Recreation & The Sea

Recreation and the Sea

by Stephen Fisher

University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 7 August 1997.

In this historic treatise, Stephen Fisher called upon several well known historians to co-author the book.  One such historian is John Travis, who authored the chapter on sea-bathing from 1730 to 1900.   In his chapter, Travis presents historical evidence proving that during this period, male nudity in mixed-gender settings at various sea-side venues continued throughout the Victorian Era, despite what other historians have surmised.   As he states, during the 18th century, "gentlemen and boys all bathed naked".  With the development of bathing trousers for men around the turn of the 18th century, few men, if any would wear them as men deemed them to be effeminate and showed weakness.  Men persisted in bathing naked throughout the first half of the 18th century, and although there were some areas where the ladies would allow the men their space, in general, almost all men and women bathed together in the same waters - men always naked, women always wearing their gowns.  Eventually, the more prudish of society gave the mixed-gender bathing the term "promiscuous bathing", but, as he writes "polite society found nothing wrong with it".

The opponents of those that bathed nude argued it was immoral that the nude men would expose their genitals and naked rears to the ladies. They also accused the men of being hypocrites in that when in any other situation they would be horrified to expose those parts of their bodies to women in public in true Victorian modesty, yet when they get to the beach, many deemed it acceptable for the men to do so.   Travis notes that
The Observer reported "There is not even the slightest pretension to common decency.  The men gambol about in a complete state of nature, and the ladies frolic in very questionable bathing garments within a few yards of them, while the sands are crowded with spectators of the scenes, of all ages and both sexes."  Margate was also an example of where the new bathing laws allowed nude male bathing provided there was a 60 feet buffer between the genders.   However, in 1866 it was documented that although the ladies were properly attired, 9 of every 10 men still bathed completely naked, and, the old 60 foot separation rule was all but forgotten and men and women bathed together making sea-bathing wherein clothed women bathing with naked men standard affair.   The Pall Mall Gazette indicated the reason that local authorities would not enforce the laws is that there were always a large contingent of both sexes that came for prurient gratification to watch the naked and half naked bathers.   This same newspaper noted that "at Margate ladies outraged decorum by viewing from the pier and the beach, through opera glasses, the antics of nude gentlemen" and establishes that it was appropriate and expected that women would feel free to come to seaside resorts for the voyeuristic opportunities to watch naked boys and men frolic about on the beach and surf.   Almost all resorts continued to allow men to bath nude before 8:00 a.m. and at all times outside the area for females-only, although it was common for women to walk down along the beach where the men bathed thus getting an eye-full.


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