearby. As the Leeds Times reports:

“We counted a party of five females—we cannot call them ladies—who were engaged, amidst shouts of laughter from the bystanders on the beach, with a gentleman, in a splashing match. They were as close together as if they were of the same party.”

bathingmachineimageA man dressing in a bathing machine. Wood engraving by J. Leech (Wellcome Images)

The men and women who engaged in promiscuous bathing at Margate did so in front of a very interested public audience, some of whom employed telescopes to get a better view of the indecency. During the 1854 incident with the naked gentlemen, the Leeds Times reports that:

“The beach was thronged with admiring spectators, and many of them with glasses, although they were not required, as the bathers, from the high tide, were close to the shore.”

Margate soon developed a reputation as a seaside town which attracted a particularly brazen variety of promiscuous bather. According to the 23 July 1865 edition of the Era:

“There must be something morally infectious in the atmosphere of this popular watering place that induces men and women to do that at Margate which they would blush even to be thought capable of doing in any other locality—namely, disregarding all those social observances which are usually called decency in men, and modesty in women.”

margatebathingSea Bathing at Margate (Wellcome Images)

At Margate, there was no effort made to keep a marked distance between the men’s and women’s bathing machines and the public promenade. At any given time, those strolling along the fashionable walk had full view of men and women frolicking together in the water. As the Era describes it:

“The bathers of both sexes romp, laugh, and perform all kinds of antics in which the actual nudity of the men is infinitely less offensive to our sense of decency than the modest immodesty of the clinging gossamer vestment in which the females cover, without hiding, their forms.”

Just as in the 1850s, the crowds at Margate during the 1860s often used telescopes to get a better view of the “nude groups and sportive syrens” in the water. As an additional point of interest, the Era reports that these “magnifying mediums” were as likely to be used by ladies as by gentlemen. This fact seems to confirm their general view that Margate was not a place which attracted “truly modest women.” Instead, it was “compelled to submit to an inferior society” whose delicacy would not be outraged by sights which had become “a chronic evil.”

Those Victorians who objected to the promiscuous bathing at Margate — especially the sort of promiscuous bathing which involved naked gentlemen — urged the Magistrate to intervene in separating the sexes. As the Era explains, it was well within the Town Council’s power to keep the male and female bathing machines “so far apart as to do away at once with all cause of scandal.” It was also within their power to enact by-laws which would “compel every male bather, after certain hours of the morning, to wear the proper bathing drawers.”

bathingmachinepunch“Ahem! Pray Excuse me, Madam My Bathing-Machine I think.” Punch, October 1870

The outcry over promiscuous bathing was not limited to fashionable British seaside resorts and watering holes. In 1896, for example, a London man who was visiting Llandudno was cited for swimming with this three sisters. The 20 August edition of the Yorkshire Evening Post reports that he later received a summons to court for “unlawfully bathing within 200 yards of the ladies bathing ground.” Similarly, at Ayr in 1899, a meeting of police commissioners discussed the feasibility of separating the sexes when swimming. According to the 14 September edition of the Dundee Courier, several law enforcement officers at the meeting declared that “it was impossible to keep the sexes apart.” It was equally impossible to get the men to put on bathing drawers, despite the fact that, as the Dundee Courier states:

“There were bathing dresses for men and women in every machine, and there were printed rules that they were not to bathe without them.”

Promiscuous bathing would continue to be a subject of some concern well into the twentieth century, with one 1922 publication even going so far as to proclaim that “this thing of public and promiscuous bathing of men and women is a degenerating evil for which there is no excuse whatever.”

Top image: The Gentlemen’s Machines are Too Close to the Ladies (Wellcome Images)

This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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