Mary Wheatland

Mary Wheatland and Bognor’s Bathing Machines

Mary Wheatland is one of Bognor Regis’s more famous characters known not only for her management of her bathing machines on the beach but also her life saving exploits.

Mary Wheatland is one of Bognor Regis’s more famous characters known not only for her management of her bathing machines on the beach but also her life saving exploits.

She was born Mary Norris in 1835 and lived in the village of Aldingbourne just north of Bognor, as it was known at the time until she married George Wheatland in 1857.

Eventually, they moved to Bognor where she was to play an important role in the seaside scene. When she first arrived in Bognor it was very quiet, with no pier or promenade, and only a few visitors. She taught herself to swim and was an assistant to another bathing lady Mrs Martha Mills. Subsequently, she instructed visitors in the delights of swimming and was later to perform swimming and diving displays with Ellen Ragless for visitors to the town

Mary was soon to become legendary, operating the bathing machines in front of the Beach Hotel on the eastern side of the pier. Frederick Jenkins later in the century operated bathing machines on the western side of the pier.  In an 1869 Guidebook for the area it was noted that bathing arrangements were excellent with plenty of machines with “their stout good humoured bathing women and fishermen attendants.”

The bathing machine consisted of a ‘hut on wheels’, which was pulled out into the sea by a horse. A bather entered the machine: it was then pulled down the beach by a horse until the water was up to the hub.  The horse was then unchained and led out of the water until the bather had finished their swimming.  The horse and chains were then reattached to the other end of the machine and brought the machine back up the beach, whilst the bather got dressed. Mary’s machines were painted in yellow and red stripes. 

The swimmers could hire both their bathing costume and a towel from Mary before they entered the machine to undress. On returning to the beach they would then return their costume and towel, which Mary would wash and lay out to dry, ready for the next swimmer.

Byelaws of 1879 made under the Public Health Act of 1875 for bathing were  tightened to stop mixed bathing: “A person of the female sex shall not while bathing approach within 100 yards (c 100 m) of any place at which a person of the male sex above 10 years of age may be set down for the purpose of bathing” and vice versa. In 1900 men could still bathe without a costume in the early morning at the extreme eastern end of the promenade, but the Council expected them to be covered up after breakfast hours.  From August 1898 at Bognor, both sexes were allowed to bathe in the same group or “stand” of the bathing machine – but still not allowed to share the same machine, which made Bognor less restrictive than either Worthing where it was only allowed at certain points or Littlehampton where it was allowed from c 1908.

Mary continued to operate these machines on the beach until 1909, when she decided to retire at the age of 74. 

Wheeled bathing machines were eventually replaced by stationery beach huts at the back of the beach around 1923 but were eventually removed altogether to leave the beach uncluttered. Frederick Jenkins remained until 1936 when he sold the business.

Mary Wheatland was known for her characteristic blue serge coat and straw hat. She was to be seen with medals attached to her serge coat, one of which was presented to her by the Royal Humane Society in 1879 for saving W.P. Manly who got into severe difficulties in stormy seas. Apparently, Mary rushed into the sea fully dressed to support Mr Manly until others reached her to bring them both in.

During this time she was attributed to have saved over 30 lives including a family of 5 children who had got into trouble and she brought them back to the beach one by one, and her boast was that she ‘never lost a life.’ She operated at a time when Dukes and their families came to the area.

Many families returned to the area annually and Mary was always pleased to be able to teach children to swim and then eventually their children.  She was still to be seen on the seafront for a number of years until her death at the age of 89 in 1924.   

A large number of postcards of the time were sent home to friends and relatives to show their swimming instructor. Mary in fact was the only person to have her own image produced on postcards by so many of the production companies.

Acknowledgements – Based on an article Mary Wheatland by Local Historian Sylvia EndacottA History of Bognor Regis by Gerard Young (1983) –Bygone Bognor  by James Cartland  (1979) –Dissertation on Mixed Bathing in Victorian Bognor by Ron Iden (1985)