Nostalgia: Braving ‘the great abyss’

John Settrington's print of an early bathing machine and naked bathers at Scarborough.
John Settrington's print of an early bathing machine and naked bathers at Scarborough.

For centuries Christians had feared the open sea: Biblical references to it were negative and fearful. In Genesis, the waters were “the great abyss” out of which God created the land. The garden of Eden had a river but no sea; the great flood was an instrument of God’s punishment. In its unfathomable depths, the sea harboured huge monsters such as the great whale which swallowed disobedient Jonah. Before his retirement in 1612, Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest.

Only fishermen who had no choice but to put to sea and foolhardy explorers in search of trade and treasure ventured out into the open ocean for which maps were irrelevant. As for the sands at Scarborough, they were useful only for landing and selling fish.

Mrs Thomasin Farrer is reputed to have become the first to suggest that mineral springs running out of the base of the sea cliffs at Driple Cotes had medical properties. That was sometime in the late 1620s. It was not until about 40 years later that Dr Robert Wittie gave his professional endorsement to the spa waters.

However, by that time, there were already a dozen or so major resorts, principally Bath, Bristol, Tunbridge Wells, Epsom, Buxton and Harrogate, where the elite gentry and aristocracy gathered to take the waters and enjoy each other’s company. Scarborough’s unique claim was that its wells were at the seaside, not inland. Moreover, in 1667, when Wittie published a second account of Scarborough’s superiority, he added another unique attraction, sea-bathing.

Dr Wittie was the first qualified physician (he had degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford) to recommend sea-bathing as a therapy. From his own tried and tested experiments, he suggested that sufferers from gout should immerse themselves regularly and fully in South Bay, Scarborough. Plunging naked into the turbulent, salty, frigid sea there, followed by “a sweat in a warm bath”, had been a remedy for his own gout, then a most common complaint of the well-to-do.

According to Wittie and many other physicians who followed him, Scarborough’s South Bay possessed all the natural advantages for bathers. High cliffs behind the beach sheltered it from the coldest, northerly winds; the wide sweep of the bay opened it to fresh, bracing breezes; since there were no substantial fresh water streams running out into the bay, the sea water was especially salty; and, finally, the roughness of the incoming waves gave the bather an exhilarating and invigorating frisson!

What Wittie failed to emphasize was that the ideal bathing site was right next to the spa well and that both were accessible from the town by way of an extensive, flat, firm, clean, sandy shore. The sands of South Bay, as others later pointed out, were free of hills, rocks and shingle and they therefore allowed bathers and spawers to walk, ride their carriages and even gallop their horses in perfect safety along the edge of the sea. As William Hutton was to write of the beach in 1804: “a space of pure sand, two hundred yards wide and eleven hundred long [at low tide], the most pleasing, safe and useful I ever saw; perfectly adapted for the foot, the horse and the carriage.”

Nevertheless, Wittie’s revelations were slow to take hold and effect. How and where were the bathers to undress? How were they to reach the deeper water at low tide? How were they to dry and re-clothe themselves after they had bathed? And what about the ladies? Didn’t they suffer from gout?

Early visitors to Scarborough’s well(s) were generally unimpressed. Cecil Warburton, a Cheshire baronet, who spent two weeks there in the summer of 1700, drank only five pints instead of the recommended four quarts a day, and found that they smelled of ink and tasted of acid. He never even mentioned sea-bathing.

Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, was a 72-year-old widow when she made the long, tedious and painful journey in her own coach from St Albans to Scarborough in July 1732. She had already tried the waters of Tunbridge Wells and Bath, but they had given her no relief from acute gout and scurvy. To have undertaken such an arduous journey, even in the relative comfort of her own carriage, indicates how desperate and determined this grand lady had become. To her evident disappointment and unconcealed disgust she found Scarborough “very dirty and expresses vast poverty in every part of it”. Worst was her experience at the ladies’ spa-house where they were expected, after the purge, to relieve themselves in public and then clean themselves with leaves!

The duchess left Scarborough after nearly six weeks having drunk its waters rarely and mostly bottled and still plagued with the excruciating pain of gout. She had refused to bathe in the sea and wrote that only one of the company, the Duchess of Manchester, had braved a ducking in the cold, salt water. On the other hand, one of the only few “agreeable” members of the group, Lord Chesterfield, said that so many ladies had been “desporting” themselves that there was a rumour that bathers were soon to be taxed according to the volume of water they had displaced!

In 1734, there appeared the first detailed published account of what Scarborough had to offer visitors of quality. Amongst the town’s amenities was sea-bathing:

It is the Custom, for not only the Gentlemen, but the Ladies also, to bathe in the Sea: The Gentlemen go out a little way to Sea in Boats (call’d here Cobbles) and jump in naked directly; ‘tis usual for Gentlemen to hire one of these Boats, and put out a little way to Sea fishing. The Ladies have the Conveniency of Gowns and Guides. There are two little Houses on the Shore, to retire for Dressing in.

Only a year later, John Settrington’s print shows what must be the earliest picture of a wheeled bathing machine on the edge of the sea, coble boats with stern tents for dressing under, and five or six stark-naked men swimming and wading in the water.

About the same time, John Atkins, a naval surgeon who wrote travel books, in a work called The Celebrated Waters of Scarborough, said that the men went beyond the Spaw to undress while “the ladies have guides, rooms and conveniences, for it, under the cliff”.

So, at last, more than six decades after Dr Wittie had recommended cold-sea bathing, it was beginning to be practised in an organised fashion. The bathing machine was born.

[to be continued]