Remembering the ‘Mermaid of Bognor’

Mary Wheatland and her daughter Emily Mitchell, Mrs Hallett's mother
Mary Wheatland and her daughter Emily Mitchell, Mrs Hallett's mother

Did you know that Bognor Regis once had its very own mermaid?

An article was published by the Observer in October, 1987, following a woman who took a trip down memory lane by returning to Bognor Regis, a town in which she had spent her early years.

This postcard  sent to Mrs Hallett by her mother in 1901 shows the seafront bathing machines which Mary Wheatland used to operate

This postcard sent to Mrs Hallett by her mother in 1901 shows the seafront bathing machines which Mary Wheatland used to operate

Emily Hallett, who was by then 96 years old, lived in North Wales but had made a special trip back to Bognor where she came face to face with a replica of her famous grandmother, Mary Wheatland.

Mrs Hallett had been invited to visit Bognor to see a rehearsal of the musical ‘Dear Aunt Sally’, which traced the life of Bognor during the past 200 years, and featured her grandmother as one of its characters.

Mary, who was never seen in anything but navy blue serge and plimsolls, was well-known for her bathing machines along the seafront. Walking along by the seafront in Bognor, Mrs Hallett could still clearly remember the days in the early 1900s when her grandmother’s machines had pride of place along the beach to the east of the pier.

“When we broke up school in August we were here the whole of summer, helping with the business. We would take the towels and bathing suits and put them in Waterloo Square to dry.

Five generations of Mrs Hallett's family meet. From left to right: great-great grandson Liam (nine months), great granddaughter Beverly Shield, grandson Robert Ashley Perry, and in front, Mrs Hallett

Five generations of Mrs Hallett's family meet. From left to right: great-great grandson Liam (nine months), great granddaughter Beverly Shield, grandson Robert Ashley Perry, and in front, Mrs Hallett

“Granny never had any fear, never. She dived off Bognor pier when she was 70 and swam five and a half miles,” said Mrs Hallett, who remembered visiting her grandmother at her thatched cottage in Ivy Lane, South Bersted, every Sunday. The pair would go together to church, where Mary Wheatland would enjoy her favourite psalm “The Lord is My Shepherd”.

Mary began her bathing business when she was 16, and became an institution in the town. She gave swimming lessons to schoolchildren, and was awarded medals for saving more than 30 lives. Known as the “Mermaid of Bognor” she gave up diving off the pier on her 71st birthday, believing she was now too old for such feats, but continued to dive from boats and swim in the sea. Forced to give up working in her 70s because of rheumatism, she handed the business over to her daughter, and Mrs Hallett herself helped to run it in 1918. The Bognor Mermaid died in 1922, just one day before her 90th birthday, and her coffin was borne to the church by local fisherman.

Along with her own daughter, Mrs Hallett came to Bognor to see the performance of Dear Aunt Sally at the Regis Centre, and to visit her only surviving sister, Gladys. It was a particularly successful holiday from Mrs Hallett - during her stay, she found a missing piece of the puzzle of Mary Wheatland’s life. Through someone at the theatre Mrs Hallett discovered her grandmother’s maiden name was Norris, which enabled the family to trace their origins back through the generations. They already had an impressive file of cuttings, postcards, and photographs, which helped to keep the past fresh in Mrs Hallett’s mind.