Victorian Bournemouth (156)

Documentary sources under-reported working people

Introduction

Documentary sources under-reported the economic, cultural, and social contributions made by working people at early Victorian Bournemouth. The nature of these documentary sources’ control and usage explains a reason for this omission.

Documentary sources

Overview

To date fifty posts have appeared on this site, that together provide insights on Bournemouth’s history between the 1830s and 1856. During this period a speculative commercial venture in tourism became a settlement having the beginnings of a civic identity and requiring a form of central governance in the shape of the Improvement Commission. For interested parties, during the next calendar year this site will contain a similar number of posts addressing Victorian Bournemouth’s history over the next fifteen years, reaching 1871. In almost all cases, the site’s posts focus on a given topic, deemed of interest, dependent on a collection of contemporary sources to provide a documented information basis. Four archives supply the source material: the census, parish registers and records, commercial directories, and newspapers. Much information lies in these archives. They empower the creation of analytical snapshots capturing an aspect of contemporary society. 

Source assessment

Despite the wealth of information contained in the sources, some understanding of their potential bias should accompany usage. For the most part, this enters through their method of assembly. The census listings purport to offer a comprehensive list of people present on one night in a ten-year period, but people sometimes evaded detection. Literate locals, employed on a temporary basis by the government, entered respondents’ information into a notebook. Either the parish clerk or the incumbent completed details of baptisms, marriages, and burials. The methodology whereby directory publishers updated their coverage at present seems vague, but incumbents, who would have known their parish, could have supplied details. The press relied on private people to contribute content in addition to whatever they could collect by their own means. Thus, these data sources relied for their accuracy on agents – government, ecclesiastic, and private – and became subject to their biasses.

Press

A product and its consumers

As a product made for sale, newspapers had to find purchasers who would buy not only once but many times. Thus, the content had to satisfy the purchasers enough to continue buying the subsequent editions, people who had high literacy levels as well as disposable income. During early Victorian times, these criteria would have excluded most of the labouring people. Newspapers, therefore, concentrated their attention on people belonging to the middling group and above. Their content had to consist of information readers wanted to absorb. Hence, for the most part, newspaper content would reflect the culture and society of middling and affluent people. Readers would want to gauge the extent their condition met that of others having a similar social standing to them. Stories involving labouring people, therefore, occupied a much smaller amount of the available content. Hence, the newspapers often refer to social elites, in Bournemouth and elsewhere. 

Content bias

One example of this consists in the Poole & Dorset Herald’s practice of publishing visitor lists. This started from Bournemouth’s beginning, consisting of random mentions, in most cases noting the names of aristocratic visitors. By the late 1840s, they published not just affluent people’s names, but also identified their temporary venues in the town. This would become a major feature during Bournemouth’s second and third period, when readers could see not only who arrived and where they stayed, but the names of those who moved venues during their stay, and those who departed. By the early 1870s, this feature could occupy an entire column. Another example of how newspapers reflected the upper levels of society lay in reports of affluent people’s leisure activities. Once again, they often listed attendees’ names. Overall, the press created an image of early Bournemouth as the temporary entertainment destination for fashionable people. No-one else mattered.

Working people

Population

In the surrounding rural villages, labourers accounted for at least a quarter of the adult population. Bournemouth, however, had far fewer, but working people at Bournemouth in 1851 also included laundresses, dressmakers, servants, and artisans. Most of the servants did not live in the resort, visitors in attendance to their affluent employers. The descriptors of some artisans might conceal small businesses, most in the building category. Most of the successful builders had had a trade early in their working lives. Thus, Bournemouth’s working people at Bournemouth consisted of laundresses, dressmakers, and labourers. Many of these may have spent as little time in Bournemouth as their affluent counterparts, ‘job tourism’ a constant part of their lives. They tended to congregate in the western part of town – Terrace and Commercial Roads – but would occupy in number the eastern extensions of Madeira Vale and Springbourne.

Documentary identity

Affluent and middling newspaper readers would not often come across their working counterparts. Identities of working people, where they appeared, most often occurred in reports of Petty Sessions: drunkenness, theft, assault. Otherwise, stories featured them as beneficiaries of affluent charity. The arrival of the Odd Fellows marked more positive recognition. The establishment had always controlled the nation’s documentation, including the census and the parish registers. This would inject bias into the recording. In the case of illegitimacy, a parish register would stigmatize working issue as ‘bastard’, whereas the aristocracy used such honorifics as ‘Fitz-‘. Accounts of settlement examinations and removal orders remain silent about working people who did not enter this process. An earlier post identified possible examples of an enumerator’s prejudice against servants. Directories omitted any contemporary ‘gig economy’. Official documentary evidence, therefore, provides a distorted and stereotypical picture of working people.

Takeaway

The posts which have already appeared on this site have provided an enormous amount of information that illuminates many aspects of early-Victorian Bournemouth’s history. Documentary sources used for these analyses, however, will always under-report the contribution to its economy, culture, and society made by working people.

References

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