A lifeboat hero and a skinny-dipping vicar

Richard James Crump was born in Hythe in 1844, the elder of the two children of Richard and Sarah Crump, though Sarah had four children from an earlier marriage. He was baptised in St Leonard’s church on 5 January 1845. The family lived in Stade Street, Hythe. Richard’s father was a shrimper or sailor, depending on the season, and Richard, too, became a fisherman and married, in 1876, Mary Ann Jessup, a farmer’s daughter from Sevenoaks.

Sometime in the 1880s he diversified. Mary Ann received an inheritance from her father, and the couple used it to hire the Hythe sea bathing establishment on Marine Parade. The lease ran for three years and made Richard the proprietor. This involved operating the hot and cold sea baths, guiding the bathing machines down to the sea and running the tea room and reading room. It was a good post for a couple and came complete with its own adjacent accommodation, ideal for the Crump’s family of five children. Richard added the further attraction of trips around Hythe bay in his boat.

Bathing machines had been perfected by a Margate Quaker, Benjamin Beale. They were horse-drawn caravans, screened at both ends. The would-be bather waited in the tea room or reading room for a machine to become available. When one was free, the bather, fully-dressed, climbed inside and undressed. Women, and sometimes men, changed into bathing costumes. Once the machine had been driven into the sea, the driver operated a pulley and the front screen which was rather like a hood, unfurled, so that the bather could descend into the sea in complete privacy in a bath about three-and-a-half metres long by two metres wide. Later, when swimming rather than taking a dip for health reasons, became popular, the modesty hood was dispensed with and the machine was just a means of getting into the sea without having to expose one’s person to public view in a bathing dress.

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Hythe beach with bathing machines in the late nineteenth century. Note the fully-dressed non-swimmers.

The Hythe bathing establishment had opened in 1854, built by the corporation at a cost of £2500. It had been financed by selling a stretch of beach to the west of the town to the army for use as a rifle range.

Not everyone chose to use the bathing establishment and its machines. The military frequently bathed in the sea to the east of the town off Seabrook, and not all of the soldiers wore bathing dress. In the mid-1880s, passers-by were reported to have been grossly offended by the sight of the skinny-dippers. The corporation arranged for an eighty-foot – long canvas screen to be erected. Even worse was the sight of ‘a certain reverend gentleman’ who also refused to wear bathing clothes. The town clerk was obliged to write to him cautioning him against such behaviour and the corporation enacted bylaws to regulate suitable attire in 1886.

Richard’s lease of the sea baths endured until at least 1903, but by 1911 he had returned to his previous occupation of fishing, though still occupying the same house. The bathing establishment had by now been converted into public baths for the people of Hythe. Bathing machines were going out of fashion, and many visitors preferred now to put up their own tent on the beach.

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The same beach with bathing tents and no machines visible. 

In the meantime, Richard had assisted in saving the crew of the Benvenue, which foundered off Sandgate early one November morning in 1891 during a terrific storm. The captain and four crew members were drowned, and the remaining crew clambered up the mizzen mast and clung on. A lifeboat was launched from Hythe, but capsized, killing a crewman. The Coastguard repeatedly fired rockets in an attempt to get a line to the vessel, to no avail. Only when the wind abated in the evening could the Sandgate lifeboat, with a scratch crew of fishermen, including Richard, and some coastguards, rescue the twenty-seven survivors, who had been in the rigging for sixteen hours.

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The rigging of the Benvenue, still visible after the storm.

Richard and Mary Ann retired to Arthur Villas in South Road, not far from his erstwhile bathing establishment. Perhaps he missed the life. In December 1918, as soon as it was safe to go back on the water after the Armistice was declared, he was advertising to buy two or three small pleasure boats, probably with a view to offering trips round the bay once again. He died three years later, and Mary Ann, buried with him, thirteen years after that.

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Richard’s name on the kerbstone of his grave. Mary Ann’s name, on the opposite side, is now underneath the turf. The churchyard lies on a steep hillside.

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