Before the railway came to Eastbourne in 1849, it was just a series of small hamlets and villages, population well under 2,000.
The new influx brought the poor as well as the wealthy. The ones with money were the ones who came to holiday, the ones without stayed to service their needs, which were varied and many. These positions would mainly involve servitude, with the resultant low wages.
Not for nothing were they referred to as the great unwashed.
They got smellier because they were the ones exerting themselves for the benefit of the rich, and had little time or inclination for personal hygiene. Some of this changed when the holidaymakers arrived.
They tended to be more fastidious, because there were standards to be maintained. Men always wore a tie with their detached shirt collars, even on the beach, sitting in a deckchair. Sweltering hot, and they wore their cloth caps, waistcoat, and highly polished boots.
When I was a boy in 1959 and we had our first overseas holiday – a week in Paris that was cut short by the sudden demise of Uncle Albert, for which he has never been forgiven – there are photos of my dad wearing a sports jacket, shirt, and tie, even relaxing.
As Eastbourne became more developed, so came the London holidaymakers, arriving by train. Their boarding houses provided a room, toilet, usually basin, and food. But rarely a bath. This is where the public wash houses were valuable.
They were usually very close to a natural source of water, such as underground river, or seafront.
The River Bourne is still there, albeit taking a somewhat different course to that of over a century ago. Two wash houses were built adjacent, one much larger than the other. The bigger of the two was on two stories, changing rooms on the top floor. At the back, out of view of the public, was a huge tap.
The tap was connected to a big hose, and that was connected to the water cart. This was pulled by two horses, and the water was delivered to people’s private houses at so much per bucket. This was for the houses where the occupants could afford to pay for this service, otherwise it was collected by the children of the house, or the wife. Not a working man’s chore.
The smaller of the two wash houses was erected in 1904, and had two baths, one for each segregated sex. It was purely functional rather than recreational.
Public toilets were at the front of the building, again separate for each sex.
Both these wash houses are still there, one was later used as an auction house for many years, and is now derelict, with no plans for future development, despite rumours some years ago that it was to be turned into a gym.
The smaller of the two is now the headquarters of the Eastbourne Operatic and Drama Society. There is a small rehearsal stage, and storage rooms for costumes and sets. The toilets are not in use.
Harry Pope is Eastbourne’s only licensed sight-seeing guide. www.harrythewalker.com