Chronicles: The Bathing Machines of Castle Haven

The photograph here shows Castle Haven in Niton in the 1920s.

The Haynes family lived here, working as fishermen and hiring out bathing machines to visitors in the summer.  The figure walking up the pebbly beach is probably George Haynes, who lived with his wife and son Roland in Beach Cottage, the roof and chimneys of which are visible on the right of the photograph.  The family’s fishing boats can be seen drawn up on the shingle, with the flat roofed net store standing above them. The rest of the family ‘stock in trade’ consisted of the bathing huts, beach tents, and three Victorian bathing vans.

George’s son, George Roland Haynes wrote a detailed account of life in Castle Haven as he remembered it.

In the late twenties and thirties, the spot for the morning swim was Castle Haven. Here those members of the families owning the big houses who liked sea bathing, assembled (weather permitting) and hired one of Haynes’ Bathing machines for the donning of swimsuits. The old Victorian bathing vans were very suitable for Castle Haven because they were entered by a long springy plank from the higher part of the beach, enabling clients to avoid walking over the ridge of pebbles above high water mark.  Also it was easy to step modestly into several feet of water from the steps fixed to the front end.  Each van was divided into two compartments with seats, pegs to hang things on, plus a mirror in each compartment.  They could be hired for the modest sum of sixpence each person. For another sixpence a towel and a bathing dress could be hired, and one of these was quite remarkable and worthy of description. The material appeared to me to be a rough serge, very strong.  It had originally been black, I think, but with age had assumed a greenish tinge.  The upper part was styled after a sailor’s jumper, while the pantaloons were gathered at the knees rather like a gentleman’s Victorian cycling costume. There were faded yellow ribbons at the shoulders and knees – but you must not imagine these as delicate:  they would have served as reins for a small pony! No one ever sank under the weight of all this fabric as far as I know.  I can still see in mind’s eye an old lady gently ‘swimming’ and floating about the Haven.

At the end of the season the family would manoeuvre the cumbersome wooden bathing vans up the lane past Beach Cottage to be stored safely in their winter quarters up the hill.  But the hardest work came when bad weather was expected and they had to be kept safe from the storm by being hauled up the steep clay slope at the back of the beach.  Three primitive wooden windlasses standing on the flat ledge at the top of the slope were used to wind them laboriously up using stout ropes until they were well above high water mark, suspended on a one-in-six slope. It must have been a sight to see them hanging there.

George R Haynes suggests that at least one of the bathing vans may have come from the Royal Victoria Hotel (also known as the Royal Victoria Baths) which once stood at the other side of Reeth Bay.  The hotel was destroyed in a storm in 1866, and acquiring some of their vans may have been what allowed his grandfather to be listed in 1871 as a ‘Bathing Machine Proprietor’.

The old bathing machines lasted nearly a hundred years until 1941 when  after Dunkirk, the army commandeered the old bathing machines, putting them across the lane outside Beach Cottage to stop any German tanks that might come ashore at Castle Haven!  Being exposed broadside to both westerly and easterly gales, the poor old things soon disintegrated so after a long life, they died, so to speak, defending their country.

Lesley Telford Ventnor & District Local History Society.  Information and photograph from our Collection; extracts are from ‘It used to be like this’ George Roland Haynes’, 1979, which is now available from our Online Shop.  This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in 2017.