Martha Gunn ‘Queen of The Dippers’

Visitors to Brighton Museum often find themselves stopping by the stairs in front of a portrait of an intriguing woman who looks as if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Wearing a grey dress, a red bonnet and clutching a scrunched up cloth in her right hand, it looks as if she can’t wait for the painter to hurry and finish his portrait as she has work to do. This is Martha Gunn , one of the most famous women in Brighton’s history, and, arguably, one of the cleverest.

Martha Gunn

Martha Gunn was certainly an ambitious young woman with strong convictions, and pursued all her entrepreneurial interests with vigour and resilience.

Born as Martha Killick into a poor fishing family, there were no aspirations of her to consider seeking an academic career, despite, from a young age displaying a high level of intelligence, but, she was always seemingly destined for greater things.

Dr Richard Russell first published his findings of seawater as a beneficial cure for many ailments in 1750, and consequently many people flocked to the South Coast to benefit from this revolutionary, cost affective solution to minor medical problems. Primarily he advised that this process was extremely beneficial to those suffering with glandular diseases, of which most people did during this period in History.

Dr Richard Russel 1687-1759

Dr Richard Russel 1687-1759

Following Dr Russell’s publication, albeit considered eccentric by some, with the sea-bathing craze hitting the town in the middle of the eighteenth century, she set herself up as a ladies’ bathing attendant or ‘dipper’ and proceeded to help set the lacklustre poor fishing village of Brighthelmstone into a new, brilliant chapter.

With her profits, Martha was able to buy this house for her family in Little East Street, together with a number of bathing machines which she ran as a business, creating employment for other locals.

Martha was so successful, her reputation spread far and wide, attracting people to the town just to see her, making her a celebrity in today’s sense of the word.  A satirical print of 1796 ‘French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle’ from a drawing by John Colley Nixon gives us a hint at the esteem in which Martha was held. It shows a group of unfortunate French soldiers attempting to invade England by Brighton beach and being robustly defeated by a gang of rowdy locals, Martha at the head, cheerfully waving one of the soldiers above her head with one hand while stepping on a second one.

Painting by John Colley Nixon

Martha played a pivotal role in transforming Brighton into the successful city it is today.  With her reputation as a great dipper, she helped establish the small village of Brighthelmstone as a must-see place to visit by the first Georgian visitors who started to flock to the town, among them, George, Prince of Wales, the future Regent and King George IV.

From poverty to prosperity, and even staving off a French invasion into the bargain, she’s truly a woman all Brightonians should be proud of.

Martha had Married Stephen Gunn in March 1758, and had 8 children, outliving 2 Boys and 2 Girls.

Words by Stevie Martin

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