Victorians with smelly feet
I used to be a volunteer usher at my local Royal Hippodrome Theatre here in Eastbourne, so it was a natural progression to become a theatre guide. It was built in 1883, the first proper one in Eastbourne despite there being others previously connected to drinking hotels. When I took the guided tours, I really enjoyed re-creating the atmosphere on opening night.
It was always best when the children were my audience, on a school educational visit. I would stand on the stage, anything up to 100 children in the stalls, completely enthralled at experiencing their first ever visit to the theatre. Mostly they would be well behaved, staring in wonder at the stage, the four boxes alongside on two levels, the plush carpets, the deep red painting on the walls with gold filigree, the fold down seats that they had never sat in before, and looking at this strange man who was talking to them from the middle of the stage.
My introduction would go something like this;
‘imagine what this theatre was like on opening night on 2nd August 1883. Where you are sitting was still known as the stalls, but the first three rows were individual seats just like you are on now, but the whole of the rest of downstairs was long wooden benches. They would have been pretty uncomfortable, smaller people like you swinging their feet as they wouldn’t be touching the ground. It would have been very warm inside here, no windows as you can see, the doors were closed, just like they are now, and they didn’t have electricity.
That’s right, they couldn’t turn on the light, just like we all can now, but they had light from gas, lit on wall lamps. But the problem also was, the Victorians didn’t have baths. Yes, I know that you are all used to having a bath, but they didn’t have them in those days like we have now, no running water. But they wanted to look their best, so the ladies had their best dresses on, big hats, but they hadn’t managed to wash properly. It was August, it was hot, and they must have ponged a bit. Now, I would like to have a think. Do any of you have smelly feet?’
There would always be at least two boys raising one arm. ‘Do any of you have two smelly feet?’ they would raise both arms.
‘So imagine what it was like here on opening night, smelling like lots of smelly feet.’
The Royal Hippodrome is in the poorer area of town, the theatre was built to meet a demand for entertainment, as the town was encouraging visitors more and more. The boarding houses were three stories, ground floor lounge/dining room, kitchen, living quarters for the owners, first floor three rooms, top floor two rooms plus bathroom, probably landing rooms as singles as well. Depending on the closeness to sea, railway station, or town centre, half board would usually be between £1.10s and £3 per week
But in 1883 a lot of these houses were without running water as well as electricity, which was not to be commonly installed for another ten to twenty years. Visitors went to the public bathhouse if they were to stay for a week.
The toilet was at the front, segregated sexes, with the main purpose made building above a natural spring for a constant supply of fresh water. Towels and soap were provided, baths filled with reasonably hot water, soaking not allowed as the bath was only to be of ten minutes duration, any more and you paid extra. It was filled to a specific level, cursorily wiped down after every occupant.
These wash houses continued in popularity even after the houses were connected to main water after WWl in the 1920s. They only fell into disuse in the 1930s when the demand for better than basic became popular, but bear in mind also that seaside landladies would only allow their guests to have a bath once a week, between certain hours, and charge them extra for the hot water. That meant that despite the inconvenience of the washhouse, the cheapness of them and also the sociability of chatting to other holidaymakers they continued in popularity until the outbreak of WW2.
Two of these wash houses are still there, both closed to the public. One is on the site of the spring of the River Bourne, a large building over three storeys with basement. It was an auction house for many years, now derelict. The other was on the main road called Seaside, slightly set back, the defunct toilets are at the front, the building at the back. This is now used by a local operatic society as rehearsal room, practice stage, and storage for their extensive collection of costumes.