On Favouring Traditional Sea-Bathing

Traveller’s Monthly Journal
July, 1882

The following is an 1882 journal article that was re-posted by the website Historic Archives – Nude Male Swimming. Not least because of the beauty of the prose, we gladly re-post it here.

At this gloriously bright and sunny time of the year, many make for the seaside to once again hear the beautiful music of the waves. London can be quite depressing when the heat of July sets in and with the pall of pressing smoke, Londoners must struggle to learn how to bear a thorough wilting with equanimity. Whoever said that humans do not migrate like so many of our fellow creatures has never been to the rail stations during the seasonal exodus to the resorts and watering places. But with so many now spending their holidays at the seaside, the traditional ways travellers have enjoyed the sands and sea for generations cannot escape the pressing tide of change as easily as the many pleasure-seekers can escape the pressing heat of the metropolis.

The irrepressible force underlying the transformation of the seaside ambience from one of a freer and unrestricted indulgence to one held tightly under the regulatory thumbs of magistrates and councils emanates from the pietistic doctrines of certain upper-class proselytes. They believe that their class and legacy has ordained them with the right of authority over the sands of our shores, and have seen to it that these unsightly contraptions known as bathing machines, or to those of the working class also known as “toys for the rich”, are sprinkled about the waves in a manner that mother nature most assuredly views as pocks. The argument they make for their existence is that it protects us fair maids from the unsightly view of men disporting themselves as Adam before the fall, yet many believe that because only the wealthier can afford their use they serve more as instruments for increasing their dominion over the fashionable areas of the shoreline. As for me and my daughters, we are all too happy to find ourselves outside of the reach of these magistrates and the “protections” they seek to impute upon us during our holiday. For as I discuss herein, we ladies find no discomfort nor any affront from the traditional ways of sea-bathing. And I and many other ladies stand in defence of the manner in which men and boys prefer to enjoy the seaside as did so many of their forefathers before them.

Fortunately, the seascape environs of Brighton, Scarborough and Weymouth have changed somewhat since I was a girl. The bathing machines are fewer in number having been replaced by canvas cabins and the machines themselves are oft removed from their under carriages and permanently affixed to the shore. It is a hopeful sign that the onerous separation between sea-bathing men and maids will eventually see its well deserved demise. This trend coincided with the imposition of bye-laws requiring all men to wear bathing trousers as much as an endeavour to emulate the long tradition of mixed bathing found in such seaside resorts as Trouville or Boulogne.

We have always shown prejudice to seafront near Eastbourne over the more fashionable watering places such of Scarborough or nearby Brighton. Outside of the central area, the crowds are far less thick yet adequate in number to provide social opportunities. My two daughers love the sandy earth and summer sea and are always anxious to make the hour and a-half journey to Eastbourne. Their costumes are sky blue and lilac taffeta gowns that drape from their shoulders to the knees with white sailor collars and matching trousers underneath. The older has her hair wrapped with a long handkerchief in manner similar to those fashionably worn by other young ladies whilst the younger dons a matching bonnet. Their ensembles together with their bright eyes and rosy cheeks certainly garner favourable attention from the boys. Their avoidance of the test of the salty sea on their dainty costumes is reflected by their resistance to going any further out in the tides than ankle-deep. This increased modesty alerts me they have grown to an age where they are more concerned about their presentation to the gaggle of boys chasing the waves than sharing such enjoyment as they would have in earlier years.

The boys, however, are a completely different story. So unconcerned are they about their presentation that virtually all enjoy the affair completely naked. Afforded this luxury by their youth, they no doubt draw envy from the grown men that once enjoyed these same tides as the boys do now.

Yet despite the presence of so many girls sea-bathing in the same waters with them, the boys are nonetheless very comfortable in such natural state of undress. Although the oldest boys now wear the required bathing trousers, it is not too uncommon to see entirely naked boys that, given their physique and state of development, appear to be as old as possibly 16 or more. Whilst the older of these boys that disport themselves in the absolute may still be considered children, the hint of their approach to the threshold of manhood sometimes draws attention from the more indelicate of the ladies that are observed surreptitiously lifting their opera glasses to get a closer view of these boys as they gambol about naked, no doubt to better admire their beautiful slender forms in all their splendid details. But no one faults these ladies for their interest and well they should not. For are they so different from the great masters such as Maes, Ruben and Degas who have witnessed the same beautiful imagery of boyhood in its most natural of states and were so captured by it as to immortalize it through resplendent artistic works now found in national galleries?

But these unclad boys continue to bring offence to the Evangelicals, who maintain that all boys should abide by the same bathing standards now imposed on the men. Yet I do not endorse expanding such prohibition on boys as I am of the mind that it unnecessarily dampens their spirit, and I have not encountered anyone else at the seaside that carries such discomfort that the puritans claim. Indeed it was not but a few decades ago when even grown men were able to eschew the wearing of bathing trousers on these same sands yet few thought ill of it, so why should we now find it discourteous for boys to do so?

So comfortable are both girls and boys with the boys’ unfamiliarity with modesty that I have no concern in allowing our daughters to play with these unclothed boys. And despite the prudish decrees of the so-called enforcers of decency, I take no exception to our daughters’ preoccupation in watching these boys disport themselves in their nakedness, but on the contrary, am pleased for it! For what better way is there for youthful girls to properly learn of how boys grow into men than allowing them to view the physical virtues of these boys at varying ages and stages of development, which otherwise would never be exposed to them outside of the museums and galleries? To this, which I might say in the most delicate of ways, includes that part of these boys that are concerned with their reproduction, which is laid completely bare and as naked for the girls to view as the rest of them. And in the interest of full conveyance, I might add the girls’ schooling is appropriately furthered when on the rare occasion they observe this aforementioned feature of a boy at a time when he innocently succumbs to the warm sun embracing his skin or the playful teasing of a girl, and the concomitant stirrings of emotions with which nature charges him swell to their inevitable physical manifestation. Notwithstanding his embarrassment and the blush of the girls at the moment his unintentional display is brought to their attention, it is neither offencive nor do they find disfavour in him for it. Rather, his predicament is oft amusing to those of us with a mature understanding and as we endeavour to most delicately explain to the younger of the girls what they are witnessing, we struggle to subdue the impetuous smile wanting to surface itself on our faces.

Although many of the girls feign a lack of interest in the boys, their curiosity in the physical architecture of the boys cannot be denied when I observe them watching the arrival of a new boy of which they find particular favour, then keeping their gaze fixed upon the canvas flap of the beach tent he enters in anxious anticipation for that moment when it opens and they may watch him emerge completely naked. Rarely does their investment of attention disappoint, and I must admit, I share their enjoyment when I see them giggle and whisper to each other upon making observations of him as he exits his tent. Of course, I do not see such preoccupation as having any prurient purpose but instead just innocent curiosity and healthy. The boys are of course oblivious to such attention as they sometimes walk unabashed in such a state of complete nakedness within feet of the girls exchanging a smile or cheery hello. For these boys it is simply about feeling the ocean breeze without the encumbrance of annoying wet rags about their waist. And the happy encounter when the genteel boy’s greeting to our daughters is answered by their giggles is not only a perfectly appropriate contact between them, but enjoyable to watch as it speaks to the harmonic balance children have achieved that alludes the adults who perceive mixed bathing as so scandalous. After all, for centuries artisans and poets have celebrated the beauty of nudity. Of course, we all agree that modesty for feminine sea-bathers has important purpose and that their honour must be maintained by donning appropriate seaside dress, and in my observations I have never seen it otherwise. However, I am of the mind that for the boys, we should not cover tradition with the damp rag of puritan convention, but instead, not only allow these boys their pleasures of enjoying the seaside as God hath created them, but also allow them to share that enjoyment with the presence of girls. Fortunately, outside of the main seaside resorts and their restrictive bye-laws we can still enjoy the seaside in this traditional way.

Having both sexes share the same seaside has many benefits absent when they are separated. Girls and boys can combine efforts to raise mimic fortifications of sand and then watch their overthrow by the incoming tide. Fathers and brothers can teach mothers and sisters the art of swimming, for without such skills we see the oceans tragically claim many lives each year. Bathing in solitude may accomplish its healthful intent for the body, but frolic in the tides with family and friend is as important for the healthy mind. The absurdity in separated bathing is further seen by the large crowds of both sexes that parade in front of the bathing machines as any privacy intended is therein lost.

But then there is our spot of sand near Eastbourne where the reach of such madness has not yet stretched this far. And the more popular resorts should take heed as the pleasure-seekers are increasing in numbers on such shores as our favourite where there is social communion between the sexes, and where husband and wife may share their enjoyment of their holiday without needless condemnation for it. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that a town where Darwin wrote much of his “On the Origin of Species” should also be so current thinking and not disquieted when men and women mingle at the seaside while enjoying nature’s gift of the ocean.

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