Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks

Excerpts from Chapter 3

Although religious influence has nowadays receded, its power cannot just be turned off; rather its legacy echoes throughout our culture with the insistence on rules remaining evident everywhere. Unlike our European partners, we British are keen to do the right thing and especially to make sure that others do so. Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, we as a culture have felt it our duty to poke our nose into other people's business and take decision making out of their hands. We are told what to eat and drink, what to think and exactly how to bring up our children. The rules may change from week to week, but the nation follows in a game of 'Simon says' that has been played out for decades. We are frightened of doing the wrong thing and of expressing a different point of view. This has taken its toll on those eccentrics who have resisted the current tide, which is to view bathing in the great outdoors with suspicion. Gradually, towards the end of the last century, swimming in all but coastal waters has met with varying degrees of disapproval. Having discussed the powerful influence of religion on the ideas and attitudes of our nation, let us now look at another factor that has shaped the swimmer's fortune: the popularity of the seaside.

The Fountain of Health

Just for Fun

Indecent Exposure

The End of Innocence

Attitudes Change

Holidays in the Sun


On returning to the machine, our lady would find the floor awash with salt water, a sight that proved less than welcoming as a changing surface. The doors would close tight behind her and she would then try to dry and dress herself as the 'shed' lurched back up the sand behind its horse. This was a very British way of going on. The palaver proved to be of great amusement to those of the working class who had little access to privacy back home, let alone on the beach. Many of the poorly built slums in which they lived included toilets with open shared facilities. Members of both sexes were well used to seeing each other performing the most private of functions. One of the attractions for these workers in visiting the seaside was to witness this amusing spectacle, and the fact that they were on hand to watch it made the whole process pointless anyway! The first bathing machines appeared in Scarborough and Margate. Later, modesty hoods were added to prevent the users being exposed as they de-scended the steps into the sea. By the early 19th century, men were also ex-pected to use these contraptions and as you can imagine, this did not go down at all well.

  Indecent Exposure  Throughout history, English men had bathed naked outdoors whether in river pond or sea. Women also bathed likewise until the early 1800s. But those who wanted to preserve decency objected to its continuance. On the whole women bathed, but the men both bathed and swam. Men though resisted the notion of covering themselves as they considered bathing outfits both unnecessary and dangerously restrictive. They had openly enjoyed bathing in the nude until the 1830s, and it continued less openly until the 1870s.   By the 1850s the joy of a man's being able to strip on the beach and rush into the sea was constrained to certain out of the way places and then only at certain times. Even these restrictions did not prove sufficient to quell the complaints of the gentry. The Scarborough Gazette in 1866 reported: 	  'Hundreds of men and women may be seen in the water, the men stark naked and the women so loosely and insufficiently clad that for all pur-poses of decency they might as well have been naked too.'  Over in France mixed bathing had established itself. Here in England, despite the fact that men did not want to bathe with women, the French influence gradually took over and so the time had come to face the question of bathing costumes. For the middle classes, who were very anxious to be seen to be doing the right thing during their seaside holiday, the trend towards beachwear was readily adopted.   Bathing Machines at Brighton: notice the men changing in the open.


The whole idea of the bathing machine was to allow nude bathing to continue with decency. But the advent of mixed bathing and bathing drawers forced these cumbersome devises into semi-retirement. Here enters the wheel-less bathing machine still evident all around the British coast and known today as 'The Beach Hut'. The1830s saw the beginning of swimming races in Europe. The British Swimming Club held its first race in 1861 and all competitors were warned that they would not be allowed to compete unless they wore swimming drawers. Such views were not held by everyone however, as the letters and memoirs of Sir William Hardman 1863 record:  'Rather let the preposterous exhibition of our bather go on, than condemn the Briton rushing into his native sea to feel instead of the vigorous hug of Neptune, a clammy clutch from shoulder to knee… but let us have none of your damp, unpleasant garments.'  The experience of Parson Kilverts illustrates the displeasure of many a gent who would have preferred that things had not changed (1874).  'At Shanklin one has to adopt the detestable custom of bathing in drawers. If ladies don't like to see men naked why don't they keep away from the sight? Today I had a pair of drawers given me, which I could not keep on. The rough waves stripped them off and tore them down by my ankles. Whilst thus fettered I was seized and flung down by a heavy sea, which retreating suddenly left me lying naked on the sharp shingle from which I rose streaming with blood. After this I took the wretched and dangerous rag off and of course there were some ladies looking on as I came out of the water.'  In 1882 nude bathing obviously continued, as shown by the fact that a notice on indecent bathing (Borough of Colchester) was felt necessary, it read:  'No person shall bathe from the highway, street, or public place without wearing drawers or such other dress covering as to prevent indecent exposure.'  Also a letter in The Swimming Magazine 1st March 1884 expressed this opinion:  'Would proprietors of baths compel their patrons to wear drawers during the forthcoming season? I am not over-particular, but I think the practice should extend to boys, particularly precocious ones.' 

wild swimming - skinny dipping





Bristol Evening Post"IT'S happened quietly, insidiously even, but within a generation outdoor swimming in this country - now known as "wild swimming" - has virtually come to an end."

"Sea bathing is still popular, of course, if the weather is right, but swimming in rivers, lakes and ponds has been discouraged, mostly because of fears of pollution, paedophile concerns and ever more stringent health and safety regulations."

"...the whole story makes for a fascinating social history."



From Pride to Prejudice

Cleanliness Versus Godliness

Sex, Sea and Swimming Trunks

Sunny Days, Dark Shadows

Lidos Open, Rivers Close

Leicester, Swim City

The Last Stand