Victorian Bournemouth (164)

Auction advertisements as cultural indicators

Introduction

Auction advertisements for house contents, published in local newspapers, provide glimpses into the lifestyle enjoyed by early Victorian Bournemouth’s affluent residents. Analysis suggests that the resort’s early retail trade included affluent as well as middling people.

Research method

A common historical process

Using artefacts to learn about lifestyles and social positions characterises most historical enquiry. Archaeology has always provided this information. The pottery and paintings found at Pompeii provide learning about lifestyles of people inhabiting a Roman provincial town during the first century CE. Modern market research follows the same process, but without the time delay. Panel members keep in special bins the wrappers of their food purchases. The resulting analysis maps purchase patterns and brand choice that enables social inferences. During the early modern period, auditors made inventories of a deceased’s house and its contents for probate purposes. The surviving documents make it possible to reconstruct many aspects of seventeenth century family home-life and social levels. Auction advertisements to sell either houses or their contents during Bournemouth’s early period offer the same opportunity. Consideration of their purpose and format, however, should occur before historical use.

Auction advertisements

Most of Westover Villas went for auction during the late 1830s or early 1840s. The advertisements provide information sufficient to reconstruct house layouts and services. Auctioneers also had the opportunity to sell household contents. On the surface, the advertisements appear to provide similar information to inventories taken during the early modern period, although they attach no values to listed items. Advertisements, however, had to entice as many people as possible to see the items. Thus, the copy would feature the most interesting, the most desirable or the most intriguing items for sale. The auctioneer directed attention to wood type during furniture descriptions. Manufacturers’ names also might appear, for example for clocks or pianos. Unlike a sale’s catalogue, its advertisements, therefore, contained a bias towards the exceptional. Furthermore, the greatest detail applied to sales concerning affluent people. Hence these advertisements qualified the auctioneer’s social suitability as much as the sale’s contents.

Boscombe Lodge

The first sale

This property, which the Shelley family would acquire in the 1850s, came up for auction three times in the previous fifteen years. In 1839, an advertisement announced a sale of its contents. It did not mention the seller’s name, but James Dover may have owned the items. The sale consisted of furniture and fittings, a 900-volume library, and wine, including 67 dozens of ‘capital old port’. The library items illustrated their owners’ cultural inclinations or pretensions. It included English books: novels; magazines; Shakespeare; the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 26 volumes. In addition, the seller had collected works written by several French philosophers: Voltaire; Rousseau; Montesquieu. The advertisement specified that the port included the vintages of 1815 and 1820, famous at the time and, hence, valuable in 1839. The advertisement, therefore, used high cultural markers to position all the items at people who had a self-image of sophistication and connoisseurship.

The third sale

The third sale, in 1851, gave the seller’s name as the late Major Stephenson, he perhaps having acquired the property in 1839. Genealogical analysis shows private incomes supporting the family. The second sale, though unassigned, concentrating on farm stock, may also have referred to his estate. Neither an extensive leisure library nor expensive wine appeared in the house’s contents for sale, but the 1851 advertisement, nevertheless, presented an attractive vision. One might imagine Ann Stephenson preparing for dinner, dressing before the cheval mirror. On her way down to the dining room, she would descend stairs covered in Brussels carpet, secured by rods. At the mahogany table, ten foot in length, perhaps she would gaze on an epergne, or elaborate centrepiece. Dinner might end with oranges from their trees. A stroll in their greenhouse, viewing 250 plants, perhaps finished the evening. The Stephensons’ world had a tangible aspirational appeal.

Pushing the analysis further

Other examples

Auction advertisements also highlighted the lifestyles enjoyed by affluent residents of the resort’s centre, Boscombe lying outside Bournemouth to the east. Dr E. V. Mainwaring occupied numbers 4 and 5 Richmond Terrace, a street of luxurious residences. He had furniture for sixteen bedrooms, bottles of wine, and a library of 500 volumes. Three ‘massive bookcases with plate-glass doors’ contained them. He possessed furniture made from walnut, mahogany, and rosewood. Such affluence might suit a physician, but an advertisement for the contents sold by Robert Fryer, the grocer, echoed Mainwaring’s. So, also, did that for John Wise, the coal-merchant. Fryer brought his new wife to a mahogany Arabian bedstead. The house also contained 104-piece, dinner service having a fox-glove pattern. John Wise also had mahogany furniture, a clock, and a piano. Such aspects of affluent luxury enjoyed by men who sold tea and coal invite further examination.

Discussion

Genealogical analysis, however, suggests that both Fryer and Wise came from well-to-do backgrounds. Robert Fryer’s brother, for example, farmed over 200 acres in Romsey. The papers carried the news of Robert’s marriage to an Andover accountant’s daughter. John Wise also had good connections, marrying into the affluent Conway family, Poole merchants. These two men had perhaps grown up eating off mahogany tables, sitting on Moroccan leather chairs, similar to the ones they had bought for their homes. They may have thought that Bournemouth’s early dependence on affluent visitors offered them an opportunity to succeed. Neither, however, stayed long.  As the early period developed, Bournemouth’s retail traders appear to have formed a rudimentary gathering of middling people, a more normal configuration. The auction advertisements, however, suggested an alternate commercial beginning for the resort, whereby parts of its economy fell to people whose social background often disqualified them for ‘trade’.

Takeaway

As an analytical method, auction advertisements provide glimpses into the lifestyles enjoyed by Bournemouth’s affluent people. They can also lead to deeper analyses, for example, the possibility that some early businessmen came from affluent rather than middling backgrounds.

References

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