A Victorian holiday embarrassment
On holiday in Brittany in 1864, a Victorian clergyman from Norwich bravely tested the seaside facilities at St Malo, unfortunately with embarrassing results.
Portrait of Arthur Charles Copeman via Wikimedia Commons
Three diaries of the Reverend Canon Arthur Charles Copeman (1824-1896), father of the medical scientist Sydney Monckton Copeman, have recently been added to the British Library’s collections. Two describe the daily life of an English clergyman, while the third volume details a month-long tour around Brittany with his brother-in-law, seeing the sights.
Two weeks into the trip, the pair walked from Mont Dol to the town of St Malo. Having secured a room in a local hotel, they made their way down to the beachfront, presumably to refresh themselves after their hot and dusty journey.
View of St Malo from Vues des côtes de France dans l'Ocean et dans la Méditerranée peintes et gravées par M. L. Garneray, decrites par M. Étienne de Jouy. British Library shelfmark: 650.b.7 Images Online
Copeman describes in detail what they discovered at the shore:
‘We found a congeries of little wooden cells ranged on the sea-ward side of a gentle slope which was thronged with ye ladies & gentlemen of S.Malo with whom it appears the favourite and fashionable promenade – and an office for the issue of bathing tickets which was beset with applicants’.
(Congeries, an unfamiliar word, defined by the OED as ‘a collection of things merely massed or heaped together’.)
Having secured a bathing ticket, the pair were pleasantly surprised to find it entitled them to temporary possession of two of the beach huts, together with towels and bathing costumes.
The Reverend was particularly taken with the available attire, enthusing it was ‘of the simplest construction but of imposing & indescribable effect’. Once within this pair of loose blue shorts and sleeved ‘gaberdine’ top, he thought he would have been unrecognisable to even his closest friends. However, Copeman believed he and his companion attracted ‘the admiring inspection of the promenade’ as made their way down to the sea.
And yet, their favoured bathing suits would prove to be their undoing.
‘When emerging after a delightful bathe, we found our wondrous costume clinging everywhere tenaciously to the skin & bringing out in strong relief every irregularity of a development somewhat obtrusively bony.’
Shocked by the betrayal of their previously modest attire, the pair ‘took fright & with a leap & a run we regained our dressing houses whence were heard roars of convulsive laughter till we re-appeared in civilised attire’.
Bathing at Brighton from George Cruikshank, Cruikshank's sketches British Library shelfmark: RB.23.a.34787 Images Online
It is perhaps reassuring to know that self-consciousness in a bathing costume is not new, and was affecting people nearly 160 years ago. Fortunately, the Reverend also refers elsewhere in his journal to other occasions when he bathed without incident, away from the prying eyes of a popular promenade, in locations more suitable to the shyer swimmer.
I am pleased to report that Copeman did not let this event dampen his spirits or lessen his opinion of St Malo, as this final quotation demonstrates:
‘Joking apart however no one can fail to be struck with the admirable arrangements here & elsewhere on ye French coast for the enjoyment & safety of the bathers’.
Add MS 89721/3 - Journal of the Reverend Arthur Copeman of a walking tour of Brittany, France.