By Dr Kathryn Ferry Beach huts may look pretty humble but their story is closely bound up with the history of the seaside resort, going back more than 250 years. In the nineteenth century no trip to the seaside was complete without a dip in the sea from a bathing machine. These vehicles looked like beach huts on wheels and they could be hired for half hour periods. Patrons would get in at the top of the beach, change out of their normal clothes as a horse pulled them towards the seas, then step directly into the water from the front of the machine. For more than 150 years this was how most bathers experienced the sea. Queen Victoria even had her own personal bathing machine built at Osbourne on the Isle of Wight.
But bathing machines were not invented by the Victorians. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, bathing machines had already become an established feature of any would-be seaside resort. A whole century earlier, mobile changing rooms were in use at Scarborough, the world’s first seaside resort located on the east Yorkshire coast. These simple vehicles, designed for the use of the wealthy but infirm, were evidence of a radical new fascination with the sea. Before this, no one but fishermen and smugglers used the beach. Then doctors began to prescribe the cold sea bath as the latest ‘cure-all’ remedy, the sick went to the coast to be treated and took their families with them. These people needed accommodation and entertainments so the modern concept of the seaside was born.
It wasn’t long after this that the bathing ‘machine’ was invented to offer greater privacy to those taking a therapeutic dip. In its original form this horse drawn carriage featured an enclosed room with a collapsible hood at the seaward end to shield patients as they were submitted naked to the waves by burly attendants called dippers. In 1789 George III gave royal approval to the new fashion when he took a medicinal bath at Weymouth to the musical accompaniment of ‘God Save the King.’
In the inter-War period sunbathing was the new fashion and bathing machines, though still lingering on, were outdated and antiquated. New modern-looking blocks of beach huts or chalets were built near to huge lidos and everywhere had to have a sun terrace.
The last of the bathing machines disappeared with the Second World War and when the beaches had been cleared of barbed wire at the end of hostilities, the holiday makers came back in their millions. The 1950s was the heyday of the beach hut but dedicated fans have been keeping up their huts ever since and today there’s a clear resurgence with spiralling prices and much media interest.