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Nude bathing at
Victorian East London

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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Sexual segregation of the beaches was common in Victorian England.

The resort of Margate was a prime example. Boats were forbidden from approaching within 200 metres of bathers, while bathing machines kept a distance of 20 metres from those occupied by the opposite sex.

Men were expected to wear full-piece costumes, while women were encumbered with cloaks and dresses which were weighted with lead to stop them floating.

South Africa's Victorian East London, on the other hand, had no enforced bathing regulations. For almost six decades, the local residents followed their own designs. The result was that traditional morality flew out the window.

The port -- founded in the Eastern Cape in March 1847 -- had developed as a frontier village where supervision of all civic matters was in the hands of a Resident Magistrate but he had too many other worries than how people bathed.

The townspeople were therefore left to do as they liked, and the men chose to bathe in the nude.

Bathing was not simply a sport but was a necessity because a shortage of water made other forms of ablution impossible. Good health therefore demanded the regular dip in the sea.

Two of the most popular spots were the lagoon and the Sandy Beach at the river mouth -- places that were easily accessible from the town. Soldiers, prisoners, harbour workers and sailors all swam in the lagoon -- and they all swam in the nude.

Initially women tended to shun these spots in favour of the more remote beaches, especially the Eastern Beach. This also proved to be the favourite site for inland holiday makers who outspanned during the Christmas season on the gently sloping ground close to the beach.

In 1873 a municipality was established at East London and it attempted to control the nude bathing. It tried various regulations such as restricting bathing to the night hours, but the men chose to ignore them all.

In any case, by some quirk of legal oversight, the municipality found it did not own the beaches and therefore had no real power to control things there.

It was only in 1880 that a concerted attempt was made to enforce bathing regulations. A letter to the press had complained that "a young male" -- "neither . . . a man nor a gentleman" -- regularly went down to Eastern Beach to where women were bathing. He had simply undressed and entered the water.

Not only did it prevent the women from swimming, the letter objected, it was also "most shocking, indelicate, and unmanly".

It was the first occasion in which anyone had complained. But a woman responded that she could see nothing wrong. When women were in the water, she wrote, they were supposed to be clothed "as much as modesty demands".

She therefore saw nothing wrong with males walking past. If the men in turn were required to wear bathing drawers instead of "the original costume worn by Adam before the fall", then the ladies could also walk past.

The Council responded by officially partitioning the swimming spots between the sexes. Eastern Beach became "ladies only" while men were given the entire lagoon as well as Sandy Beach -- what became known as the Orient Beach. Nobody, however, was allowed to swim during the day!

The regulation nevertheless remained a dead letter. Men could be found bathing nude at any time of the day in the river and on the beaches, yet they were never interfered with.

Nevertheless, segregated bathing was entrenched in Council thought. Sandy Beach remained a male's domain. Women were rewarded with a nearby rock pool called "Insolvent's Hole" -- a shallow pool immediately below the Esplanade at today's Wimpy.

The Council's attitude, however, was clearly out of step with the accepted norms of the town. The need for sexually segregated bathing and for restricted hours should have disappeared with an imposition of a bye-law forcing people to wear costumes.

Men refused to be restricted. Women too were becoming increasingly defiant because they had lost the Sandy Beach and were being confined to uncomfortable rock pools. They therefore also rebelled and invaded the men-only beach despite the nudity.

Eventually the Council attempted a compromise by dividing the Sandy Beach between men and women -- a wrecked life-boat being the divider. Such a compromise, however, was seen as petty and therefore ignored. Any code of dress was also ignored.

The chief problem was still nudity. A certain Mrs Malgass complained that it was common for men -- "of course roughs, not gentlemen" -- to "thrust themselves" within a few yards of women in the course of dressing, or denuded themselves "in a most reckless fashion".

She had opposition, however, even from other women. A female bather wrote that she could see nothing wrong with nudity on the beach. Indeed, all her sympathies were with the "sinners".

What a pity Mrs Malgass could not "wield the brush" as well as she did the pen as she evidently had some "splendid chances" of making studies of the "human form divine".

People could not expect, she wrote, that the "lords of creation" should be inflicted with "these cumbersome bathing suits".

Another woman pointed out that some women made it "a common practice" to sit in the midst of the men when disrobing, thereby making it impossible for "a modest minded man" to enjoy "the needful bath".

A man, on the other hand, wrote that it was "not nice" to find women clad in night shirts, men's pyjamas, and all kinds of female garments "of nameless description" which were "to say the least" not bathing costumes.

The question was solved only in 1905 when the Council decided to build a beach pool near the wreck of the Quanza, between Insolvent's Hole and the Sandy Beach. The pool was divided into two sections: one for women and children while the other was dedicated to mixed bathing.

For the first time, all who used the pools were forced to wear a bathing costume. Nude bathing therefore disappeared -- at least for a time.

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