Smoaker Miles: Phantasmagoria, Swimming with Dr Johnson and other stories

John ‘Smoaker’ Miles (1721-94)

In Georgian Brighton, sea bathing was a highly regulated affair, with men and women separated to different times and locations and to protect modesty further, compelled to use bathing machines. These were wooden structures where bathers changed and which were pulled into the sea, wherein the Ladies were attended to by ‘Dippers’ and the Gentlemen by ‘Bathers’ who assisted them into the water. Smoaker Miles was ‘King of the Bathers!’

Miles became a friend of the Prince of Wales. He is said to have pulled the Prince back by the ear when he thought he was straying too far from the shore, and once even walked to London to enquire about His Royal Highness’s illness. He was a frequent visitor to the Marine Pavilion, and the Prince named a racehorse after him and also introduced the Smoaker Stakes to Brighton Races in 1806.

Through his own merits as well as through Royal patronage, Miles became regarded as a  ‘Brighton Character’, In 1792 the Duke Street Theatre produced and ‘interlude’ entitled Smoaker’s Invitation to a Revel on the Beach, “in which doubtless the idiosyncrasies of the noted Brighton bather furnished ample food for mirth”.

In 1802, Miles enjoyed a further – and posthumous – theatrical outing, once more at the Duke Street Theatre:

“Early in the season, the local playgoers were treated to a novelty, namely, Moritz’s Phantasmagoria. The announcement respecting this Stated:

M. Moritz will produce the Phantoms or Apparitions of the Dead or Absent. To give a proper idea of his skill, he will produce the figures and most perfect resemblance of Martha Gunn, Old Smoaker, and several well-known characters. To render the performance more interesting, the various apparitions will be evoked during the progress of a tremendous thunder- storm.

It would have been interesting to have heard Old Smoaker’s opinion when enjoying his evening pipe at The Dolphin, if any one had told him that he had just seen his “apparition” in a thunder-storm at the Theatre.”  ( A Peep into the Past – JG Bishop)

Miles was free with his opinion on other matters. Dr Samuel Johnson came to Brighton in 1765 when he was 54. Smoaker Miles became so impressed with his prowess as a swimmer that he paid him the dubious compliment of remarking “Why Sir, you must have been a stout hearted gentleman forty years ago”

(Dr Johnson was not overly fond of Brighton, and remarked to Mrs Thrale that he found the place “so truly desolate, that if one had a mind to hang oneself for the desperation of being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope”)

Another incident, reported by Erredge in his ‘History of Brighthelmstone’ sees Miles approached by a pair of London dandies “stating that they had come down to Brighton for the benefit of their health, and had been recommended to drink asses milk, could he inform them how it was to be obtained. Miles, more plain than polite, replied that he did not exactly know, but he should advise them, for the sake of saving themselves trouble, to suck each other”

Miles died at the age of 74 in February 1794 and was buried by the west wall of St Nicholas’s ground, opposite the turning into Upper North Street, although his monument is no longer in place.  The following valedictory notice of him appeared in the Sussex Weekly advertiser:

“On Thursday last the remains of John Miles, alias Smoaker Miles, who died a few days before, in the 74th year of his age, were interred at Brighthelmstone. The above well-known character had been for many years the chief bather at that place. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales had distinguished him by several marks of his favour. His blunt though unoffending sincerity made him many friends, as his remarks seemed to proceed from a heart which was incapable of injuring any person, and his benevolence of disposition was clearly seen in the use he made of the produce of his honest industry; for he never could refuse his purse to his friends and relations, who are very numerous, and many of them very needy. He died universally regretted not only by them, but also by most of the inhabitants. His portrait, a finished likeness by Russell, was recognised in the Exhibition by many of his friends. The Prince, on being made acquainted with Smoaker’s death and not unmindful of his widow, with that goodness of heart which is so peculiar to himself, ordered a sum of money to be given to her, which afforded her great consolation in the hour of her affliction.”

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