Victorian Bournemouth (169)

Infrastructure problems at early Bournemouth


A recent post highlighted infrastructure problems in early Victorian Bournemouth. Details came from letters written to the press. Deeper analysis of one letter raises an interesting consideration about how to see Bournemouth at its outset.

One place in several places

Economic factors often explain the origin of settlements. Medieval foundations might begin when a land proprietor achieved a grant to establish a market. Trading on the land offered greater prospects than agriculture. A support community established a permanent presence. A built environment grew. In the late eighteenth century, growing interest in health improvement presented commercial opportunities.  Spas and watering-places flourished. Medical surveillance of the Bourne valley area qualified it as having a suitable climate and siting for convalescents. Land proprietors built residential property. Affluent visitors, seeking restoration or fun, initiated the tourist business. In time, a support community occurred, housing spread across the valley. The tourist vista would have combined natural beauty with perpetual building sites. The press depicted the constant development as part of the resort’s exciting appeal.

In the process of flowing press endorsement Bourne Mouth became Bournemouth, a single entity. The perspective of the letter writer, complaining about infrastructure problems, seemed to reflect this view. Troubles had occurred, the author suggested, because the land proprietors involved did not coordinate enough with each other. The letter writer ‘saw’ one settlement which involved several land proprietors. This perspective, however, may not have reflected matters as they saw it. It seems possible that the proprietors focused on developments occurring on their own land. The earlier enclosure agreement and sale of land to the Tregonwell family had resulted in the Bourne valley extending across more than one proprietor’s land. The proprietors’ developments, therefore, while they stood adjacent to each other did not, in their eyes, perhaps combine to form a single entity. It seems that, at its outset, Bournemouth may have existed in several places, not one.

Behind the facade of apparent success

Dr Granville, perhaps the most important early medical supporter of the site, distinguished between its different parts. Press references echoed that perspective. The investment of John Tregonwell, Bournemouth’s founder, populated the west of the Bourne, for the most part. Another development block grew to the north, centred on what would become Richmond Hill. This land perhaps consisted of a lease taken from a proprietor by the developer, Mr Gordon. On the eastern side of the Bourne lay the nascent Marine Village, established by the Gervis Tapps family, significant proprietors in the area.

The press trumpeted the watering-place’s constant success, measured by growing numbers of visitors. Profitability, however, may not have followed. The demise of the Gordon development and its aftermath became a constant theme from around 1840. The carcasses of unfinished villas blighted the area for years. A supplier to the Gervis development went bankrupt because he did not receive payment for goods delivered. The infilling on Tregonwell land may indicate insufficient profitability within some buildings’ original design. As a result, proprietorial attention may have focused on survival. Cooperating with the others in their group perhaps lay too far away. The original post also discussed how internal problems may have distracted the attention of these families at this time. Such connective factors as common drainage and roads in the area – immediate solutions to infrastructure problems – perhaps had low priority in comparison.

The evolutionary coup

Historians of the period distinguish between open and closed settlements. The categorisation describes the relationship between inhabitants and the local proprietor. Differences in inhabitants’ behaviour correlated with this distinction. Closed settlements involved greater living restrictions. Wider control became possible for inhabitants of open localities. Perhaps, therefore, early Bournemouth began as several adjacent but closed communities, proprietors in control. Concern felt by some inhabitants that infrastructure problems posed health threats to the the community may have begun a change in the balance of power. The inhabitants saw one settlement, not three. Perhaps, therefore, the hypothetical closed settlements began a tilt to a single, more open community. Concerted public pressure resulted in the Improvement Act (1856). This empowered a group of residents to make decisions about the entire settlement, in effect a coup. The inclusion of proprietors in the process, however, meant that such a coup represented not revolution, but evolution.


Further thought on infrastructure problems suggests that radical change in social control may have happened in early Victorian Bournemouth.


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