Brighton's famous dipper woman

36 East Street, Martha Gunn's former home
Photo by Tony Mould
Martha Gunn: c1790
Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton and Hove

Popularity of the sea cure

In the 1730s increasing numbers of people were visiting Brighton to take Dr Russell’s sea water cure. As a result of this trend, therapeutic sea bathing was becoming very popular. But at this time men and women bathing together was not seen as proper. To be sure the bather’s modesty was protected, special ‘bathing machines’, which were basically a hut on wheels, were introduced.

Machines pulled into the sea

The bather would climb, via a small ladder, into the hut where they could change into swimming costumes in private. The bathing machines were then pulled into the sea. People were often nervous about entering the sea, so ‘bathers’ and ‘dippers’ were employed to make sure their clients were not swept away.

Worked until old age

Martha Gunn (1726-1815) was from a very well-known local fishing family the Killicks. In March 1758 she married Stephen Gunn with whom she had eight children; two sons and two daughters predeceased her. She started work as a ‘dipper’ in her early twenties and did not retire until she was an old lady.

A real Brighton celebrity

She enjoyed a very special relationship with George Prince of Wales (1762-1830) and as a result became one of Brighton’s first real celebrities. Martha’s close association with the Prince of Wales resulted in her enjoying special privileges, including free access to the kitchen at the Royal Pavilion.

Buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard

Martha died in May 1815 and was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas’ Church Brighton. The inscription on her tomb reads: “MARTHA, Wife of STEPHEN GUNN, who was Peculiarly Distinguished as a bather in this Town nearly 70 Years. She died 2nd of May, 1815, Aged 88 Years.

Read more about Martha Gunn and comments from her Brighton descendants here.





Comments about this page

  • I seem to recall in the dim and distant past that there was a string of correspondence (either on this site or with the Friends of R.Pavilion) that although this building at 36 East Street was owned by a Gunn, there is no evidence that it was the home of Martha Gunn. I am a member of B&H Council Blue Plaques committee and these days there is a huge amount of time spent researching and checking just such facts as these, in order to verify the ‘facts’ as given us by well-meaning promoters of particular famous occupants.

    By Geoffrey Mead (31/01/2013)
  • Stephen and Martha are my 5th great uncle and aunt, which I believe I have said some years ago on this site.

    By Maralyn Eden (31/01/2013)
  • I am intrigued after seeing the grave stone of Martha Gunn as to why her children seemingly all died before her. Or am I misunderstanding what’s written on the grave stone?

    By Ruprert Rivett (11/11/2018)
  • Hi Rupert. I believe the grave stone only carries the names of the children who pre-deceased Martha. As she lived to be 88 years of age, it would be expected that she would outlive some of her children. I understand that Martha and Stephen had up to another four children who survived their parents.  

    By Janet Beal (12/11/2018)
  • Is it true that Martha Gunn used to use the Pub named The Golden Fleece on a regular basis and had her favourite seat near the bar?
    Congratulations on your new site fab! And it is so easy to use.

    By Joe (25/02/2019)

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