09 December 2009

Beach huts in Australia & Britain

Brighton, Melbourne

In 1752 Dr Richard Russell published a Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands, particularly scurvy, jaundice, leprosy and consumption. He is seen as one of the people who built up a passion, based on science, for beach culture in the early 19th century.

So the seaside had to be "invented" as a realistic holiday destination and we can see amazing images of the sand, water, donkey rides, icecream vendors, punch and judy shows, umbrellas, fully dressed adults and children in bathing suits. Victorian and Edwardian Paintings has wonderful photos from the era eg Blackpool 1903. as does British seaside resorts  eg Ramsgate.

The first wheeled bathing machines soon arrived. Georgian bathing machines, which might have used as far back as the 1730s according to a 1735 engraving by John Setterington, were horse- or human-drawn devices. Then Benjamin Beale’s Invention for Bathing Machines was formalised in 1750.

There seemed to have been two reasons why people would use these bathing machines. Firstly they protected the modesty of fashionable bathers, especiallywomen. Secondly they may well have enabled frail or sick visitors to the health-giving sun and sea water to make their way to the water's edge.

Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast was the world's first seaside resort which became popular when doctors began prescribing cold-sea treatment as a cure for many things. This was where the mobile changing room or swimming machine first appeared. My favourite description of summer holidays at the beach comes from the Victorian History blog and my favourite  image of bathing machines in Scarborough came from Pruned blog

bathing machines, Scarborough

By the C19th Queen Victoria made sea bathing even MORE fashionable with her machine on wheels at Osborne Bay on the Isle of Wight. So these machines enabled queens and ordinary women to roll the machine down to the water’s edge, without having to run immodestly across the open sand in their bathing suits.

In Sydney,  the Woolloomooloo baths looked after women carefully. Between 1833-1955 this area of the Bay was the site of 4 separate ladies’ bathing facilities: Mrs Biggs’ Ladies Baths, Robertson's Ladies Floating Baths, the Corporation Ladies Baths and the Domain Baths for Ladies.

Beach huts came next. They were small wooden buildings located on the foreshore and fixed to the ground, unlike the horse-drawn bathing machines. They were still responding to the bathers’ need for modesty and privacy, just as the bathing machines had done.
Brighton beach huts with tee trees, Melbourne

Suffolk beach huts
Credit: Country Life Magazine

You would expect British customs to have been adopted and adapted across the Empire, especially in countries were summer weather was hot. But I wonder if Australia was actually copying British customs or vice versa. Bathing boxes in Melbourne were reputed to have existed as far back as 1862. They were usually brightly painted with timber framing, weatherboards and corrugated iron roofs. They backed right into the tee-trees, to keep the sand from eroding and to add a smidgeon of shade in summer.

Small, simply furnished and with a minimum of decoration, the interiors would do no more than allow a family to store bathing suits, towels, sandwiches and swimming equipment, and to change their clothes modestly. An open box at Edithvale will show the simplicity of the interior.

open box at Edithvale, Melbourne

The boom in beach huts came straight after WW1 and they are now a significant part of Melbourne beach culture. They probably started in Brighton then spread across Port Phillip Bay and Western Port Bay.

In Britain, Bournemouth had beach huts alongside the pier by 1908. However across the British world, beach huts were not widely introduced until WW1 ended. This was about the time when attitudes changed, allowing men and women to swim at the same time. Many seaside councils erected beach huts for people to use, I am assuming because they thought it would attract well heeled holiday makers and because it would keep their beaches respectable. In Britain, the huts were erected on Crown land and owners had to pay council rates and public liability insurance.

Beachhutworld noted an issue that was relevant for British beaches, but not Australian. WW1 laws had put much of the coastline out of bounds, especially in southern England. Elaborate defences against invasion along the beaches usually included coils of barbed wire at the top of the beach head, thereby effectively preventing use of the beach.

Beach huts were constructed from whatever materials were available after the war. Yet beach huts have large retained their original appearance: single room, gabled roof, usually simple timber, next to no windows and a locked double door. On the beach side of some huts, there was a simple porch construction, allowing two adults to sit and watch the children play. Bright colours enabled families to easily identify which, of the dozens of otherwise identical huts all in a row, was theirs. In Britain, as in Australia, there were never any facilities like running water and electricity inside the huts.

Shedworking  is a wonderful blog for images and histories. Littlehampton on the south coast has many beach huts owned by the local authority alongside its broad promenade which provides free access to the beach and the beautiful River Arun. At St Helens on the Isle of Wight, the beach huts have been made from some of their redundant railway carriages and until very recently they all had cladding. Different designs may also be determined by the local coastal environment and the date when the huts were built.

uniformity at Great Yarmouth

small porches, Southwold

Gouville-sur-Mer, Normandy

Years later I discovered Normandy’s coastline with dramatic and beautiful beaches. The clean sweeping beaches are rarely crowded and in any case the beach cabins are not on the sand. Rather they are lined up in rows on the grassy dunes, perhaps 200 metres from the water's edge. It was suggested that each roof is uniquely coloured, allowing the owners to identify their own cabin from a distance.

Shedworking recommends two books by Kathryn Ferry: Sheds on the Seashore: A Tour through Beach Hut History, 2009 and Beach Huts and Bathing Machines, 2009. I will add another by Fred Gray Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature, 2006


J Bar said...

These are fantastic shots Hels and an interesting part of our history. Thanks for showing these.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Alex said...

Many thanks for the kind words about Shedworking.

Andrew said...

Which beach was I at? Black Rock maybe? The beach huts had some quite good facilities inside them.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Terrific post, thank you.

The first literary mention of a bathing machine I've found is by a diarist, Nicholas Blundell, who refers to one at Liverpool in 1721, although it's not called a bathing machine – this term only appeared in the 1750s.

Bathing machines had a further advantage in addition to protecting people's modesty. Some users, bathers who took to the sea for their health, were infirm, and so needed to be trundled out to the water.

Hels said...


"Some users, bathers who took to the sea for their health, were infirm, and so needed to be trundled out to the water". Of course! I forgot.

As the latter half of the 19th century got more involved in the health-giving properties of fresh air, sea water, sunshine and exercise, it makes perfect sense that some visitors would be unhealthy or frail.

I must add this idea into the history.

corfubob said...

Glad I happened across this quality blog. Brighton, England, beach huts are fully subscribed, but not a poor person's option!

Hels said...

I just found a reference to "Built for Britain: Bridges to Beach Huts" by Mr Peter Ashley. Timing is everything!

Hels said...


I have had a good look at the beautiful beach huts you found in
Lyme Regis in Dorset. No gables and very pastel colours!! Are they the same size as the more familiar beach boxes?

Hels said...


not cheap AT ALL. Two bathing boxes on Victoria's peninsula have fetched $440,000 and $400,000 in January 2013. Portsea and Rye are not cheap beach suburbs in Melbourne, but I was still surprised at the prices.

Hels said...


I have added a photo of the beach cabins at Gouville Sur Mer, Normandy. They look simple.

Marshall White said...

Don't dream it, do it because owning a bathing box is the ultimate way to enjoy Brighton beach. Rarely offered and highly sought-after, bathing box 60 offers a lifestyle opportunity like no other. Just imagine the fun you can have here with friends, on a world-famous stretch of sand. Sip sundowners as you watch spectacular sunsets, have fish and chips on a hot summer's night, and relax in your double-door bathing box in between swims. Waterfront real estate with a rich history can be exclusively yours, to make the most of Melbourne summers in such an extraordinary location. Recognised as one of Australia's most iconic attractions, this is too good to miss.

Brighton Bathing Box 60
$270,000 - $297,000
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Hels said...

One of Southwold’s claims to fame is its colourful beach huts, which stretch along the shoreline, overlooking the beach either side of the Edwardian pier. Essentially they evolved from fishermen’s huts, or bathing machines, and provide a convenient beachside home from home when spending a day at the seaside in Britain’s uncertain weather.

Visit http://bitaboutbritain.com/short-visit-to-southwold/

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fascinating and enjoyable article - and thanks for the reference back to A Bit About Britain!