One of the major attractions for early seaside resorts was the bathing machine, a facility that young children today find quite intriguing. This week, as we start to look forward to the summer I thought we could take a look at this particular facility on our seafront, the history of the bathing machine.

Bathing Machines in Bognor

Bathing Machines in Bognor

Scarborough was the first seaside resort to have the bathing machines for general use in 1735. King George III used a bathing machine in Weymouth during 1789 and Queen Victoria had her own machine, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Both of these bathing machines are on display in their respective museums. Whilst we may believe that bathing machines were of one particular design, it is true that they were all of wooden construction, with steps, small windows and were pulled into the water by a horse. However there were in fact many different designs, ranging from those for Royalty to those basic machines which were to be seen on the majority of beaches. Some of the early reports talk of the bathing machines being toys of the rich with the ‘less-well off continuing to bathe naked on unfashionable parts of the beach.’

When I first became interested in bathing machines I researched the Internet to see if these contraptions’, as they were known, existed anywhere else in the world. I was surprised to find pictures and descriptions from as far afield as Southern Ireland to Uruguay, Ostend to Australia. Some of the continental machines were quite ornate and some even had a member of staff stood outside the door. As far as the Australian machines are concerned, I have not as yet found any link with the UK, but feel that it may have been a traveller from this country who arrived on a beach and found no such machine in which they could change into their swimming costumes and decided to introduce them to Australia. However many of the pictures from Australia show an additional item, that of a small fence around the front of the machines. This was apparently known as a ‘shark guard!’ I must be honest; I would not wish to swim in shark invested waters, with or without a guard.

Returning to Bognor, the town was lucky to have two proprietors of these machines on our seafront, Mary Wheatland and Frederick Jenkins. Many people are aware of Mary Wheatland who was born in 1835 in Aldingbourne and moved to Bognor and eventually married in 1857.

However this week we will concentrate on Frederick Jenkins who operated from the west side of the Pier and who built his own bathing machines at his yard in Longford Road from April 1905. Thus 100 years ago bathing machines were being constructed in the town to be used by thousands of holiday makers.

In 1886 when Frederick W. Jenkins married Margaret, he and his new wife decided to move to the growing seaside resort of Bognor, from Eastbourne where his builder father also operated bathing machines. His father John gave him a fleet of bathing machines as a wedding present and as Margaret’s favourite colour was blue the Bognor bathing machines were painted in blue and white strips.

Frederick also had machines at the end of West St., and a third site at the east end of the parade opposite Clarence Road. During the winter months his machines were stored in a field at Shripney and would be repainted in their familiar blue and white stripes for the summer months, whilst carrying out other necessary repairs. The shire horses used by Frederick were named Major, Beauty and Lion and they were stabled in Longford Road. The ticket office beside the pier would open for the summer season from the 1st June each year. On each site there was a wooden ticket office where you could obtain towels and bathing costumes imprinted with JENKINS which could be hired for a few pence. These were rolled together, and stacked on the shelves of the ticket office looking like rows of Swiss rolls. In the early days they were washed after use in the sea water and dried on the shingle.

Later they were taken back to the builder’s yard where they were washed, put through a big outdoor mangle and hung on lines to dry. How Health & Safety would enjoy these procedures today! The centre has changed considerably in its 47-year history, however so have we the holidaymaker. Originally the centre catered for people who could only afford one week’s holiday per year, now many of their visitors come several times a year, whilst also going abroad. There is no Olympic sized swimming pool, but there are the modern flumes. There are no large dining rooms ringing to the sound of 1,000 holidaymakers on first and second sittings. But there are today’s familiar restaurant chains. However what is consistent is that the holidaymakers continue to arrive, use the centre and of course the town. I am sure the discussions will continue for many many years to come, as the guest continue to arrive, and now of course there is the new hotel construction, overlooking the sea and the people who walk along the esplanade to Felpham, thus bringing a new era to this historical company.

Horse used to pull bathing machines

Horse used to pull bathing machines

Recently I received a letter from a gentleman who could recall his time on the beach in his youth, however one section tells us that ‘one day, with friends I had a swim and then returned to the bathing machine to dress. Then there was a bang on the door and a voice called out, ‘Hold tight’ a horse then pulled us up to the shingle.’

Whilst I was researching bathing machines I was on holiday in Belgium and was very surprised to find that their 100 cent bank note contained a sketch of a bathing machine. This was part of a new series of bank notes in the 1990s. This particular note was to pay tribute to James Ensor, an Ostend painter, at the turn of the last century. Of course with the introduction of the Euro this note will now be destined to one or two copies in Museums.

Child's painting of bathing machinesBathing machines are also used by the Bognor Local History Society as their advertising logo, which can be found on badges and some of the other souvenirs that are on sale today in their Museum in the High Street. There you will find more information on this seaside theme. A bathing machine was on display in September 2000 during the ‘Sands of Time’ weekend.

This particular machine had been renovated in Eastbourne and it is thought may have been from a design by Frederick Jenkins who had arrived in Bognor from Eastbourne.Returning to the bathing machines of Frederick Jenkins, over the years these machine were severely damaged by the constant buffeting of the waves. In 1923 the big machines were replaced by huts which looked liked sentry boxes, and the original bathing machines were broken up, with the exception of one, which was retained within the family. This bathing machine is still in existence and is currently being restored. However during an earlier period of restoration in 1978, this machine No. 23 was found to have the signature of Fred Jenkin’s which stated – ‘April 5th, 1905, F.W. Jenkins’.

I hope therefore that eventually we will all be able to view again and experience the shape and size of these wonderful historic ‘bathing contraptions.’ When that occurs remember the machine is dated 5th April 1905, giving us a real piece of Bognor history that is tangible and because of the care of the family will be available for us and future generations to help us to understand a bygone age.