The History Of The (Not So) Humble Beach Hut

Once known as bathing machines and used to hide your particulars, quintessentially British beach huts now exchange hands for the price of a house..
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Once known as bathing machines and used to hide your particulars, quintessentially British beach huts now exchange hands for the price of a house..


“Beach huts epitomise escapism,” asserts photographer Iain McKell. “I grew up by the seaside in Weymouth in Dorset and have always been fascinated by all this great British seaside stuff: wind breakers, Kiss Me Quick Hats, Punch and Judy shows, fish and chips, Amusement Arcades, but it is the beach hut that really fascinates me. They are a cultural extension of suburbia.”

Indeed the common or garden beach hut is a great British prerequisite. Formerly known as bathing machines they once stood on wheels and were first adopted by Mad King George III who used said monstrosity in 1801 but were popularised by Queen Victoria who installed one at Osborne House in 1840. Initially designed to either protect the modesty or hide the ugliness of the female bathers who changed within their construct, the ‘Bathing Machine’ was a basic wooden box that was pushed down to the seas edge by mustachioed chaps from which the prospective lady bathers would emerge.

Popularised by said Queen the hut spread all over the country until the wheels were discarded at the turn of 20th Century and all was left were thousands upon thousands of stationery constructions that hugged the British coastline like curtains adamantly protecting the modesty of a nation.

By the time the First World War erupted the British seaside spirit was in full bloom as motorised transport took thousands of families en masse to bathe in the restorative waters of the faeces infested seas. Once dull fishing ports like Blackpool, Brighton and Bournemouth were reinvented as bustling entertainment centres crammed full of melting ice cream and screaming snotty nosed infants who crowded their shores.

And so boomed the beach hut a much desire item that the covetous middle classes rented or owned so to protect their little piece of England in which they might hang up their corsets and  collars. Families would travel to the seaside and plot up in said box using it as a base of operations and home for the families deck chairs, buckets, spades and Bunsen burners on which they made the all important tea. If the old adage “An English man’s home is his castle,” rings true then his beach huts is his country retreat.

In the thirties the beach hut became fashionable as George V  - obviously at a bit of a loose end - spent a day in said construct with Queen Mary (who’s grisly countenance the hut admirably concealed) near Beachy Head. Since beach huts have been owned by the likes of actors such as Laurence Olivier, John Mills and Kenneth Williams and even Princess Diana’s parents Lord and Lady Spencer, while errant artist Tracy Emin even sold hers to the Saatchi gallery for £100,000. “It had stood in Whitstable in Kent for 25 years before I had it,” said the artist regarding the chip board and corrugated hut she entitled, ‘The last Thing I Said To You Is Don’t Leave Me Here.’ “It travelled to America and back again. It had life like a tent, It had real spirit.”

Unfortunately for art lovers Emin’s hut was lost in the great fire that consumed the Saatchi art collection in 2004 but curiously it was not the most expensive hut ever sold.

"Designed to protect the modesty or hide the ugliness of female bathers who changed within their construct the ‘Bathing Machine’ was a basic wooden box that was pushed down to the sea by mustachioed chaps from which the lady bathers would emerge."

“One was sold near where I come from in Dorset for £180,000  in 2003” says Iain McKell. “But that had two bedrooms and running cold water while another in Mudeford went for £80,000 just the year before and that was just a glorified shed. I think the people used the money to buy a Spanish holiday home.”

Such is Beach hut fever that one developer was asking £2 million for 15 wooden huts on the beach at Eypes Mouth in Dorset which is £140,000 each.“The one and two bedroom huts some of which date back to 1927 are fairly deluxe models “ says the huts estate agent who wants to remain nameless “That is if you regard running water and gas bottle heating as luxurious - but they do come with beautiful views over Lyme Bay.”

“When I first got mine I paid about £2,000 for It.” says John Hayles, proprietor of the Emporium a store that supplies clothing to the movie industry. “That was 15 years ago and it was just down the beach from Emin’s. But since everybody wants one. Now you’ve got all these media types coming to Whitstable offering big money for them but you can’t buy them as they are often just passed on through the family.” Looking down past Hayles’ hut one might see a whole cavalcade of huts that refurbished by their owners carry names like Shangri La, Redundant Sea and Dunroamin.

One chap has covered the interior of his 3m long x 3m wide x 2m high box with brightly coloured fur fabric so that it’s like stepping into a fluorescent sock while a few militant lesbians have adopted a far more rough and ready army surplus approach.“You get all types here,” says Hayles who clothed Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible, “One bloke has a kind of sixties interior another likes seventies tacky like disco interior with battery powered glitter balls and stuff but the amazing thing is that from the outside they are all the same, exactly the same and that’s the beauty.”

Although such constructions do appear in other more exotic locations (such as Italy) the almost too cute for words candy coloured beach hut is a quintessentially English phenomenon. Once the domain of aged grand parents the ethic now attracts otherwise sane individuals who think nothing of parking themselves outside, what is ostensibly a wooden shed with no water or electricity, cooking off a Calor Gas stove and drinking warm beer for what might be days on end. In the UK today there are, without the slightest touch of irony, beach hut websites, beach hut associations, beach hut newsletters and even an artist, Mike Kingston, who specialises in oil paintings of beach huts.

For a modest sum Kingston will immortalise your small cramped wooden box forever on canvas and in oils.“Aristocrats used to commission painting of their stately piles - the houses, not the medical complaint,” says Brian Robottom, proud owner of a beach hut in Norfolk and chairman of the local Hut Committee. “Not many of us would want our 3 bedroomed semi in Dorking immortalised on canvas, but our there's something to be proud of.”

Mad Dog and Englishmen go out in the mid day, out in the mid day, out in the mid day sun.

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