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Our Mary

Mary Wheatlands standing infront of a bathing machine

Image courtesy of Sylvia Endacott

Mary saved over thirty members of the public from drowning

Mary Wheatland (originally Norris) was born in 1835. She worked on the beach as a bathing machine operator, swimming instructor, and lifeguard. 

She lived a remarkable life and is often known as the “Bathing Woman of Bognor” or the “Mermaid of Bognor" for her swimming and diving abilities, as well as her bravery in saving over 30 members of the public from drowning. She was passionate about water safety and spent her days ensuring that beachgoers had a safe and enjoyable experience.


Actress playing Mary Wheatland infront of a bathing machine

Photo credit: Matt Reed

Mary received numerous awards and decorations for her brave actions, including the Royal Humane Society's bronze medal on two separate occasions, and the Golden Penny silver medal for gallantry. 

Mary was a well-regarded member of the community and mother to seven children. She is remembered as one of Bognor's most famous and beloved personalities and The Bognor Regis Time Portal has been created to celebrate her legacy on the 100th anniversary of her death.

Mary's amazing career spanned over six decades, beginning when she was 14 years old and ending when she was 74. She continued to be seen on the seafront until her death at the age of 89 in 1924.

She is said to have saved her first life when she was just sixteen years old and performed diving acts from the end of the pier until she was in her seventies. 

Remember, though, that the pier was much longer back then, so please don't try this now!


Image of Bognor Regis in the early 1900s

Image courtesy of

Image of Mary Wheatland, 1901

Mary is said to have saved her first life when she was just sixteen! 

Mary Norris was born in 1835 in Aldingbourne, a village in Sussex. By the age of 14, she had moved to Bognor to work. When she initially arrived in Bognor, it was a small town with no pier or promenade and few visitors. Undeterred, she taught herself to swim and helped another bathing lady, Mrs. Martha Mills. Later, Mary taught guests how to swim and performed swimming and diving shows.

Mary became famous for working bathing machines in front of the Beach Hotel on the eastern side of the pier and was a celebrity in her own lifetime, with postcards printed with her image on them.

Mary Wheatland
by William Pankhurst Marsh, albumen carte-de-visite, circa 1901
NPG x197180
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Bathing Machines

Bathing machines were essentially wooden huts on wheels and were available for hire so that people could enter the water without being seen in a state of undress. 

These machines were not just in Bognor but could be seen on beaches throughout the UK and Europe and as far as Australia. At the time, swimming in the sea was thought to provide health benefits, such as treating various diseases and enhancing the complexion, in addition to its recreational appeal. 

Visitors could rent bathing costumes and towels from Mary before entering the machine, and once returned she would clean and dry them ready for the next swimmer.

Swimmers would enter the machine, which was then pulled down the beach by a horse until it reached the water. The person who had changed into their costume inside would then climb down the steps into the sea. Helpers called “Dippers” often helped them while they were in the water, and after the swim, the horse would draw the machine back up the beach while the bather dressed.

A busy day on Bognor Regis beach with bathing machines

Image courtesy of Sylvia Endacott

Image of Bognor Regis Beach with Bathing machines

Image courtesy of

Mary's machines were painted with yellow and red stripes to differentiate them from machines further down the beach with different owners. To the west of Bognor Pier, there were machines painted in blue and white stripes owned by Frederick Jenkins. One of Mr. Jenkins’ machines can be seen in the Bognor Regis Museums collection. Why not pop along and have a look?’

By 1879, byelaws had banned mixed bathing within 100 yards of one another, separating men and women. However, beginning in August 1898, both sexes were permitted to wash in the same group or "stand" of the bathing machine; however, they could not use the same machine.

Actress playing Mary Wheatland infront of the sea wall at Bognor Regis with the town logo on the wall

Photo credit: Fiona Elizabeth Photography

Mary was presented with a medal from the Royal Humane Society in 1879 for saving W.P. Manly from stormy seas

Mary was presented with her first medal from the Royal Humane Society in 1879 for saving W.P. Manly from stormy seas. It’s said Mary rushed into the sea fully clothed to support Mr. Manly until others arrived to bring them both out of the sea. Her woollen costume must have been very heavy when it was wet!

A blue plaque was placed on the pier in 2022 to commemorate her bravery and celebrate her life.

Mary Wheatland was a courageous and amazing woman who devoted her life to protecting others. She continues to inspire many individuals in Bognor Regis and beyond.

Modern Day Mary Wheatland infront of her own Blue Plaque in Bognor Regis

Photo credit: Fiona Elizabeth Photography

Actress Mary Wheatland standing infront of mural of wings

Photo credit: Fiona Elizabeth Photography

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