Friday, June 19, 2009

Fancy a Dip in the River?

As I write this it is not exactly Flaming June, but perhaps by the time it appears the sun will come out again and we'll all be in the mood for bathing.

I have researched seaside bathing during the Regency and even set a love scene in a bathing machine (The Outrageous Lady Felsham) and of course, the hero or heroine taking a risky plunge in the local stream often occurs in a hot summer romance - but it had never occured to me that anyone might willingly take a swim in the 19thc Thames or Mersey.

Then I found the print above of the Royal Waterloo Bath in Ackermann's Repository for 1819. According to the description "It contains a plunging-bath, 24 feet long by 8 feet wide, and two private baths, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide. The depth may be regulated at pleasure by machinery, which raises or depresses the bottom. To each of the baths are attached small dressing-rooms, commodiously fitted up, with proper persons to attend upon visitors. The water, being a running stream, is changed every two minutes."

There was a boat at Waterloo Bridge to convey the bathers out to the Bath and the "terms of bathing" were one shilling in the plunging-bath or one and six for the private baths. Season tickets were available.

I was dubious about how popular it could be to bathe in the Thames in the middle of London -surely the water must be filthy? - but to my surprise I found an unmistakeable floating bath with its tall flagpole in the Grand Panorama of London, 1844. This one is moored at Blackfriar's Bridge.

In the words of the Ackermann's article "...we have a noble river filled with the purest and most wholesome waters in the world. The want of baths in London has led to the incommodious and indecorous practice of public exposure in the Thames."

1858, only fourteen years after this print was published, was the Great Stink when the Thames was so foul that Parliament had to close and people fainted. In the intervening period improvements to domestic sanitation had sent sewage from homes direct into the river and the floating baths were doomed.

I still haven't discovered when the floating bath first apeared in London, but there was certainly one in Liverpool in 1816. The Liverpool Mercury for August 9th 1816 has a picture of it and both an advertisement and (doubtless by the same hand) a letter to the editor explaining the improvements to increase the flow of water through the boat. Apparently, those in rowing boats passing at either end could see through the grills into the bathing compartment - which must have been entertaining for all concerned. On the Prince Regent's birthday there would be admission for ladies - but only to view the boat: no bathing would be allowed. One wonders if this was to allay their fears that their sons and husbands were sneaking off to some other kind of establishment altogether!


Nicola Cornick said...

What an absolutely fascinating post, Louise. Thank you for sharing this research. Like you I am surprised that the water in the Thames was so pure and wholesome at the start of the nineteenth century. What a tragedy that improvements in domestic sanitation inevitably had such an unpleasant effect on the river!

It still isn't really bathing weather is it. A few weeks ago I visited Corsham Court, which had its own bathing house and outdoor plunge pool. Just looking at it made me shiver!

Jan Jones said...

This is just wonderful, Louise! But ewwww - plunging into the 19th century Thames....

[word verification ducterrr, which just about sums it up, really]