Tobias George Smollett

A plan of Scarborough (1770) at the time of Smollet's visit
A plan of Scarborough (1770) at the time of Smollet's visit
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SHOULD you ever want to learn what it was like on board a warship in close combat during the days of wooden sail, then find and read a copy of Roderick Random, first published in 1748. Not the least of your discoveries would be the literal meaning of “loose cannon”.

Roderick Random was the first published novel of Tobias George Smollett (1721-71) and his terrifying, vivid account of the brutal realities of life at sea and naval warfare was based on personal experience. Trained in Glasgow as a surgeon, he had served on one of His Majesty’s ships of the line in the war against Spain, fought out mainly in the Caribbean. It was an experience he could never forget and would never repeat.

After living in Jamaica for a few years, he returned to London and began to make a career as author, editor, translator and literary critic.

After Roderick Random, came a succession of picaresque novels, ostensibly describing the adventures of travelling vagrants, vagabonds and eccentrics, but subtly attacking luxury, greed, selfishness, dishonesty and cruelty. His most serious work was a Complete History of England, which came out between 1755 and 1757.

Tobias was a martyr to poor health: he was asthmatic, bronchitic and tubercular. In search of relief, he travelled frequently to the warm shores of the Mediterranean, and took daily baths in the sea at Nice and Livorno. Though he found no permanent cure, he returned to London to write a sardonic account of his journeys in Travels Through France and Italy (1766).

For a time he lived in Bath and took the medicinal waters and bathed at the country’s premier spa, but even here he could find only temporary respite.

Smollett’s last novel, Humphry Clinker, was published in 1771, the year of his death. Set in the year 1768, it took the form of a series of letters written from stopping places on a route that began at Bath and ended in Scotland, taking in London, Harrogate, York and Scarborough.

Written at Scarborough and dated July 1, in the form of a letter, Jerry Melford described how sea-bathing was practised there in South Bay. Since the bathing machine was still unique to Scarborough, at some length he explained what it was and exactly how it was used there.

“A small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage” had a door at each end and a window on each side above an interior bench. The bather entered the contraption by wooden steps and then undressed himself inside. At the same time, a hired attendant yoked his horse to the sea end of the box and drew it into the water until it reached the level of the dressing-room. After the attendant had transferred the horse to the landward side, the naked bather then opened the seaward door and plunged headlong into the cold, rough, salty water.

Returning to his “apartment”, the bather then dried and dressed himself as his carriage was drawn back on to the sands. If the bather was too infirm to undress or redress himself there was sufficient room inside for a servant to help him. No explanation was given to what would happen if the bather could not swim or was paralysed by the freezing water, though full bodily immersion was prescribed.

When ladies bathed they had guides to attend them in the sea and they wore special flannel costumes for the occasion. If they were nervous undressing in the public view, their machine could be fitted with tilts to screen them from inquisitive eyes as they entered and left the water.

Smollett had much experience of sea-bathing both in England and abroad, yet at Scarborough he noted that the conditions for it were ideal. The beach was “gently gradual” and the sand as “soft as velvet”. He himself had no need of machines or attendants and found the cold water exhilarating, explaining that it braced “every sinew of the human frame”. Whether the exhilaration came before or after he had taken a hot bath he did not say or whether he had taken Dr Wittie’s advice we are not told, but a century after the doctor’s recommendation it seems that he had at least one happy convert. According to Jerry Melford, sea-bathing at Scarborough not merely raised the spirits, every day it cured a multitude of diseases.

Surprisingly, Smollett found little else to please him at the resort. Perhaps he had been spoiled by Bath where the company and the entertainments were far superior.

He had no comment to make on the town’s two Assembly Rooms, theatre, coffee house or bookshops, except to say that invalids coming to Scarborough would find the great number of steps leading down to the spa “inconvenient”.

As for Scarborough itself, he found it “a paltry town”, rescued only by its “romantic” situation “along a cliff that overhangs the Sea”. Like many other visitors whose eyes and expectations were turned only southwards towards the spa, the castle he regarded as redundant since “the invention of gunpowder”. He seemed unaware that it housed a permanent military barracks, newly built in brick into the curtain wall in 1746.

For such an experienced and sickly traveller who knew Bath and Nice so well, Scarborough might indeed have looked like a paltry town. By the 1760s it had lost its novelty attraction and had failed to keep up with many other inland spas, particularly Harrogate. Spawers were now outnumbered by sea bathers and Scarborough’s principal attractions had become its seaside location and its superb sands. Now it was much more a pleasure than a health retreat.

Smollett made his last journey to Italy in 1771 and was buried in Livorno where he had died.