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| September 20, 2018

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Martha Gunn: The Legacy of a Woman Famed For Sea-Dipping

Martha Gunn: The Legacy of a Woman Famed For Sea-Dipping
Georgia Kolakowski

We have a little bit of Brighton history for your Friday afternoon reading pleasure. As most residents will know Brighton was once called Brighthelmstone which was, in it’s hey day, the ‘ideal’ seaside resort. The Prince Regent built the Royal Pavilion as a pleasure palace which drew in crowds from all across the country but before that Brighthelmstone was invigorated, and some could argue saved by, an outstanding woman called Martha Gunn.

You may have heard of the pub on Upper Lewes Road named after her or may have seen the bus named in her honour but if you’ve ever been intrigued by who she was you’ve come to the right place! In 1703 the small seaside town of Brighthelmstone (now the city of Brighton) was ravaged by the worst storm the UK has ever seen. It was at a similar level of catastrophe to Hurricane Katrina and devastated the small fishing town to ruins. A five-year-old Martha Gunn saw the decline of her town and hailing from a well known fishing family during her childhood her business gene must have kicked in. From her early teenage years she began to take visitors out to sea to dip them. Now dipping is an odd phrase but it is exactly as it sounds, a horse drawn hut or box was taken out to sea where the operators would quite literally dip their patrons into the water and occasionally swim alongside them.

Her business venture proved fruitful with thanks to the research produced by Dr Richard Russell at the time. In 1750, Dr Richard Russell published a book which detailed the health benefits of drinking sea water and highly recommended sea-bathing. In nearby Lewes, he had been directing his clients to swim in the sea to cure a whole range of ailments and diseases. His sea-water cure was picked up as a healthy leisure activity and by the time Martha Gunn’s business had grown, crowds were flocking to Brighton’s seafront to partake in the, now seemingly normal, activity. In the 18th century, women and men swimming alongside each other was highly discouraged so to ensure modesty, the bathing/dipping machines were introduced. The idea was that people going to water could change inside the hut out of the gaze of onlooking members of the public. This practice was particularly popular with the female bathers. The fisherman, known as ‘bathers’, assisted the men and the fishermen’s female family members, known as dippers, would help the women and children.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Martha Gunn, a Brighton bather holding a small child that she has just saved from drowning. Coloured engraving by W. Nutter, 1797.

In 1753, Dr Richard Russell moved to Brighton and built a house on Brighton’s seafront from which he could overlook the treatment of his patients which encouraged the practice of dipping even more. Martha Gunn’s friendship and allegiance to the Royal Family and her long career as a dipper made her famous both locally and across the country. She was a favourite of the Prince Regent and enjoyed free access to the kitchen at the Royal Pavilion. At one point she got so famous that she was painted multiple times and was featured in publications even more. A piece published in 1806 shows Martha Gunn alongside the Prince Regent and The Morning Herald once described her as ‘The Venerable Priestess of the Bath”. There’s even an old rhyme written about her, of which the original author is unknown, “To Brighton came he / Came George III’s son. / To be bathed in the sea, / By famed Martha Gunn.” She died at the age of 89 and is buried in the graveyard of Brighton’s oldest building, St Nicholas Church.

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