Martha Gunn: Brighton Dipper of the 1700 and 1800s

Seawater and sea bathing became popular in the 1700s as a method to improve a person’s health and well-being, and Brighton was one of the hot spots for sea bathing because of its close proximity to London. When bathing in Brighton, bathers were separated by sex. They climbed inside bathing machines (wooden, enclosed crates) using a small ladder and changed their clothing before entering the water. Horses then drew the bathing machine into deep water and bathers emerged into the water either nude or dressed in bathing costumes with the help of a bather (a man) or a dipper (a woman).

Martha Gunn Brighton Dipper

Martha Gunn. Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museum.

After sea bathing became popular, so too did Brighton dipper Martha Gunn. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Gunn was about one of twenty of the bathers or dippers who helped the horses and operated the bathing machines at Brighton. She dipped bathers into the sea, kept them afloat, aided them in the water, pushed them through the waves, and helped them return to the bathing machines when they were finished. To perform this job, dippers had to be strong and sturdy, and Martha Gunn was said to possess both of these qualities.

Martha Gunn was so well-known that she was perhaps the most famous of all the Brighton dippers. She was well-regarded by the Brighton community, and, in fact, The Morning Herald described her as “The Venerable Priestess of the Bath.” From about 1750 onward this venerable priestess was also considered the “Queen of the Bath” and as such, she was a great favorite among England’s royals. Although the Prince of Wales had a particular fondness for her, it was falsely reported that she taught him to swim. However, she is credited as the first to dip little Princess Charlotte into the water. Moreover, because of her special relationship with the royals, Gunn had rights to enter the royal kitchen whenever she wanted, and one story about her visiting the royal kitchen follows:

“When in the kitchen one afternoon Martha was [illegally] presented with a pound of butter. The Prince at that moment was seen entering the kitchen, and Martha … quickly deposited the butter in her pocket. This little bit of legerdemain was, doubtless, observed by the Prince; and, being ripe for a joke, he speedily entered into conversation with Martha, getting the ‘butter side’ of her nearer and nearer to the great kitchen fire. It was a sad dilemma. The Prince kept talking, and the butter kept melting! but the venerable dame — whose rueful countenance doubtless betrayed her sensations — was afraid to move. External evidence on the floor, however, soon after showed the Prince that his design was accomplished, and he bade the old lady ‘good day.’ The internal evidence he was contented to leave to Martha herself. What this was may be imagined, but deponent describeth not.”[1]

Martha Gunn

Martha Gunn and the Prince of Wales. Courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museum.

Martha Gunn was important enough as a dipper to have an assistant or handmaiden. Her assistant was the daughter of a bather named Smoaker. Gunn’s popularity also resulted in her image appearing in print in the “French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle” and “The First Dip.” Moreover, because of Gunn’s popularity, the machines that Gunn manned were said to be the most popular and the most requested. These requests were in part due to Gunn’s personality, as she was considered a “character.” One interesting interview in her later years demonstrates her spunky personality:

“‘What, my old friend, Martha,’ said I, ‘how do you find yourself?’ – ‘Well and hearty, thank God, Sir,’ replied she, ‘but rather hobbling. I don’t bathe, because I a’nt so strong as I used to be, so I superintend on the beach, for I’m up before any of ’em; you may always find me and my pitcher at one exact spot, every morning by six o’clock.’ – ‘You wear vastly well, my old friend, pray what age may you be?’ – ‘Only eight-eight, Sir; in fact, eight-nine come next Christmas pudding; aye, and though I’ve lost my teeth I can mumble it with as good relish and hearty appetite as anybody.’ ‘I’m glad to hear it; Brighton would not look like itself without you, Martha,’ said I. – ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s like to do without me, some day,’ answered she, ‘but while I’ve health and life. I must be bustling amongst my old friends and benefactors; I think I ought to be proud, for I’ve as many bows from man, woman, and child, as the Prince hisself; aye, I do believe, the very dogs in the town know me.'”[2] 

Martha Gunn - "French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle."

“French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle.” Martha Gunn shown in the foreground. Courtesy of British Museum.

Gunn’s life as a dipper spanned about 60 years. She was born in 1726 to Friend Killick and Ann Bridger and baptized on 19 September 1731 as Martha Killick. Around the age of 27, in 1758, she married Stephen Gunn and they had eight children. She first began dipping around 1750 and retired some sixty-four years later in 1814 due to ill health. For most her life, Gunn resided at 36 East Street, Brighton, in a house that still stands today.

Martha Gunn died on 2 May 1815, two years after Eliza de Feuillide passed away. The town of Brighton turned out for Gunn’s funeral and one newspaper noted that “the ceremony throughout was conducted with the greatest order and solemnity.”[3] Forty relatives and a large train of mourners, followed Gunn’s remains to Brighton’s St. Nicholas’ churchyard where she was buried. The inscription on her tomb reads:

“MARTHA, Wife of STEPHEN GUNN, who was Peculiarly Distinguished as a bather in this Town nearly 70 Years. She died 2nd of May, 1815, Aged 88 Years.”

Martha Gunn’s Headstone. Courtesy of Find A Grave.

Despite her death, Martha Gunn’s fame has survived and the following catchy verse immortalizes her:

To Brighton came he,
Came George the Third’s son,
To be dipped in the sea
By the famed Martha Gunn.[4]

A song also honors her and was repeated in Mr. Bishop’s Brighton of the Olden Times:

There’s plenty of dippers and jokers.
And salt-water rigs for your fun;
The king of them all is the Old Smoaker,
The queen of them Old Martha Gunn.[5]

References:

  • [1] Bishop, John George, A Peep Into the Past, 1892, p. 236.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] —, in Leicester Journal, 19 May 1815, p. 1.
  • [4] Brighthelmston, Sea Bathing, Frahlingham Weekly News, 12 October 1935, p. 3.
  • [5] Bishop, p. 235.

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