Conflicts shaped early-Victorian Bournemouth's identity

Conflicts in early-Victorian Bournemouth

Introduction

Conflicts divided several local interest groups as they competed to control early-Victorian Bournemouth’s structure and identity. In several cases, these conflicts became public confrontations, often fought out in the press. This made a sharp contrast to the settlement’s otherwise glittering media image as a tourist resort. Internal initiatives, however, created the basis for social unification and a civic identity to balance the external image.

Early conflict

‘Healthy gold’

The first planned, systematic attempts to exploit the Bourne area through health-tourism occurred in the late 1830s. This began in two sites: today’s Richmond Hill and Westover Road. More building activity occurred in response to the quick public interest in the site, the press trumpeting its growing popularity. An area at ‘the Bourne’s mouth’ became ‘Bournemouth’. Soon, villas suitable for affluent health tourists sprang up as developers secured leases from the area’s main landholder, the Gervis family.  In a sense, therefore, the site resembled those that would mushroom in California and Australia after the local discovery of gold deposits. There, disconnected mining claims scattered across the area, in search of the richest seams beneath the surface. At Bournemouth, disconnected villas sprawled across the site competing for the healthiest conditions above the surface. This unrestrained frenzy for ‘healthy gold’ soon provoked conflict amongst two interest groups: physicians and developers.

Golden goose

Information about this conflict consists for the most part of letters written to the press. These charged that developers and builders, often the same people, paid inadequate attention to creating a connected drainage system. Thus, real possibilities of cholera or typhoid fever rendered unhealthy a site whose commercial value lay in its healthy conditions. Ever-present lime kilns contaminated the air, while the abandoned Richmond Hill development became an eye sore. The letters came from physicians, who stood against the construction interest group. This included local land proprietors, for the most part the Gervis family, local capital providers, and local builders. According to the physicians, these appeared to adopt a silo-mentality, focussing on the commercial possibilities for each building rather than a shared perspective for the whole site. In other words, the speed at which the building had occurred threatened not just the gold but the goose as well.

A tale of two towns

Bournemouth outside

Steady communication in the press created, nourished, and grew Bournemouth’s public image. The site’s original reason for existence lay in offering pleasant convalescence to invalids. In time spas and watering places became attractive gathering places for fashionable people, both healthy and wealthy. At Bournemouth, however, the press as media midwife, brought the resort into the world ready-formed as a fashionable place. Indeed, Bournemouth appeared to acquire a certain reputation verging on ‘fastness’. A heady cocktail of unrestricted affluent behaviour combined with, to some, the dubious morality of sea-bathing gave Bournemouth a sense of attractive intrigue. Here, adventurers would go to hunt vulnerable, young heiresses. The resort’s appeal attracted many from neighbouring towns as day-trippers. Hundreds if not thousands preferred Bournemouth for their Coronation Day rather than their own town. Ringwood residents, for example, thought their town too dull for this. A different Bournemouth, however, also appeared in the press.

Bournemouth inside

In contrast to this glittering image, the press also depicted an internal reality composed of several competing parties. The physicians won when the town acquired an Improvement Commission to address the drainage system, but the problem continued for years. Several public confrontations involving physicians occurred in the 1860s. After several clerics complained to the press, the local proprietor had a church built for Bournemouth. The methods of its incumbent, a Puseyite, however, divided the resort’s religious community. Spectacular conflicts occurred, again fought in the newsprint trenches. For its expenditure, the Commission could levy taxes on local property. As a result, another interest group emerged: the taxpayers. Many consisted of retail business owners, an expanding middling group, enriched by commercial success. The need to pay resulted in the power to complain and to confront. The conflicts between these self-interested groups needed balance from shared initiatives to deliver community benefit.

Unification methods

Civic ambition

During Bournemouth’s early period, despite self-interested building, aspects of civic ambition flourished. These encouraged social cooperation on projects to benefit the whole settlement. They nourished an indigenous identity balancing the image fashioned by media outsiders. The Sanatorium provides one example. Bournemouth people competed against other southern watering places to win their town’s selection for this offshoot of London’s Brompton Hospital. Despite its intended focus on poorer patients, local affluent people ran a sustained support programme. This collective ambition prioritised humane qualities over self-interested commercial hunger. The Pier provides another example. While this did have a commercial benefit – bringing steamer passengers to the town’s shops – possession of a pier also asserted the resort’s civic credentials against other watering places. The cricket club and the Volunteers would provide a similar benefit. Hence, awareness of Bournemouth as a civic entity helped to weave a collective social texture into the resort.

Improvement Commissioners

Their remit prioritised collective imperatives over individual commercial initiatives. The Commission became a filtration system for conflicts. An early effort to match its borders with the area covered by the local church did not win public endorsement, side-lining ecclesiastical influence. Many builders and retailers served as Commissioners, but they had to operate within a collective framework. Nevertheless, their social standing as middling or labouring people perhaps pushed the town to a form of society that bridged boundaries. The Commissioners showed politeness towards the local proprietor, the Gervis family, but not submission. Born not long after the Parliamentary Reforms of 1832, Bournemouth blossomed as access to political power widened to new social types. The working and middling backgrounds of the Commissioners, therefore, meant that Bournemouth would reflect the country’s new social momentum. This could reduce the impact of divisive groups and increase the chance of shared benefit for its community.

Takeaway

Hence, the existence of people prepared to work on others’ behalf and the Commissioners’ overall supervision, despite their personal businesses, acted to reduce conflicts amongst interested parties.

References

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