Life in Regency England, Part 3: Summer Resorts

A Calm, James Gillray, 1810

Remaining in London once the Season was over was a serious faux pas-no members of society were willing to be seen in London once all their acquaintances had gone to the countryside. So, once Parliament finished its session for the year, signaling the end of the London season, off the ton went, either to their country houses or to seaside resorts. Visits to resorts were essential for socially active and ambitious people. These “watering places” were the centers of social life throughout the summer. At places such as Brighton, and Weymouth, as well as at Bath, the noted inland spa, balls and assemblies much like those in London took place every night, while the days were filled with social activities that were unique to resort life.

For instance, morning was the time for people to visit the Pump Room, an elegantly appointed gathering place that was the centerpiece of a spa town. Although it was called a “room,” it was in fact, a grand building. Here, guests could gather to drink healing waters from a local spring. The waters offered at the “room” had a high mineral content, making them quite healthful. But it was not solely for their health that people visited the Pump Room. Every morning, eligible young gentlemen and single young ladies congregated at this center, sipping the water, exchanging meaningful glances, seeking official, formal introductions.

Official introductions were as important at the Pump Room as they were at any London ball. Resort life, although less formal than London life, was still governed by the same basic rules of Regency propriety. If a couple felt attracted to one another and wanted to meet, they could not simply introduce themselves. The man had to seek out someone who knew the woman and have that person introduce him to her. For him to approach her without this necessary step was a serious impropriety. And for her to attempt to introduce herself to him, even through an intermediary, would have been positively scandalous.

Once they had gone through the necessary formalities, a couple had many opportunities to meet during the day. The public rooms of shops were a popular gathering place at most resorts. They were the equivalent of today’s upscale coffee houses, where people could enjoy conversation over a cup of tea. Young ladies could not, of course, go to such places alone, but they could stop in for refreshment in the company of a close male relative or an older, preferably married, woman. The promenade was even more popular. The resort town’s main thoroughfare was the center of daytime social life. The promenade was the main place to see and be seen, much like Hyde Park in London. Resort visitors would stroll up and down this public walk, greeting people they knew. A couple could stop to chat here with utter propriety, since they were in a very public place. Again, as with the public rooms, the promenade was no place a young lady could be seen alone. Properly chaperoned, though, she could go there to meet suitors without causing the slightest scandal.

Evenings offered more social events, mostly balls. Although, as noted before, spa balls were much they same as London ones, they did tend to end much sooner. At Margate, for instance, there was dancing every night, beginning at eight o’clock and ending “precisely” at midnight, according to Professor R.J. White, the author of Life in Regency England. Given that nighttime entertainments in the city would last until dawn, midnight was an early hour to end a ball. Early hours were a characteristic of spa life, though, since spas were supposed to be a place where visitors could go to improve their health.

Because spas, then as now, were health resorts, the pursuit of fitness was a daily concern. After a night’s dancing, a young woman could go “dipping” in the ocean the next morning. She would walk down to the seaside, where she would climb into a “bathing machine,” a sort of cabana on the water. Here, she would change into a bathing costume, which was an almost full-length dress, made of cotton or wool, and a (hopefully) flattering swim cap. From the bathing machine, she could enter the water, swim a bit, then return to the little cabana to dry off. Men were not allowed to use the part of the beach where women bathed, since bathing costumes, modest thought they were, showed a bit more ankle than was thought proper. Couples could meet, though, on their ways to and from their separate beaches.

Resorts, though far away from the “marriage mart” of London, were an important social center from June well into October. Here, although still regulated by the conventions of Regency propriety, couples had a wide range of chances to meet and get to know one another. Spas also gave people of all ages a chance to enjoy fresh air, good company, and good food. For these reasons, they were among the most popular places for members of the beau monde to spend the summer.