Sea Bathing in the Georgian Era in England

Cold sea bathing in the Georgian Era was thought to have curative or therapeutic properties and be more than merely a cold bath. Because it had healing properties many ill people took these baths. For instance, Eliza de Feuillide frequently took her ill son to places like Ramsgate, Margate, or Brighton because they offered these healing waters. Jane Austen and her family also visited these sites as did Samuel Taylor Colridge, the Prince Regent, and Princess Victoria. The salt made the waters a “medicated bath,” and as salt was considered a stimulant, it was also “an efficacious cleanser of the glands of the skin.”[1]

cold sea bathing

Cold sea bathing at Ramsgate in 1788. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sea bathing was thought to be the most helpful and useful when a person required a strong shock. In addition, one person noted that cold sea bathing was also required in cases “where the humours are too much dispersed, and a counteracting revulsion of the solids, to promote the circulation of the blood and humours impeded, becomes necessary, and where the surface of the body requires bracing up to a more tense degree.”[2] Sea baths were also said to aid “inhabitants of populous cities, who indulge in idleness, debauchery, or lead sedentary or studious lives.”[3]

Although sea water was preferred over fresh water, cold sea bathing was not for everyone. Weakly patients were only to be immersed in the cold water “momentarily” because doctors believed that a person’s “constitution should have vigour to sustain the shock of immersion.”[4] Moreover, cold sea bathing supposedly contracted the solids, condensed the fluids, and accelerated circulation. 

After the bath, if a person felt cheerful and refreshed, the immersion was considered successful. However, if a person shivered on coming out of the water, remained chilled, or became drowsy, the conclusion was that “cold bathing will not prove serviceable, and ought therefore to be discontinued.”[5]

Various diseases were said to be cured by sea bathing. For instance, Dr. Richard Russel published “A Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Disease of the Glands” in 1769. He reported that young people were cured of epilepsy by sea bathing because “[sea water] attenuates the Blood, strengthens the Solids, and by that Means renders the Circulation equal though all Parts of the Body, which is the chief Thing to be attended to for the Preservation of Health.”[6]

Title page to Dr. Richard Russel’s book. Public domain.

Sea water was considered a mineral water. The drinking of it was advised in some cases, although the amount to be drunk varied with the disease. Scrofula, also called the King’s Evil, and a disease that Dr. Samuel Johnson suffered from, was one disease that was said to be cured from drinking sea water. Other diseases aided by drinking sea water included morbid Uterine Glands, rheumatism, constipation, worms, jaundice, and leprosy. However, one physician described at least one case where drinking sea water made things worse:

“An old Woman had been afflicted with a violent Itch for four or five Years … At last she was sent to drink the Sea Water, which she did, and likewise bathed in it for the Space of three Weeks without any Relief: On the contrary, the Itch grew worse and worse every Day; besides, as the Sea Water made her Stomach very uneasy, I advised her to leave it off unless she was costive. After this she began to be better, and when she had continued bathing for about two Months, she returned Home quite free from the Disease.”[7]

Titled “Mermaids at Brighton.” Showing the bathing machines. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When cold sea bathing happened there were a variety of loose rules or preferences that included the following:

  • Some people suggested cold sea bathing be done in the summer and autumn months, although other people claimed winter was the best time.
  • Where changeable and damp weather existed, cold sea bathing was claimed to be the best because it made the skin less susceptible to these weather changes.
  • Although cold sea bathing was said to be strengthening, patients were not to stay longer than necessary as it was claimed to weaken a person’s constitution if they did.
  • People were not to employ sea bathing when “fibres are rigid, and the viscera unsound.”[8] Thus, the conclusion was that “fat people are very little benefitted.”[9]
  • No one was to engage in cold bathing before a “gentle glow” was excited and brought on by moderate exercise or a warm bed, which of course was to occur on an empty stomach.
  • Previous to cold sea bathing, evacuation of the bowels was suggested.
  • The body should be “well rubbed” or massaged before having a cold sea bath.
  • If sweating after a cold sea bath, the person was to “return to the water as speedily as possible, be rubbed dry, and put to bed.”[10]
  • When slight irritations occurred after a cold sea bath, it was suggested “bathing the lower extremities in warm water affords great relief.”[11]
  • Anywhere from two, three, or four times a week was said to be sufficient for sea bathing.
Sea bathing at Margate

“Summer Amusement at Margate, or a Peep at the Mermaids,” by Thomas Rowlandson, 1813. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Sea bathing often included the use of bathers (men) or dippers (women), such as Martha Gunn, who worked at Brighton. Bathers and dippers helped sea bathers enter the water in a bathing machine. They also 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. 

The time of day for sea bathing varied. Some people considered the evening tide to be the right time and others believed morning was best. That was because “the perspiration is generally finished, and the body freest from what nature can throw off the skin.”[12] Other things to consider related to the bathing time included:

“[T]he particular time best adapted to the invalid must not yield to reasons of mere convenience. By the majority of persons for whom the cold bath is prescribed … the best time for using it will be about noon; that is, two or three hours after breakfast. … In very hot and calm weather, the sun is, however, often too powerful at noon for delicate persons … In these cases an earlier hour must be chosen, or bathing in the open sea must be given up. … When the constitution is vigorous, and the temperature of the surface uniformly high, and when the patient rises from his bed refreshed and active, the bath may be taken early in the morning, before breakfast.”[13]


  • [1] Hayd’n, Francis Frederick, The Medical Mentor, and New Guide to Fashionable Watering Places, 1822, p. 27.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 28-29.
  • [3] Solomon, Samuel, A Guide to Health, or Advice to Both Sexes., 1810, p. 276.
  • [4] Hayd’n, Francis Frederick, p. 28. 
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Russell, Richard, A Dissertation On the Use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands, 1769, p. 163.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 164.
  • [8] Hayd’n, Francis Frederick, p. 28. 
  • [9] Ibid., p. 29.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] —, The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine, Volume 1, 1833, p. 248-249.


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