Beach life was a lot safer when Mary was around

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This week I thought we could look at one of the town’s past major attractions.

Many places around the British Isles have their own particular attractions and people who seem to epitomise the locality and an era.

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In Bognor we had Mary Wheatland, who can only be likened to our modern lifeguard who sits and watches over the swimmers.

However, life for Mary was much different. She was born Mary Norris in 1835 and remained in the village of Aldingbourne until she married George Wheatland in 1857, who was a labourer.

Eventually they moved to Bognor where she was to play an important role in the seaside scene.

When she first arrived in Bognor it was very quiet, with no pier or promenade, and only a few visitors. She taught herself to swim and subsequently instructed the visitors in the delights of swimming.

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Mary was soon to become legendary, operating the bathing machines in front of the Beach Hotel.

In an 1869 guidebook for the area, it was noted that bathing arrangements were excellent with plenty of machines with ‘their stout good humoured bathing women and fishermen attendants’.

But what was a bathing machine?

According to folklore it was ‘a contraption on wheels’, which was pulled out into the sea by a horse. A bather entered the machine: it was then pulled down the beach by a horse until the water was up to the hub.

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The horse was then unchained and led out of the water until the bather had finished their swimming. The horse and chains were then reattached to the other end of the machine and brought the machine back up the beach, while the bather got dressed in this very bumpy ride up the beach.

In 1959, The Times had a recollections section, which provided a user’s insight into these machines with: “They were so incredibly high, with their four tall wooden wheels and steps up to the front door, which opened on the beach side to the mysterious and darkened interior, lit only by a small shuttered porthole on either side.

“This dark interior, flanked by two wooden seats, was always damp and the floor was deliciously gritty with moist sand left by the previous bathers’ feet, the place having also a peculiar and attractive sea-weedy smell.”

Mary’s machines were in fact painted in yellow and red stripes. She was to be seen with medals attached to her serge coat, one of which was presented to her by the Royal Humane Society in 1879 for saving WP Manly who got into severe difficulties in stormy seas.

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Apparently Mary rushed into the sea fully dressed to support Mr Manly until others reached her to bring them both in.

It is interesting to note that ladies and boys up to the age of ten bathed at one end of the beach while the men and boys over ten bathed at the other end.

It was certainly deemed to be incorrect for men to be in a position to view more than the ankles of ladies!

The swimmers could hire both their bathing costume and a towel from Mary before they entered the machine to undress.

On returning to the beach they would then return their costume and towel, which Mary would wash and lay out to dry, ready for the next swimmer. A far cry from today!

A large number of postcards of the time were sent home to friends and relatives to show their swimming instructor. Mary in fact was the only person to have her own image produced on postcards by so many of the production companies.

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Mary continued to operate these machines on the beach until 1909, when she decided to retire at the age of 74.

During this time she was attributed to having saved over 30 lives and her boast was that she ‘never lost a life’.

She operated at a time when dukes and their families came to the area, and at one time she was offered a ride in a carriage and pair.

She was later offered a ride in a motor car but remarked ‘you won’t catch me in one of them things’. She also had strong views on modern dress. She once remarked that in her day ‘ladies wore respectable costumes, and I always wore a blue serge dress down to my feet, but today I don’t know what things are coming to’.

I wonder what she would make of the 21st century!

Many families returned to the area annually and Mary was always pleased to be able to teach children to swim and then eventually their children.

She was still to be seen on the seafront for a number of years until her death at the age of 89 in 1924.

She was laid to rest in South Bersted churchyard; there was a very impressive funeral ceremony from her home in Ivy Lane, which wended its way along a picturesque lane to the church.

Many of her descendants still live in the town, and of course have their own memories and family stories of Bognor’s own personality.

Alongside Mary on the west side of the pier, another bathing concession was in operation with Frederick Jenkins who had moved to the town from Eastbourne as a building contractor.

He had a yard in Longford Road and as a sideline he built a number of bathing machines, which he ran with his three horses named Major, Beauty and Lion.

His horses were stabled at his Longford Road premises until June 1 each year when the horses were to be seen drawing the machines up and down the beach for the benefit of the swimmers for a number of seasons.

Wheeled bathing machines were to eventually be replaced by stationary beach huts at the back of the beach around 1923, but were eventually removed from the beaches altogether to leave the beach uncluttered.

But of course times were changing and the necessity for a changing room on the beach became less of a need and more of an inconvenience.

Frederick Jenkins remained until 1936 when he sold the business.

We tend to think of these bathing machines as a very British tradition, as a result of the numerous pictures available around the British Isles.

They were called contraptions, boxes on wheels and for a time they were also known as ‘modesty machines’.

Several years ago, I started to look on the internet for information about these strange contraptions and was quite surprised to find that these machines were also very popular in Belgium, Holland, Southern Ireland, Uruguay and Australia.

I was at one time sent a photo of some machines on a beach just outside Sydney in 1886. In some of the countries they are shown with curtains and staff standing outside. In Belgium they even had a bathing machine depicted on one of their bank notes.

How or when they arrived in these countries I have not ascertained as yet, but Benjamin Beale is attributed with building an early modesty machine in Margate, but who took the idea abroad I have no idea – yet!

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