What on Earth is this strange wheeled contraption that Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) uses to enter the sea in ITV’s Victoria? And why must she go to such strange lengths just for a swim in the sea?
For those not familiar with 19th century seaside habits, the drama introduces us to the “bathing machine” – a wooden hut that could be rolled directly into the sea to preserve the monarch’s modesty.
Did Queen Victoria really use a bathing machine?
Yes! In fact, you can still see the Queen’s very own bathing machine at Osborne Beach on the Isle of Wight, where the family had their royal residence at Osborne House. Here it is:
Prince Albert was a firm believer in the benefits of “sea bathing” and a special bathing machine was made for the Queen. She gave it a go, although judging by her diaries she didn’t use it all that frequently.
Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on 30th July 1847: “A very fine morning, & the day became again very hot… drove down to the beach with my maids & went into the bathing machines, where I undressed & bathed in the sea, (for the 1st time in my life) a very nice bathing woman attending me.
“I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled.”
What was the point of a bathing machine?
The bathing machine allowed its user (most likely a woman) to change out of her normal clothes and into swimwear, and then descend directly into the sea. The machine would block any view of the bather from the shore.
As for the point of this all, it was a question of etiquette and respectability; even though Victorian women’s bathing suits displayed hardly any skin at all, they were not considered proper clothing to be seen in public. (Men, by contrast, could generally bathe naked or in drawers; but swimming was strictly segregated.)
Walley Chamberlain Oulton wrote in 1805: “The bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”
A lady could enter on dry land, and then after she had changed in privacy, the machine would be wheeled into the water – either with the help of horses or human power. Some, like the Queen’s, ran on stone rails directly into the sea.
Victoria continues on Sundays at 9pm on ITV