We seem to be surrounded by celebrities these days; they appear in magazines and on our televisions all the time. Some are celebrities by chance because they are wives or girlfriends of footballers (wags) or have appeared on shows like X factor and have been rocketed heights of pop stars or soap stars. There are also celebrity professionals like hair stylists or TV chefs or fashion designers.
Martha Gunn is a very unusual celebrity, even though very few would be familiar with her name today back in the 18th century she was a true professional celebrity as we shall see later in this account. Martha Gunn also had a very unusual profession. She was a Dipper.
Martha Gunn, the most famous of Brighton's bathing women (also known as "dippers"), was born in the seaside village of Brighthelmstone (Brighton) in 1726. Martha came from an old fishing family, but when sea-bathing became popular in the 1740s, she found employment as a "dipper" on Brighton's seafront.
Sea-bathing for pleasure did not really become a popular activity until the 1730s. (A letter written from Brighton in 1736 by Reverend William Clarke mentions "bathing in the sea" as one of his regular holiday activities). The idea of bathing in the sea for health reasons was promoted by Dr. Richard Russell (1687-1759), a doctor of medicine who practised as a physician in Lewes. Dr. Russell believed that sea water could cure a number of diseases. In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell published a book, in which he prescribed drinking sea-water and recommended sea-bathing. Dr. Russell encouraged his patients to visit the nearby seaside resort of Brighthelmstone (a place-name later to be shortened to Brighton) where they could drink sea-water and immerse their bodies in the sea.
In 1753, Dr. Richard Russell had a house built on Brighton's seafront (where the Royal Albion Hotel now stands). Russell House situated near the Steine and overlooking the sea, became Dr. Russell's home and medical centre. Now based in Brighton, Dr. Russell could personally supervise the sea-water treatment of his patients. At this time, people were often nervous about entering the sea and so Dr. Russell employed local fishermen and their womenfolk to help immerse the patients in the sea and to make sure they were not swept away by the unpredictable waves.
At the same time that people were visiting Brighthelmstone (Brighton) to take Dr. Russell's sea-water cure, sea-bathing as a healthy leisure activity was becoming increasingly popular. Wealthy families and even members of the Royal Family chose to visit Brighthelmstone (Brighton) to breathe in the sea-air and enjoy the entertainments provided by the rapidly developing sea-side resort.
In the 18th century, mixed bathing, where men and women swimming alongside each other, was discouraged. To ensure proper modesty, special "bathing machines" were introduced. The "bathing machine" was a small, wooden hut on wheels. Seaside visitors who intended to bathe in the sea could climb into the hut, remove their clothes and change into their swimming costumes without being spied upon.
After the bathing machines had been hauled into the sea (often by horses) the bathers would be met by mainly woman attendants names Dippers who’s job was to ensure that the bather received the correct amounts of immersions as recommended by the Doctor.
From all accounts this process of dipping was far from a pleasant time, those that could afford it gave a small upfront payment to the dipper to ensure the treatment was as comfortable as possible. After helping the bather down into the sea from the bathing machine the dipper would proceed by gripping the bathers shoulders firmly and as the next wave was about to break, would plunge the patient headfirst into the rushing swell. Eyes nose and ears were assaulted by the ice cold water but still the dipper would hold fast. Struggling for breath the patient’s heart rate soared and the survival instinct escalated to panic. Then suddenly it was over and the victim was hauled to the surface. When the victims coughing and spluttering had ceased and they had sufficiently recovered their wits the next round would begin; a new wave a new struggle. Repeated several times more according to the advice of the Doctor. One person writing a letter to a friend back home said that:
I was terribly frightened, and thought I should never have recovered from the plunge – I had not breath enough to speak for a minute or two, the shock was beyond expression great – but after I got back to the machine, I presently felt myself in a glow that was delightful – it is the finest feeling in the would and I will bathe as often as will be safe.
In his autobiography Ernest H Shepard, famous as the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, recalls is introduction to Sea Bathing as a child at Eastbourne under the one arm of a not so tender Dipper woman, his brother Cyril tucked under the other arm. The brothers fought has they were held above the waves and just before she plunged them both under she would utter the words “Dippy go under dears” with each immersion. Earnest must have squirmed with particular ferocity because handing them back to his parents the dipper exclaimed, “ Well, that’s the last I want to see of ‘him!
This gives a a whole new meaning of the phrase " going down to the sea for a dip".
Martha Gunn, who came from a well-known family of fishermen, probably started work as a ladies' bathing attendant or "dipper" when she was a young woman in her twenties, yet she did not completely retire until 1814, when she was in her late eighties. Her long career as a "dipper" and her special relationship with George Augustus Frederick, the Prince of Wales (1762-1830) ensured that she became a local celebrity and the most famous "dipper" in Great Britain. Martha Gunn was favoured by the Prince and enjoyed special privileges, including free access to the kitchen at the Royal Pavilion, the palace that had been built at Brighton for the Prince of Wales between 1787 and 1808.
Martha Gunn was well known in the town and also known across the country. Her image appeared in many popular engravings including one in which she appeared repelling the invading French with a mop. In another she is seen standing behind Mrs Fitzherbert and The Prince of Wales (the future George IVHer image is on several contemporary engravings and cartoons and even a Toby Jugs in the form of Martha Gunn, the famous bathing woman of Brighton. The Jug was made of her in 1840. Recently one of these jugs was sold at auction for a considerable amount of money
There is a pub in Brighton called the Martha Gunn and she has a bus named after her
On a tombstone in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, the oldest church in Brighton on Dyke Road, you will find an inscription bearing the following; “ Martha, the wife of Stephen Gunn, who was peculiarly distinguished as a bather in this town nearly 70 years, died 2nd May 1815, aged 88 years.”
An original oil painting of Martha Gunn has just been donated to the people of Brighton and Hove by Chris Gunn, a direct descendant. The painting left Brighton in 1949 when Chris’ family moved to Uganda where it hung in a mud house. It then travelled to South Africa, Australia, back to Africa and then, in 1982, to Australia again! A private bequest was made available to cover transport and import costs, and the painting is now back by the sea in Brighton, its natural home.
For those who wish to read more about Martha, Below is a very interesting blog I found.
You can also find a chapter on Martha and Dippers in general in the book ‘Sheds On The Seashore’ by Kathryn Ferry, which I can highly recommend.