Monday, March 15, 2010


I admit to not knowing much about Queen Victoria and Albert. I knew more about the Victorian era and Victorian prudery and her wearing of black for the rest of her life after Albert died. But about the persons of the Queen and her Prince I really knew very little.

A new book just came out about them and once again I have had to put everything aside while I read this book from cover to cover. Having spent a bit of time in England I was fairly familiar with the places the book talks about but less so with the monarchs and their lifestyle.

I was really surprised when I ran into a sentence that said: “She (Victoria) liked to sail, and she found it refreshing to immerse herself in the sea in the sanctuary of her bathing machine.” I didn’t have a clue as to what a bathing machine was. And the book offered no clue.

There is a famous engraving by William Heath done about 1829 which shows women, called “dippers,” who assisted the bather both in and out of the sea, as well as in some cases actually pushing them into the water and then yanking them out quickly as part of their bathing experience.
Apparently I am one of the few who didn’t know all about them. But quick learner that I am, I discovered that almost every culture that has the sea close at hand has gone through a period of using these machines for modesty’s sake. They were in fashion as early as 1805 and still being used as late as 1910.

Victoria wrote in her journal in 1847: “Drove down to the beach with my maids and went into the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the first time in my life), a very nice bathing woman attending me. I thought it delightful till I put my head under the water....”

For the most part, these bathing machines were four-wheeled carriages with an 8’x8’x10’ room set on it, made either of canvas or wood sides. It had a door that closed tightly but no windows. The person got into the "machine" on the beach while in their street clothes and changed into the bathing apparel. Then the machine was either pulled by horses or by human power down to the water. The door had to face the ocean, so when the person opened the door he or she could step down a small set of stairs and enter the water with great privacy.

Since the book did not elaborate on exactly what Queen Victoria experienced, we don’t know if she used “dippers” or not, but you can be sure great attention was paid to getting her out of the bathing machine and into the water without even the tiniest glimpse of the Royal tush or the Regal bosom. Below is a photo of Victoria's bathing machine.

As the years went on, the bathing machine evolved to a higher level and some of the machines were pulled in and out by cables propelled by a steam engine.

Well, I certainly learned something new, and though I doubt if I’ll ever read another book that talks about a bathing machine, learning new things are good for a person. Left to my own devices to figure out what a bathing machine might be, I might have pictured a big wash tub type thing that people sat in and while they were being pulled down to the sea water some brushes inside the tub rubbed the grime of the day off the bather, like an old agitator washing machine.

Anyway, now I know the facts. Makes me wonder what else I’ll find in this excellent book before I reach the end. Incidentally, the book is called “We Two - Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals” by Gillian Gill.

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