Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

While the stimulus of a fresher air, of change of scene, and of new occupations, together with rest from accustomed work, are the elements from which the weakly, the worn, and the worried reap physical and mental restoration in a sojourn on the sea-coast, it is, unquestionable that bathing in the open sea is, in itself, a powerful restorative agency, which many persons may employ with very great advantage.

It was this belief (that the sea was a “powerful restorative agency”) that caused the popularity of bathing in the sea to increase throughout the Victorian era and continue up until the early 20th century. All manner of people flocked to the beach to partake in the benefits of bathing.

Bathing in some form or other is absolutely essential to enable the skin to perform its important bodily functions; but sea bathing excels all other modes of ablution in that it has a strong tonic effect on the system, and is combined with fresh air and thorough though not exhaustive muscular exercise.

Of course a visit to the beach in the Victorian era wasn’t quite like a visit to the beach today. While today both men and women alike congregate on the beach at the same time wearing as much or as little clothing as they like, their Victorian era counterparts faced much stricter societal conditions on what was or wasn’t appropriate behaviour in public. Segregated bathing times (or even separate beaches!) were often put in place as it was important that men and women should not be seen in public in their bathing costumes. These etiquette requirements were more often enforced against women in particular and, thus, the bathing machine was invented.

Bathing Machine

The bathing machine was essentially a small wooden hut on wheels that provided privacy for women whilst getting changed. The woman would enter the hut at one end, change into her bathing costume and then, when ready, would be wheeled down into the water where she could exit facing the sea.

Bathing in Australian waters came with its own set of challenges (namely sharks – “the more things change the more they stay the same”) and in 1885 Mr Greenfield of Sydney solved the problem by inventing an ‘Australian bathing machine’. Much like the aforementioned bathing machines, Mr Greenfield’s invention was fitted with a portable gated enclosure which was lowered into the water and enabled the party to bathe safely within its confines. The following image was printed in the Illustrated Sydney News several years later and shows Mr Greenfield’s machine in use at Coogee Beach.

Mr Greenfield's Machine

Women’s bathing costumes were also a matter of importance and in the 1880s and 1890s were more akin to dresses. Some were in fact labelled ‘bathing dresses’ and consisted of shorter length pants covered with a long tunic or blouse (a dress by today’s standards). Buttons, trimmings and ruches added decoration to the costume while the material used was often quite heavy (such as flannel or serge) so that the costume wouldn’t float on the water or cling to the lady’s figure.

Bathing costumes in 1883.

Bathing costumes in 1883.


Bathing costumes in 1886.

These requirements with regards to bathing etiquette weren’t only just moral guidelines – they also became laws. The Western Australian Government in the Municipal Institutions Act 1895 gave local councils the ability to pass by-laws with respect to bathing. Such by-laws included regulating or prohibiting bathing in various bodies of water; the option to set apart certain areas for use by a particular sex; regulating the hours in which people can bathe; requirements as to clothing being worn and authorising the erection of bathing houses or machines. Unfortunately (despite exhaustive searching) I have been unable to find a copy of any council’s full bathing by-laws but one newspaper article on Trove published certain examples of the Cottesloe laws which are quite interesting.


As is often the case when something reaches a heightened popularity, rules from various sources were printed in the papers so that readers could enjoy sea bathing “with benefit to health rather than injury.” The following set were printed in The Cumberland Free Press in 1895 and while the ‘don’t bathe after eating rule’ is familiar, the majority are rather archaic.

  1. Never bathe when heated, nor when feeling chilly.
  2. Never bathe within two hours after a meal, but, on the other hand, do not enter the water when exhausted or hungry.
  3. An early bathe may be taken by those who are strong and healthy before breakfast, but it is as well to have had a biscuit and a drink of warm milk before going out.
  4. Those who are young or delicate should bathe two or three hours after a meal in the forenoon, when the sun is hot.
  5. Never prolong the bath after the first symptom of chilliness has appeared.
  6. Those who are able to swim can stay in the water much longer than others, and active games in the water should be encouraged.
  7. On leaving the water dry and dress quickly.
  8. Those who are subject to palpitation, giddiness, fainting fits, or are not in very good health in any other way, ought to consult a doctor before deciding to go in for sea bathing.
  9. After the bath a little light refreshment, such as a biscuit and a small glass of milk and water, or a beaten-up egg, with a teaspoonful of brandy in it, is very good.
  10. It is not wise to sit down on the beach after bathing; a short, brisk walk is desirable.

With the end of the Victorian era came the eventual end of segregated bathing, bathing machines and longer, dress-like bathing costumes. While initially the start of the 20th Century saw the continuation of the longer length bathing costumes, within the space of 25 years much had changed. Costumes gradually became fitted, shorter and closely resemble the full length costumes of today.


A bathing costume in 1901 (left) and in 1926 (right).


1926 Bathing Costumes

Examples of 1926 bathing costumes.


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