Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

Indecent Bathing, 1890

Painting of boys bathing

NOTE: In the late Victorian period there was an increasing desire to regulate public bathing, prompted mainly by a prudishness about the indecency of the long-standing practice of men and boys bathing naked together, especially in view of ladies. The newspapers took a mildly amused attitude in their publication of many Letters to the Editor expressing moral outrage. "No one objects to bathing itself, but the presence on the banks at all hours of the day of a crowd of lads and youths who are absolutely unclothed, and who seem to like disporting themselves on the banks quite as much as in the water, is decidedly objectionable, and tends to make many ladies give the riverside a wide berth."

25 May 1890

INDECENT BATHING IN THE THAMES. – Two young men, named James Mason and Henry Mallins, were brought before the Lord Mayor, charged with indecently exposing themselves by bathing in the Thames. Police-constable Soper deposed about noon on Friday he observed the two defendants bathing in the river, close to Southwark Bridge. They went in and out of the water several times, exposing themselves in a very indecent manner to females upon the bridges and passengers upon the steamboats. Neither of them had bathing drawers on. Defendants now expressed their regret, and said they did not think they were doing any harm. The Lord Mayor said it was not a proper place for persons to bathe; but he discharged the defendants, warning them to be careful in the future. (Reynolds's Newspaper)

7 June 1890

SIR, – Some months ago you printed a letter on this subject, in which suggestions were made that, in the interests of the poorer classes, and especially of the young, who use the pond, better provision for bathing should be made. Nothing has been done. The edges of the shallow end, where boys enter, are lined with black mud, and weeds grow so thick as to be a source of positive danger. No shelter, or screen sufficient for the purposes, keeps the bathers on the banks out of view of those who happen to be walking in the neighbourhood; and to those who are familiar with the scene it is a mystery how our Vestry can allow such a scandal to exist without making a strong protest to the Parks Committee of the London County Council. As regards little boys nothing need be said; but it is difficult to gauge the moral fibre of full-grown men who expose themselves before respectable women and young children, when, for a shilling or eighteenpence, a decent bathing costume can be bought.
          Surely those who use the pond and those who use the Heath for recreation are entitled to call upon the London County Council to take this matter up, and to so arrange that bathing can be carried on with comfort to bathers and without annoyance to others.
          – Yours, &c. PRO BONO PUBLICO. (Hampstead & Highgate Express)

14 June 1890

SIR. – I quite agree with the writer of the letter signed Pro Bono Publico respecting bathing in the Hampstead-heath Bathing Pond, and think with him that it is high time something was done to mitigate to some extent the scandal that at present exists. I can hardly believe there is a place in England where bathing is carried on in such a public manner as it is here, and I trust that our representatives on the London County Council will bring the subject before that body, so as, if possible to induce it to improve the present state of affairs, which is a blot upon Hampstead. Now that the new road is finished which passes close to the bathers, large number of people on summer evenings, of both sexes, are constantly passing. Surely screens could be erected and other regulations issued, so as to render the bathing less objectionable than it is at present. – Yours, &c., Denning-road, June 11th. JAMES ROGERS. (Hampstead & Highgate Express)

20 June 1890

EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT. – What can only be described a gross indecency has, a correspondent writes, been occuring at Sidmouth during the past few days. It has been whispered about that a married couple on a visit to the town have been in the habit of bathing under the West Cliffs, a part frequented by male bathers, both undressing on the shingle and going into the water without any clothing whatever. That such was the fact was proved on Sunday morning. During the hours of Divine service a score of boys and young men were bathing under the cliffs, and within a stone's throw the couple in qustion were seen to undress and walk into the water, neither wearing anything in the shape of a bathing-dress. Two tradesmen of the town, who were passing at the time, thinking that all the bathers in the water were males, were astonished by discovering that one was a female, and that her clothes were lying upon the shingle. The occurrence is being freely talked of in Sidmouth with many expressions of indignation. (Bridport News)

28 June 1890

The usual fortnightly meeting of the Board of Guardians was held on Thursday morning in the Board-room, New-end. Present:– Mr. J. S. Fletcher, J.P., L.C.C., chairman, . . . Mr. Fletcher said . . . As to the bathing on Hampstead-heath he did hope that ladies and gentlemen would be generous to those young men who used the bathing pond, which was the only open-air bathing place for miles round. (Hear, hear.) He especially appealed to ladies and gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of Parliament-hill to look another way or read their evening newspaper during the bathing time. (Laughter.) If the Council would allow him to carry out a plan he had conceived, he thought he could see his way to render the bathing more private and get rid of the hideous screen between the two ponds. (Hear, hear.) . . . (Hampstead & Highgate Express)

28 June 1890

THE BATHING NUISANCE. – James Barsby and Joseph Orton (boys), were summoned at the instance of the Coventry Canal Company for bathing in the Coventry Canal at Atherstone, on the 25th ult. Defendants pleaded guity. – P.C. Street stated that on the date named he saw the defendants bathing in the canal, and a number of other boys who had been in the water, were dressing. About fifty persons boh male and female, were passing along at the time, and the boys walked along close to them, stripped. Notices were posted along the canal side, stating that bathing was not allowed, except during certain hours, and the defendants had been previously cautioned. – Mr. Lakin remarked that there was no place for the boys to bathe. – Superintendent Hannah said that had this bathing taken place in the early morning, or at a time when there were few people about, nothing would have been said, but it was in the afternoon, which was the time when the bathing chiefly took place, and numerous complaints had been made by persons living near. – Mr. Greenwood (Coventry) who prosecuted at the instance of the Coventry Canal Company, said there was no desire to press for a penalty, but there was no doubt bathing had become a nuisance. The men in the employ of the Company had been instructed to speak to any youths found bathing, but whenever they did so they were abused. – Mr. Lakin: Is this the first time these youths have been here? – Supt. Hannah: It is the first time for bathing, sir. – Mr. Armishaw (Magistrates' Clerk) said there would be no complaint if boys bathed in the canal at proper times, but they had no right to expose themselves to a number of people, and to remain exposed to pubic view was an indictable offence, and was punishable by imprisonment. – Mr. Greenwood said there was no desire to unduly press the case, but he did not think a caution wuld be sufficient. – The defendants were ordered to pay 1s. each, the costs being borne by the Company. (Tamworth Herald)

16 July 1890

THE Swansea Watch Committee have had before them the all-important task of drawing up sea-bathing regulations. Whether it is because prudery is on the increase or because the virtue of modesty is invading all ranks, we cannot tell, but we are inclined to think that bathing is gradually being made more and more difficult of accomplishment and less pleasant and salutary then it was some thirty or forty years ago, when it was not under law. The people who complain are commonly those who go in search of sights which they consider objectionable. The old maids near Edinburgh who complained some thirty years ago at the crowds of men who jumped from a bathing pier stark naked into the sea at seven o'clock in the morning were proved to have got out of bed purposely to enjoy the spectacle, and it was further discovered that but for the aid of a powerful opera glass, they could not have told whether a bathing costume was worn or not. We admit that there are decencies to be observed even in bathing, but there can be no doubt whatever that the wearing of any article of clothing is a decided disadvantage to the swimmer. It would be for the benefit of good swimmers to have easy access to deep water into which they could plunge at once, and without wading through yards of shallow. Besides, men and boys cannot be always carrying bathing costumes with them, and to get it upon loan is to incur an expense which to a large number of persons makes the delightful exercise prohibitive. Are we not getting a little too nice, too fine, too prudish in such matters? With all our modern bathing clothes, we are not a bit more modest or more virtuous than our fathers were. (South Wales Daily News)

22 July 1890

SIR. – As a comparative stranger to your town may I inquire whether there are no police regulations dealing with public bathing in Bristol, and if there are, why, in the name of decency, they are not put more effectively into practice.
          I have heard that below the Drawbridge the police do not permit bathing before 9 p.m., but apparently above Bristol Bridge, bathing may be indulged in at any place or time, without the slightest regard for the decencies of life.
          I have on several occasions rowed up the river, and on each have been disgusted, but Sunday afternoon surpassed all the others.
          On this occasion I took a lady with me, and at every point of the river were to be seen brutes – they are not men – in perfect nudity, in the water and on the banks. And this was not all. To add to their pleasures, as my boat passed a certain group, they must needs indulge in offensive language and action. This occurred just below the Great Western Railway, about 5 o'clock.
          This thing might be easily stopped by placing an extra police boat on the river (at any rate on Sunday afternoons),and I hope that it will be done. – SCRIBENDI. (Western Daily Press)

2 August 1890

I was glad to notice, the other day, that an attempt had been made by the city authorities to suppress the bathing nuisance at Diglis. Action was taken none too soon, for I have heard complaints respecting it on several Sundays when the weather was fine. No one objects to bathing itself, but the presence on the banks at all hours of the day of a crowd of lads and youths who are absolutely unclothed, and who seem to like disporting themselves on the banks quite as much as in the water, is decidedly objectionable, and tends to make many ladies give the riverside a wide berth. The use of bathing drawers by all bathers should be made compulsory. The same kind of nuisance as at Diglis is to be met with at Hallow Ford, outside the city boundary, as I personally noticed last Sunday, when, the weather being exceptionally pleasant, no less than three heavily laden steamers, besides numerous rowing boats, passed up on their way to Holt. Seeing that the County Council are about to make bye-laws for the administration of the county, some regulatios as to bathing should not be lost sight of, if sufficient powers are not already possessed. (Worcester Chronicle)

14 August 1890

It sometimes seems hard that small boys who bathe in the canal adjacent to public thoroughfares should be punished, but such a result is inevitable in the cause of public decency. It is, however, the opinion of many people that some stop should be put to the gambolings of the young ragamuffins who follow the trams along the various routes and disport themselves by turning somersaults. Now that ladies frequent the tops of omnibuses and trams it is a gross indecency for these boys, whose ragged clothing shows, to say the least, the necessity for needle and cotton. There can be no objection to lads, whose attire is not so well ventilated as those described, from earning on the busy days of the week a few coppers by amusing the passengers who ride outside the trams, but before the police prosecute any more boys for bathing in the canal, let them see that the clothing of the gamins of Aston Road is in a decent state. (Birmingham Mail)

11 September 1890

SEA Bathing is a luxury in which most people indulge during such weather as we have been experiencing of late, and it is calculated to do them more good than patent pills and potions. But bathers should not be permitted to systematically violate common decency, and in most places any attempts in this direction are instantly and severely dealt with. At Penzance, however, youths and men continually bathe within a comparatively short distance of the most frequented thoroughfares, destitute of the least vestige of dress. The numerous visitors now staying in the town have doubtless heard much of the superior morality and delicacy of the Cornish people, and they will therefore be considerably astonished at conduct of which the barbarous skinclad Ainos of Japan would be ashamed. These interesting aborigines, according to Miss Bird, always refuse to bathe, even in the privacy of their own houses, unless they are absolutely certain that no-one can possibly see them. Some of the rising generation in Penzance, – and their elders too, – might with advantage take a lesson in modesty from these barbarians and pagans. We do not believe that there is another seaside town of the size of Penzance where such gross indecency would be tolerated. This is not the first time that we have had occasion to allude to this very disagreeable subject, and we trust that it will not be necessary for us to mention it again. If the offenders are once made aware that the authorities have taken the matter up, and that they are determined to stop what has become a serious scandal and reproach to the town, it is pretty certain that those streets which command a view of the sea will soon cease to be, as they are now practically, impassable for ladies. (Cornish Telegraph)

11 September 1890

A CAUTION TO BATHERS IN THE CANAL. – Richard Archer and John Cooper, labourers, Banbury, were brought up in custody charged with unlawfully bathing in the Oxford Canal without the permission of the proprietors or other agent of the Company on Aug. 31st. – Prisoners pleaded guilty. – P.C. Pratt stated that at a quarter to three on Sunday afternoon, Aug 31, he saw the two defendants on the towing-path of the canal near the Golden Lion. They were stripped, and afterwards jumped into the canal. Cooper ran down the towing-path, and witness told Archer they had no right to bathe in the canal, and he said he knew all about it. Archer dressed himself in the field, near the towing-path, and Cooper went into a hovel. – Supt. Preston remarked that bathing in the middle of a Sunday afternoon was a great nuisance. – Archer said he was sorry they had done it, but it was done without thinking. – Cooper said he was not exposed; he was wearing drawers and a shirt, but he was sorry it had occurred. – P.C. Pratt, in reply to a question, said that neither of the men had on any drawers. – Mr. C. Neighbour, who appeared to prosecute on behalf of the Canal Company, said the Company were very desirous and anxious to put a stop to bathing in the canal. Complaints of the practice were made from both north and south of Banbury, and the bathers did the Company a deal of injury. Notices forbidding bathing were posted up along the canal, but they were torn down. It was known far and wide that the Company would not allow bathing, and he hoped the present case, which was a test case, would result as a warning to other offenders. – Supt. Preston said the police had power to take into custody forthwith any persons bathing in the canal. – The Clerk: Or to apprehend them on a warrant. A warrant was issued in this case. – The Bench having consulted in private, the Mayor said the Bench had carefully considered the case, and thought that a very proper course indeed had been taken in bringing it to that Court. The offence was a very serious one, committed as it was on a Sunday, in broad daylight, and near to the town – in fact the circumstances could not have been worse. The defendants were not children, or even boys, and must have known better. The baths were open to all people who chose to avail themselves of them for six days in the week. Bathing in the canal was an offence against public decency and morals, and was open to a very heavy fine or imprisonment. The Bench wished the public to understand that it was a very serious offence, and was against all good government, and would be dealt with most severely. The Bench had to take care of the interests of the public, and they would do it. Defendants would be fined 5s. and the costs, 8s. 6d., between them, or seven days' imprisonment. – Allowed a week for payment. (Banbury Advertiser)

12 September 1890

From a minute of the Bathing Committee it appeared that the offer of Mr D. Kirland for the erection of a urinal at the Low Green had been accepted.
From the same minute it appeared that the committee had considered the regulations anent bathing and were of opinion that no bathing should be allowed on the pier or esplanade after eleven A.M.
          Bailie WILLOCK did not think that there was any harm in bathing there after eleven o'clock. He could not understand why people should take exception to gentlemen bathing there after eleven o'clock if in proper costume when only a few Saturdays ago more than a thousand ladies attended the swimming gala held at the dock. He thought it all fairness that gentlemen should be allowed to bathe at these places after eleven o'clock for another year. The change suggested by the committee was in effect saying that gentlemen there made a perfect pandemonium of indecency up to eleven o'clock and that ladies could not go on the pier before that hour because of the indecency. Why could ladies not go there in the morning to see all the surrounding beauties (laughter) and if they did not choose to look at the bathers they could look beyond them.
          Capt. GALLOWAY thought they should go back to the old regulation and have no bathing after eleven o'clock.
          The PROVOST thought the matter lay more in the hands of the Harbour Trustees.
          Mr. IRVINE said ever since bathing had been allowed after eleven o'clock there had been a number of complaints about it, and he thought they should agree to the suggestion of the committee. Bathing after eleven o'clock simply deprived people of the use of the pier. Gentlemen who wished to bathe could turn out well enough before eleven o'clock.
          The minute was approved of. (Ayrshire Post)

10 October 1890

The CLERK read a letter from Mr. Argles (Medical Officer of Wanstead), a visitor, calling attention to indecent bathing off the west cliff. He suggested that the Board should make an order forbidding anyone from bathing without suitable clothing. – Mr. RAVENSCROFT said Budleigh Salterton was the only place where people were allowed to bathe without bathing dress. He saw men recently bathing 100 yards from the spot where the steamer landed passengers. – The CLERK said the Board had bye-laws with regard to public bathing, and anyone offending against them was liable to be prosecuted. Each case would, of course, have to be tried on its merits. It would be a question whether the bathing was indecent. – The CHAIRMAN suggested that a limit should be placed on the time during which people could Bathe. – The SURVEYOR (Mr. Stickland) gave some personal incidents of a bathe under the cliffs, and contended that ladies could not be all absolved from blame – (laughter) – Mr. RAVENSCROFT proposed that a notice board be placed 20 yards further up the cliff than the present one, pointing out that persons offending against the laws of decency would be prosecuted by the authority. – Mr. KEMPSON seconded the motion, which was carried. (Western Times, Exeter)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Indecent Bathing, 1890", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 8 August 2020 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1890bath.htm>.

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