Visitors to Brighton Museum often find themselves stopping by the stairs in front of a portrait of an intriguing woman who looks as if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Wearing a grey dress, a red bonnet and clutching a scrunched up cloth in her right hand, it looks as if she can’t wait for the painter to hurry and finish his portrait as she has work to do. This is Martha Gunn (1726-1815), one of the most famous women in Brighton’s history, and, arguably, one of the cleverest.
Although born of a poor fishing family with no chance of an education, Martha had great entrepreneurial spirit and vigour. When the sea-bathing craze hit the town in the middle of the eighteenth century, she set herself up as a ladies’ bathing attendant or ‘dipper’ and proceeded to help set the lacklustre poor fishing village of Brighthelmstone into a new, brilliant chapter.
According to Martha’s tombstone, set on appropriately high land just outside the historic St Nicholas Church, Martha was ‘particularly distinguished as a bather’. In the museum portrait she looks perfectly capable of immersing women into the sea water as the bathing cure demanded, but Martha didn’t earn the nickname ‘Queen of the Dippers’ for nothing. She had a plethora of other skills – a scientific knowledge of the sea and the weather, for example, and an ability to interpret Brighton beach’s temperamental waves that would ensure her clients were safe and didn’t slip, lose their balance, or worse. She would have needed great sensitivity – good ‘customer service skills’ as we’d call it today – to make her client’s trust and like her. That’s without the almost superhuman reserves of stamina needed to spend hours per day – her gravestone has her career lasting ‘nearly 70years’ – in all weathers in the sea. Local legend has eighteenth century ladies repeatedly demanding to be bathed by Martha, even queuing at her door to secure her services, so we know she was appreciated.
With her profits, Martha was able to buy a house for her family in Little East Street, together with a number of bathing machines which she ran as a business, creating employment for other locals. Martha was so successful, her reputation went far and wide, attracting people to the town just to see her, making her a celebrity in today’s sense of the word. A satirical print of 1796 ‘French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle’ from a drawing by John Colley Nixon gives us a hint at the esteem in which Martha was held. It shows a group of unfortunate French soldiers attempting to invade England by Brighton beach and being robustly defeated by a gang of rowdy locals, Martha at the head, cheerfully waving one of the soldiers above her head with one hand while stepping on a second one.
Much more than a ‘bathing woman’, Martha played a pivotal role in Brighton’s transformation and road to becoming a successful city. With her reputation as a great dipper, she helped to establish the small village of Brighthelmstone as a must-see place to visit by the first Georgian visitors who started to flock to the town, among them, George, Prince of Wales, the future Regent and King George IV. Not only this, as a poor woman who ended up running a business, buying property and ended up in a picture, at least, staving off a French invasion, she’s truly a woman we should be proud of.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett. Part of Brighton Museum’s 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series, published to celebrate the current exhibition 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin, on until 7 June.