Hair Fashions ‘Well Deserving the Attention of Bathing-Ladies’

Georgian ‘Bee-hive’ hair-styles!

Here’s an interesting advertisement from The Norfolk Chronicle for a business in Holt, Norfolk, dated May 20, 1783. Notice the use of the word sophistication to mean something like trickery.

PAGE, Hair-Dresser, Perfumer, and Haberdasher, Begs Leave to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen, that, from a grateful Sense of their extraordinary Encouragement, and with a View of meriting the Continuation of their Favours, he has been in Town this Spring, and he flatters himself has selected the most elegant Fashions; in particular he has brought down with him Cushions on an entire new Plan, well deserving the Attention of Bathing-Ladies, or of Ladies residing at an inconvenient Distance from an Hair-dresser, as Ladies may dress their own Hair with them in five Minutes, in a Stile superior to most who profess the Art.

– He presumes it is scarce necessary to observe, that he continues to make Tetes, Toupees, Curls, Braids, Cushions, etc with every the newest Improvement, with the most diligent Dispatch; but the Detection of some late Sophistication seems to make it necessary for him to assure Ladies and Gentlemen that the various Articles of his Perfumery are genuine; that his Powder in particular is unadulterated with Plaster of Paris, or any Mixture, which alone can enable any Dealer to undersell him.

– He most respectfully acquaints the Ladies and Gentlemen that he is ready to wait upon them at their own Houses, on the shortest Notice, to cut and dress their Hair in the present Taste.

Note: ‘Cushions’ were aids to creating the towering mid-Georgian hairstyles. Unlike women in the 1960s and 70s, Georgian women didn’t frizz their hair by back-combing it to add volume. Instead, they dressed their hair (or hair-pieces) over small pillows, made of soft woollen fabric and lightly stuffed with down or kapok. [See this post].

Bathing-Ladies?

When I read this, I was fascinated by the mention of ‘Bathing-Ladies’. Was Mr. Page suggesting that ladies from Holt might make the six-mile round trip to bathe in the sea at Cley, or the eighteen-mile return to Cromer? Indeed he was.

Bathing in the sea was becoming very fashionable by the late 18th century, usually involving the use of ‘bathing machines’ – something like small beach-huts of wood or canvas, fixed on top of a platform on wheels.

Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below – The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end – The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water – After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up.

~ Tobias Smollett, “Humphry Clinker”, 1771

Men and women would be segregated to opposite ends of the beach, especially since men bathed naked. Women wore a long shift made of flannel, sometimes with weights sewn into the hem to keep it from floating up. Both sexes were assisted by attendants, probably to stop them drowning!

Where to bathe?

Would the Holt ladies go to Cley or Cromer? Well, it could be either. We usually think of Cromer as being very much a resort ‘created’ in the nineteenth century by the railways, but isn’t so. In the eighteenth-century there were bathing machines available on the beaches at both Cromer and Sheringham – which must have been little more than a fishing village then – since both have good areas of gently-sloping sand.

Cley is closer to Holt, but the shingle beach there shelves steeply. No horse could have drawn a bathing machine down to the water safely, let alone back up again. Yet it was not to be left out, producing a surprisingly sophisticated form of bathing, according to this advertisement in the Norfolk Chronicle dated 7 June, 1794.

CLEY NEW & ELEGANT SALT-WATER BATHS

THE Proprietors beg leave to inform the public, that the above BATHS will be opened on Monday the 16th of June, for public bathing. Good lodging and boarding houses, on very reasonable terms.

☞ Letters (post-paid) directed to Mr. Robert Anthony will have due attention.

N.B. Hot baths will be provided.

Cley-next-the-sea, May 15, 1794.

The mention of hot baths is most intriguing. Did this refer to hot sea-waters baths? If so, how large were they and where were they sited? All I have been able to discover so far is that the sea-water baths themselves were situated close to an inn called “The Fishmonger’s Arms”, which is now a private home in the High Street.

A similar advertisement appeared the next year in September. It seems clear from the wording that some alterations or repairs had been undertaken, since the baths were only just opening. No mention is made of hot water this time, but a note is added that the baths are:

“… plentifully supplied with sea-water, by means of a tide mill.”

It seems that visiting the north Norfolk coast for summer bathing was almost as popular in the eighteenth century as it is today.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death”, appeared in January 2015. A second book, “The Fabric of Murder” was published on May 1st, 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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