I educated myself on sea bathing in the 18th century while learning about the life and times of Brighton’s Martha Gunn.
Back in Martha’s day if you wanted to swim in the sea, you didn’t just strip off and walk into the water. Things were far more involved than that. If you wanted to swim, you boarded a covered bathing wagon which was pulled out into the water by horses. Then, with the assistance of a Dipper (for women) or a Bather (for men), you’d be dipped into the sea.
Martha made her living as a dipper and bather. For 60 years she dipped men and women into the sea. She was a local celebrity, esteemed by the Prince of Wales, who she bathed and who gave her access to the Royal Pavillion’s kitchens, where hot food was served.
A ruddy-faced portrait of her hangs by the stairwell at Brighton museum. It was donated to the museum by Chris Gunn, one of her many descendants.
Mrs Mcardle had wondered aloud whether the Gunn of Gunns florist might be related to Martha. I googled ‘Gunn florist’ and found two Gunns florists in Brighton, plus one in Hove. The shop on Castle Square was closed but the one on Sydney Street was still open.
Esme was busy at work there snipping flower stems. I told her about what I was doing and asked if she was a Gunn. She isn’t, but her boss is. I asked if he’s related to Martha Gunn. Esme said she’s not sure as he changes his story. Sometimes he’s related, sometimes not.
Since I was on my way to visit Martha’s tombstone, some flowers seemed appropriate so I bought two red roses.
Esme told me to put a thistle on the montage, since thistles dry and keep well and then sent me to meet the person propping up the bar at the Great Eastern.
Before heading there, I visited Martha’s tombstone. It’s located in St. Nicholas’ churchyard where she’s buried together with her husband; so I was glad I brought two roses or he’d have been jealous!