Sunderland's bathing machines that disappeared in 1925

August Bank Holiday weekend saw the sands at Sunderland’s twin-resorts of Roker and Seaburn packed with sun seekers. Not a bathing machine in sight, but hardly surprising as the last disappeared from our beaches as long ago as 1925.

Thursday, 29th August 2019, 5:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th August 2019, 5:00 pm
Different types of bathing machines on Roker Sands circa 1880s.
Different types of bathing machines on Roker Sands circa 1880s.

But what was a bathing machine? They were four-wheeled huts or cabins designed to protect the modesty of bathers – especially women – as they entered the sea for a dip, often in a state of nudity.

First heard of in Scarborough in 1721, which pioneered the trend in sea bathing, machines were often drawn into the sea by a horse.

Usually constructed with wooden walls and a curved or pitched roof, their design was improved with Margate Quaker Benjamin Beale inventing a modesty hood in 1753.

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This allowed bathers entering the sea to be concealed by a sailcloth umbrella type hood.

Eventually public decency decorum generally put an end to naked sea swimming.

Sea bathing became popular in Sunderland with one of the first references to bathing machines being those provided by Thomas Johnson of Hill House, Low Hendon in 1783.

By 1824, Miles Graham had established baths and bathing machines for sea bathing at Hendon Bath House.

This was situated between the mansion house and sea shore on Hendon House Estate, the property of Thomas Hopper. Mr Graham died in 1838.

But it was at Roker that bathing machines really came into vogue. Roker Baths Hotel on Roker Terrace (the site of the current Roker Hotel) offered use of sea bathing machines for a fee of three pence, or sixpence if taken into the sea by a horse.

Eventually, several proprietors provided these facilities such as Thomas Henry Burnside and John Richardson.

Even the Phoenix Syndicate Company of London got in on the act, receiving permission from Sunderland Town Council to place six improved bathing machines on Roker Sands in 1890.

There appears to have been intense rivalry between Richardson and Burnside, sometimes leading to violence and court appearances.

Female bathers often attracted unwanted attention from local ruffians and tragic accidents to users occasionally occurred.

In 1876, an inquest was held into the drowning of 22-year-old trainee solicitor Thomas Anderson Douglass, who with his cousin had hired a bathing machine.

Only 12 months before, another young man had drowned in the same place.

Recommendations that life saving apparatus be fitted to bathing machines had then fallen on deaf ears and now stronger recommendations were made, including suggestions that machines be licensed with a condition that life buoys and lines be fitted to each.

The picture shows different types of bathing machines on the shoreline at Roker Sands circa 1880s.