Martha Gunn - Brighton Characters

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Martha Gunn (1726-1815)

Brighton's Famous Bathing Woman

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. The wheeled huts or "bathing machines" were then rolled or pulled into the sea by strong bathing attendants. (At some resorts, horses were used to pull the bathing machines out into deeper waters and to haul them back on to the shore when the bather had finished swimming). Female bathers, in particular, felt more comfortable and less exposed if they could enter the sea without being stared at by the holidaymakers and sightseers on the shore.

As Dr. Russell had done in the early 1750s, bathing machine proprietors employed fishermen and their womenfolk to help the bathers into the sea. Tough, muscular fishermen and boatmen assisted the male swimmers and the fishermen's wives, sisters and daughters, if they were strong and sturdy enough for the job, helped to "dip" women and children. The male bathing attendants were generally known as "bathers" and the female attendants, who assisted women and children, were called "dippers".

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. Although the legendary story of her dipping Prince George in the sea when he was just an infant cannot be true ( the Prince of Wales was twenty-one years of age when he made his first visit to Brighton in 1783), 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 became so famous and so strongly associated with Brighton and the Prince of Wales, that she started to make appearances in the popular prints that circulated throughout the British Isles. A print entitled  "French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle" (1794), published in 1794, shows the strong and burly bathing attendant defeating a group of French soldiers who had the temerity to invade the seaside resort of Brighton. Another print, published in 1806, shows Martha Gunn in the company of George, Prince of Wales, who five years later became Prince Regent. In the early 19th Century, potters began to produce Toby Jugs in the form of Martha Gunn, the famous bathing woman of Brighton. (See below).


Bathing in Brighton in the 18th and 19th Centuries

"Five strong women, all used to the sea" have "fitted up a set of NEW MACHINES (wheeled bathing huts), with a careful man and horse to conduct them in and out of the water ".

  ('Lewes Journal ', March 1780)


"By means of a hook-ladder the bather ascends the (bathing) machine, which is formed of wood and raised on high wheels; they are drawn to a proper distance from the shore and then plunge into the sea, the guides attending on each side to assist them in recovering the machine, which being accomplished, they are drawn back to the shore. The guides are strong, active and careful, and in every respect adapted to their employment".

                    ('Brighton New Guide ', 1800)


Martha Gunn and her Family

Martha Gunn the famous Brighton bathing woman and "dipper", was born Martha Killick in 1726, the daughter of Anne Bridger and Friend Killick of Brighthelmstone. On 19th September 1731, at the age of five, Martha was baptised at St. Nicholas' church, Brighton. It is believed that Martha found employment as bathing attendant or "dipper" when she was in her twenties. (The memorial to Martha in St. Nicholas' Church, Brighton, states that she "was Peculiarly Distinguished as a bather in this Town nearly 70 Years" and the gravestone shows that Mrs Gunn was 88 years of age at the time of her death.

Martha Killick married Stephen Gunn (born 1733, Brighton), the son of Abigail Brapple and Nathaniel Gunn, on 9th March 1758. Martha gave birth to at least eight children, but she outlived two daughters and two sons. The eldest child, Martha Gunn (1) was baptised in Brighton on 24th September 1758. Seven more children were born over the next 15 years - Thomas Brapple Gunn (born 1760), Friend Gunn (born 1762), Mary Gunn (born 1764), Nathaniel Gunn (born 1766), William Brapple Gunn (born 1770), Stephen Gunn (born 1771) and Elizabeth Brapple Gunn (born 1773). It is believed that Mrs Martha Gunn and her family lived at 36 East Street, Brighton.

Martha's son Friend Gunn (named after her father Friend Killick) died in 1784 at the age of twenty-two. Martha's youngest daughter, Elizabeth Brapple Gunn also died young, succumbing to an illness on 2nd October 1787 at the age of 13. Martha's first child and namesake, Martha Gunn, died in 1789 at the age of thirty. Martha's eldest son, Thomas Brapple Gunn died at the age of thirty-seven on 5th May 1798.

It is known that William Brapple Gunn (1770-1838), reached adulthood, married and had children, as did his surviving brothers and sisters, so there are a number of direct descendants of Martha Gunn living today.

Martha Gunn died in Brighton on 2nd May 1815, aged 88, and is buried in St. Nicholas' Churchyard.

[ABOVE] The gravestone in St Nicholas's churchyard marking the resting place of six members of the Gunn Family. Inscribed at the head of the gravestone are the words "In Memory of STEPHEN GUNN who died 4th September, 1813, Aged 79 Years." Stephen Gunn was the husband of the famous Brighton bathing woman Martha Gunn. Below Stephen Gunn's memorial are the words "MARTHA, Wife of STEPHEN GUNN, who was Peculiarly Distinguished as a bather in this Town nearly 70 Years. She died 2nd of May, 1815, Aged 88 Years. The gravestone also includes details of the couple's four children - Friend, Elizabeth, Martha and Thomas, who pre-deceased their parents.

[ABOVE] Portrait of Martha Gunn, Brighton's most famous "Bathing Woman", painted by an unknown 18th Century artist (c1785). This oil painting was given to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery by Chris Gunn of Australia, a direct descendant of Martha Gunn.' [Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums Brighton]

[ABOVE] Martha Gunn, "The Venerable Priestess of the Bath", Brighton's leading "bathing woman" and a well-known seaside character, pictured on Brighton beach in a late 18th Century print. In the background, a bathing machine is being pulled into the sea by a horse.

[ABOVE] "The First Dip", a print produced by William Henry Mason of 81 King's Road, Brighton, showing the famous bathing woman Martha Gunn "dipping" an infant at Brighton, with the Chain Pier in the background.

The Most Famous 'Bather' and 'Dipper' in 18th Century Brighton

[ABOVE] A pastel portrait of the Brighton bather John "Smoaker" Miles (1720-1794) drawn in 1791 by the artist John Russell (1745-1806). John "Smoaker" Miles was Brighton's most famous "Bather" and a swimming tutor to George, Prince of Wales. [ABOVE] A printed portrait of the Brighton dipper Martha Gunn (1726-1815), copied from the 1795 pastel portrait by John Russell (1745-1806). The infant has been incorrectly identified as the young Prince of Wales, who did not visit Brighton until he was 21.

[ABOVE] "Rather Fresh", a print produced by Rock & Co. of London, showing young ladies bathing at Brighton in the 1850s. In the background are the bathing machines, one of which is being hauled back to the shore by a horse and its driver. The exit from the bathing machine was shielded by a cloth canopy (modesty hood), which was designed to protect the bather from prying eyes. Although modest by today's standards, the ladies' swimming costumes were regarded as very revealing during the Regency and Victorian period and on the right of the picture can be seen two men with "spy-glasses"( small telescopes) trying to obtain a closer look at the female bathers.


[ABOVE] Portrait of Martha Gunn (1795) by John Russell (1745-1806). The artist has shown the famous bathing woman ready to "dip" a young child in the sea off Brighton. There was a legend that Martha Gunn had personally dipped the infant Prince into the sea, but he was 21 years of age when he first visited Brighton. [ABOVE] A coloured print, entitled "Mermaids at Brighton" (c1829), drawn by the British artist William Heath (1795-1840), which shows women sea-bathing from the "bathing machines" at Brighton. A young woman is shown undressing inside one of the bathing machine, while the other ladies, who have already changed into their yellow swimming costumes, enjoy themselves in the  water. Two burly female bathing attendants or "dippers" help one nervous lady into the sea. The bathing machines were designed to shield the bathers from the gaze of gentlemen who might be sitting on the beach or walking along the shore.

[ABOVE] "MARTHA GUNN - the Old Brighton Bather" (1801), a caricature by the cartoonist Robert Dighton (1752-1814). This picture was produced on 1st January 1801 when Martha Gunn was 74 and still working as a "Dipper" at Brighton. [ABOVE] "AUGUST - Bathing at Brighton" (c1829), a drawing by the famous illustrator George Cruikshank (1792-1878). This wood engraving, which appeared in George Cruikshank's Comic Almanack of 1836,shows the bathing women at Brighton "dipping" women and children as they emerge from the safety of the bathing machines. Women and children were assisted by strong and burly female attendants called "Dippers". Gentlemen swimmers were attended by male "Bathers", usually former fishermen and boatmen.

[ABOVE] A detail from John Nixon's coloured print entitled "French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle" (1794), showing three courageous  bathing women assaulting the French invaders. The elderly, but immensely strong Martha Gunn lifts a French officer off the ground with one arm as she prepares to deliver a punch with her left fist. The blue-skirted bathing attendant stand on a mound of French bodies, presumably her previous opponents.

[ABOVE] "French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle" (1794), a coloured etching from a drawing by John Colley Nixon (c1759-1818). The French Republic declared war on Britain in 1793 and an attack on the south coast of England was expected at any time. In this picture, the inhabitants of Brighthelmstone (Brighton) repel an invasion by French troops. Leading the counter-attack against the French is a trio of sturdy bathing women, including Martha Gunn,

[ABOVE] "The View of the Pavilion and Steyne at Brighton with the Promenade' (1806), a hand coloured print taken from the design by William Marshall Craig (who drew the figures) and Charles Thomas Cracklow (who drew the background view of the buildings on the Steyne and the Pavilion on the right). The artist William Craig has drawn a  fashionable company of residents and visitors promenading on the east side of the Steyne (Steine) in front of Prince George's Marine Pavilion. George, Prince of Wales, is shown riding a dark horse on the right-hand side of the picture. Martha Gunn, by then a famous Brighton character, is the large bulky woman in the reddish-brown dress, leaning on the wooden rail on the far left of the picture.


To Brighton came he,
Came George III's son
To be bathed in the sea,
By famed Martha Gunn.
Old English rhyme
[ABOVE] A "Martha Gunn" Toby jug produced in the early part of the 19th Century. These Toby jugs can be identified as a representation of the famous bathing woman of Brighton because she wears at the front of her hat, the three feathers, emblem of the Prince of Wales [ABOVE] Martha Gunn, the Brighton bathing woman, in the form of a Staffordshire ware Toby jug. Women characters were rarely featured as Toby Jugs, which indicates Martha Gunn's celebrity status. [ABOVE] Martha Gunn, pictured in a mid-19th Century cartoon by the famous Victorian artist John Leech. Martha Gunn had been dead for over 30 years when Leech drew this cartoon, but she still represented the stereotype of the sturdy, forthright, but essentially kindly bathing woman. Martha's tough, motherly character is summed up by her declaration in the cartoon that the unwilling child should forget his tears and "Come to his Martha, and bathe like a man!" [ABOVE] (Top) George, Prince of Wales (1762-1830), painted by the artist John Hoppner around 1800. Below the Hoppner portrait is a rhyme which helped perpetuate the legend that Martha Gunn dipped Prince George when he was a young infant.

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