Retail analysis at early Bournemouth


Retail analysis provides clues as to the nature of visitors who came to Bournemouth during its early period. Comparison with a sample of other contemporary watering places adds further insight.

Bournemouth’s retail economy a microcosm of other spas

The comparative sample consists of 15 watering places. They range in size between Bath and Brighton, the largest, to Bognor, Tenbury and Weston-super-Mare at the lower end. Data consists of business listings found for each town taken from trade directories published during Bournemouth’s early period (1836-1856). The analysis uses counts of firms organised into business categories. The number of firms listed by the end of Bournemouth’s early period numbered about a third of those at the sample’s smallest end. In total, Bournemouth had less businesses than those selling continuous education at Bath, a few more than Brighton’s jewellers and clockmakers or about a third the number of Cheltenham’s lodging and boarding houses. Hence, at the overall level, retail analysis would suggest that Bournemouth lay at the lowest level of development, but the presence of a furrier and a fancy repository give rise for thought.

Specialisation as a useful indicator of development

In a retail analysis of the main business categories, all towns appeared similar: food, drink, textiles, building, catering and hospitality and so on. Bournemouth did not lag far behind Bath in this respect. A difference occurs in the range of offerings found within each basic category. As a place’s size grew, the amount of specialisation within categories increased. One example – clothing and haberdashery – illustrates this. Such small places as Tenbury, Weston, and Blackpool, had drapers, milliners and tailors. As places grew, straw hat makers, stay makers, hatters, hosiers and glovers might enter the economies. Examples include Margate, Lyme Regis, Bognor and Ashby-de-la-Zouche. At Cheltenham, however, a dozen subdivisions occurred, almost twenty each in Bath and Brighton. Bath had businesses specialising in a single textile: silk, linen, wool, lace. Furthermore, enough business existed to support a handful of firms specialising in coach textiles: livery lace and fringe makers.

‘Captain Pidding’s Howqua’s Tea Mixture’

An example of the extreme levels reached by specialisation appeared in a tea advertisement placed in the Bath press for early 1840. William Fortt offered for sale ‘Captain Pidding’s Howqua’s Mixture’. It consisted of forty rare black teas. This gunpowder tea came from the Chinese hong Howqua’s warehouse. Captain Pidding had made eight Chinese tea voyages, guarantee of a knowledgeable shipper. Protection against piracy and counterfeiting lay in the Captain’s signature placed on each package. For security, Fortt’s advertisement carried a graphic visualising the signature. Not only did this level of detail involve high levels of expertise for customers who valued their tea, but Fortt’s sole agency underlined the ultimate in specialisation: uniqueness. This example, together with the principal of retail specialisation leads on to considerations of audience as well as their motivations for buying goods from such stores.

How to stand out amongst other affluent people

Although the sample’s resorts differed in size, history and geography, retail analysis suggests they shared a similar audience: affluent visitors. If affluent types might assume their distinction from working people, achieving superiority over their peer-group required effort. Consumption, in particular that of the conspicuous nature, has always offered one way to obtain this. Specialisation amongst retailers would have become a competitive response to that need. Consumption of their products, many appealing not to need but to want, became an expression of luxury. Usage of such products signified taste, an important arbiter of social distinction. Spas and watering places had grown as the healthy aspect of their environment became known and valued. The core audience for such places consisted of people who required convalescence, though, no doubt, some had a greater need than others for this treatment. Captain Pidding’s tea seems not to fit this picture.

The spa audience: medical assistance or escapist fun?

Elsewhere, a discussion has balanced the extent to which Bournemouth’s early developers took as their market those having a medical need for convalescence or those who wanted escapist fun at the seaside. The decision would affect the way in which the resort’s built-environment would develop. Even if they could tell the difference between Captain Pidding’s and other teas, blindfold or not, those visiting Bath who bought such a product would seem to have had social concerns that outweighed anything to do with their health. The development and fragmentation of other business categories seems in line with this conclusion. The arts, education, even products sold by specialist cheesemongers all suggest that the developed spas catered more for escapist fun than medical convalescence. The existence of luxury businesses, therefore, suggests that a place once valued for medical reasons had developed an additional layer of customer appeal.

Fur and fancy at Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s two grocers did not mention tea even as a separate offering. It had no firms working in furniture: cabinet makers or brokers. No hairdresser had opened for business. Language professors and music teachers had yet to arrive. It had several firms active in the health sector but no lozenge maker as at Bath. The economy operated at a very basic level of supply. On the other hand, already it had markers of the greater sophistication found in the larger towns. The settlement had had a library and reading room since its very early years. A furrier traded there by 1855 as did a purveyor of fancy goods. Fancy good repositories had a wide spread across the towns, but at this time, apart from Bournemouth, only Bath and Brighton had furriers.


By the end of its early period, Bournemouth showed signs of sophistication and luxury in its retail offering similar to that found in the economies of much more developed spas and watering-places, despite its small population.


  • Information was sourced from trade directories for the following spas and holiday resorts: Harrogate (1837); Bognor, Brighton, Margate, Ramsgate, Tenbury, Tunbridge Wells (1840); Bath, Cheltenham, Lyme Regis, Weston, Weymouth (1842); Torquay (1844); Ashby-de-la-Zouche (1846); Blackpool (1848); Bournemouth (1855).
  • For William Fortt’s advertisement see here (subscription needed).
  • For other information and discussion, please contact here.

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