Early Period in Victorian Bournemouth

Early period in Victorian Bournemouth

Growth. Society. Strife.


Early period in Victorian Bournemouth provides an historical outline of the resort’s development from the late 1830s to 1856. It covers progress of the commercial sector, social matters, but also disruptions. At the beginning came building activity, uncoordinated, frenzied. By the end, the town acquired an Improvement Commission, established by Parliamentary Act. This looked backwards to rectifying infrastructural shortcomings but also sketched a roadmap for the community’s future.

Early period (1): a place of rapid improvement


The site on which Bournemouth would grow earlier had consisted for the most part of a landing place for temporary visitors involved in smuggling. Before the late 1830s a local proprietor had built a few properties designed to attract upper class vacation seekers or invalids, each attracted by the location’s undiscovered beauty and soothing seaside climate. Advertising messages to reassure people about vacationing in this isolated area mentioned a baker attending four times a week. Systematic commercial development of the settlement, driven by the Gervis Tapps family, began during the late 1830s. Within five years the press would talk about Bournemouth’s ‘settled grocer, baker and butcher’. Contemporary commercial directories referred to a ‘few, poor fisherman’ thought to have dwelt in the area, this mythology continuing for some years. The press trumpeted this apparent goldmine’s qualities, but bankruptcies occurred amongst the developers and suppliers. Only the hard-heads would harvest this bounty.


Before long, a recognised commercial infrastructure had surfaced, its presence encouraged by an increasing flow of tourists, eager to see the settlement’s beauty as well as each other. In addition to consumables, retailers offered berlin wool, tailoring and drapery, furs and hats, and fancy stationery. The grocer specialised in tea. A ladies’ school had begun. Lodging houses appeared. A professional sector came into existence: medics, legitimate and quack; lawyers and bankers; estate agents. Constant and concentrated marketing took place. Clever use of a society medic’s expert endorsement and regular inclusion of visitor lists in the press, delivered a regular supply of ‘fashionable’ people, many having an appetite for spa culture. The Church of England established a competitive presence. It sort to spread its influence while denying other spiritual and supportive initiatives deemed threatening. Cultural life prospered: visiting musicians, amateur concerts, dances, fundraising, a library and reading room.

Early period (2): social structure

Affluent and middling people

For its success, this settlement, aimed at affluent people, depended on working folk, many of whom will have found ample employment offered by the intense building programme. By the end of the early period, the settlement had segregated its built environment: vacation villas designed for affluent visitors; cottage sprawls housing labourers. The annual ball schedule, one for aristocracy, one for tradespeople, illustrated how Bournemouth society acknowledged the presence of middling people. Though belonging to the same social group as the site’s affluent visitors, some residents did not forget to exercise their traditional paternal role towards their inferiors. This took different forms: starchy educational lectures offered by the church; moves to instigate a Mechanics’ Institute; a labourers’ model village constructed by a benefactor. A Sanatorium, funded by tea parties and bazaars, catered for working people unable to afford their treatment. Now the resort’s invalid population consisted of rich and poor.

Immigration the life blood of the settlement

On occasion, day-trippers coming from surrounding towns would converge on Bournemouth, Coronation Day a favourite. Now, the social balance of the settlement would tilt away from affluent people. These people would return at the day’s end, but others came to stay. As a greenfield site, Bournemouth depended on immigration. Its appeal summoned people living in nearby towns, but also in the surrounding rural areas. Some of the businesses functioned as branches of established traders, resident in Poole and Christchurch. Other connections, however, reached into other accessible towns, Wimborne, for example. Traceable kinship linkages between rural working people suggest that an elementary form of clan movement drove a great deal of the labour force to the early settlement. As time passed, a few areas would supply above average numbers of people. Their incremental presence reflected continued communication between new residents and their native villages.

Early period (3): disruption

Crime and disorder

Despite the apparent smooth success with which the settlement came to life, disruptions became evident. Crime flickered. For the most part, this consisted of petty thefts or assaults conducted by poor people. The clustered affluent population, many invalid, provided a tempting target for charlatans and cads. They materialised to weave their proprietary form of magic, feasting on visitors and traders alike, attracted by the settlement’s cash flow. Around its edges, however, discontent, brought on by adverse economic conditions, spurred rural workers to crime. The press brought several examples of supposed arson to privileged attention. Flames marked a repeated cry for help from starving agricultural labourers, spurred on by political activists. Financial disruption occurred as businesses overheated chasing volume too fast. The press listed financial details of bankruptcies that had hindered several men. Prominent in local social and on the bankrupts list stood Samuel Bayly, proprietor of the Belle Vue hotel.

Drain wars

A third disruption, ironic in nature, spurred the end of the early period. In part, the settlement’s existence depended on its climatic qualifications for convalescents. Yet, the uncoordinated nature in which the built environment had spread resulted in overcrowding and, far worse, inadequate drainage. Bad pipes caused fearful shivers amongst the knowledgeable affluent. Bad pipes meant cholera. Fear of death stalked through polite parlours. Articulate people complained to the press. Developers had needed only two decades to render unhealthy a healthy environment. Paradise had got lost. A tacit acknowledgement of the need to preserve investments and ensure future commercial success stirred up action. Interested parties sponsored an Improvement Act for the settlement. From disruption emerged coherence that would address the drains, although the problem would continue as a leitmotif. The passing of the 1856 Improvement Act concluded Bournemouth’s early period and provided an organised roadmap for future improvement.


Early period in Victorian Bournemouth initiates a series of articles concerning this settlement’s first sixty years. Documentary snapshots, through their loose integration, sketch a social and economic mosaic. Where possible, genealogical exploration provides texture, descriptive and diagnostic, to the individuals and groups mentioned in press accounts or trade directories. Such digging can result in rich finds: sometimes answers, at other times questions.


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