I’ve been reading a book – Three Men and a Bradshaw – which is an edited set of Victorian travel journals by John Freeman, a London clerk.
John Freeman’s journals date from the 1870’s and are roughly contemporary with those of the better known Francis Kilvert, but unlike Kilvert’s, his journals only cover holiday trips with his brothers, rather than the full run of daily life.
However while John Freeman can seem a bit priggish at times – he was teetotaler and an enthusiatic member of the Tonic Sol Fa movement, his diary does reveal rather a lot about travel and vacationing in the 1870’s.
Like Kilvert – who railed against having to wear cotton pants to go swimming – he enjoyed swimming nude in the sea – the Freeman brothers enjoyed a naked dip or two, but then it was still the norm for men to swim naked in the 1870’s.
And that actually leads to a little puzzle. While on Jersey the brothers went for swim one morning, accompanied by Lucy, who was the wife of John’s elder brother George.
Lucy had intended to swim with the brothers, but was unable to as all the bathing machines had been put into storage for the winter.
Now a bathing machine was more than a changing hut – it was pushed out into the sea to allow whoever was inside to enter the sea without being seen, and indeed they often had quite large canvas hoods that folded down to ensure privacy.
Equally we know from department store catalogues and cartoons in Punch that bathing suits for women were available from the 1860’s onwards – and these usually consisted of a heavy serge dress and pantaloons, which would undoubtedly make swimming rather difficult.
Photographs from the era are almost unknown, and cartoons from Punch usually refer to the situation at crowded resorts such as Brighton on a public holiday, so we don’t actually know what the situation was at all resorts, especially remoter out of the way ones.
However, there’s also some evidence that some women only wore a light shift to swim – but unfortunately the only evidence I’ve found relates to a moral panic in Margate, but it does remain interesting that Lucy was obviously happy to swim with the brothers – all of whom would have been naked, and possibly wished to wear something rather lighter than a heavy serge bathing suit to do so.
However, there’s more the journals than nude swimming – what shines through is the importance of the penny post for keeping in touch with family – the brothers are always writing letters home or interestingly receiving post restante letters from home – it’s always interesting to realise how much the penny post in Victorian times was about two way communication – much as we would use Facebook Messenger or email to maintain a conversation. This of course was function of the general efficiency of the Victorian era post office – letters were invariably delivered, even in remote areas, within a day or two of being posted, and in big towns there would be several collections and deliveries a day.
The other major trope is the effiiency of the various private railway companies.
The Freeman brothers used the rail network extensively for their walking holidays, and their journals are full of comments about the trains – mostly that they were late – sometimes ludicrously so, and dirty.
Despite what may be our view today, the mid Victorians clearly did not view the railway companies as models of unbridled efficiency.
The other aspect to the trains was that in the 1870’s the railway network was not complete – for a walking holiday in Devon the brothers had to use a coastal packet to complete their journey to Ilfracombe, and even when it was complete taking an overnight packet boat from London to Edinburgh was a more comfortable alternative than taking the train …
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