Victorian Bournemouth (116)

Victorian Bournemouth (100): Improvement Commissioners

Control. Challenge. Complications.


Victorian Bournemouth (100) surveys the Board of Improvement Commissioners which had served the town following its enactment in 1856. Before the Improvement Commission’s establishment, individual initiative without an overall framework had created Bournemouth’s built environment. Medical concerns about the resulting state of the drainage system in part lead to the establishment of an Improvement Commission. During its first period, however, in addition to the drains, the Commissioners faced several challenges. 

Victorian Bournemouth (100): utilities and pleasure

Drainage, water, and gas

Attention to the drainage system became a leading issue during the Commission’s early years. The Surveyor, Christopher Creeke, a trained architect, took the lead. Creeke had two main problems to address. First, he needed to bring the existing network up to an efficient standard to minimise health risks; second, the emerging resort’s spreading urban footprint made continuous drainage installation necessary. Although engineering questions posed challenges to the Commissioners, their main restriction consisted of securing funds. They had some short-term borrowing powers in addition to rates and tolls, but problems with the former often occurred. As part of the drainage system, the Commissioners needed to bring fresh water to the town, this requiring laying a new pipeline. The company involved also installed a gas-line. There arose an uneasy relationship between the Commission and the building company. This would last years, problems about both installation and delivery persisting.

Pier and pleasure ground

The installation of the pier and the development of the Pleasure Grounds both involved the Commissioners in much discussion, debate, and difference. At the time, many considered a pier a necessary feature for qualifying as a first-class resort. It brought the sea to the town’s population, but also enabled steamers to bring visitors by sea. A pier had featured in the successful Improvement Bill, but cost and difficulty in finding a reliable contractor hindered its progress. Bad decisions occurred. Wood, chosen for its cost as well as construction benefits, rotted soon after its installation. Furthermore, a storm destroyed the first version before completion. Later, the Commissioners solicited contractors to renovate the structure using iron. Much effort and time accompanied the process whereby the town developed its Pleasure Ground from land beside the Bourne. The Commissioners had to negotiate hard and long with the proprietor, Gervis Tapps, and his agent. 

Victorian Bournemouth (100): Commission’s income and authority


The Commissioners’ revenue came from rates and tolls (pier), but they also borrowed short-term, using either as security. During 1857, the Commission’s press referred to setting a rate and inviting the inspection by ratepayers. As the period progressed, they held public meetings so that the ratepayers might consult on such initiatives as the pier and borrowing to fund it or the drainage question. In 1860, the Commissioners offered a three-year bond for sale at 5%, soliciting lenders, securitised on rates. Efficient collection of rates depended on a current list of ratepayers as well as the latter’s willingness to pay. W.E. Rebbeck, the estate agent, acted as rate-collector for much of this period, but he often had to report arrears. Residents also had to contribute towards poor relief. Since, the Christchurch Union set and administered this, the Commission had to manage possible disruptions caused by this alternate authority.


Cautious as to their powers, the Commissioners would take advice from their clerk, a position filled by a sequence of local lawyers. The Commission’s initial focus on solving the drainage problems required it to act as a strategic manager as much as an implementation agency. Early press coverage suggests that the Board did operate at this level for some time. Later, however, press reports of the regular meetings show that the Commissioners also operated on a micro-level. For example, they received applications from people wanting to operate as taxi-drivers or to lay paving outside their property. Commissioners, therefore, became acquainted with having to make decisions about perhaps a wider array of issues than at first envisaged. They chose to operate under the Local Government Act of 1858. This provided an authorised framework to apply as they thought appropriate. It also, however, added a layer of supervision over them.

Victorian Bournemouth (100): opposition and competition


The main opposition to the Commissioners’ decisions came from disaffected ratepayers and from opinion-leaders. At an early public meeting, the former harangued the Commission about rating levels. It seems as if people had realised at a late point that the Commission’s creation would come much at their cost. Appeals at rating levels and failure to pay often occurred. Opposition also came from resident physicians. Before the Commission’s establishment, Dr Pinkerton had applied pressure through several letters written to the press. Amongst a range of subjects, he emphasised the health risks lying within the defective drainage, a subject of contemporary importance. In the 1860s, criticism about the drains hardened. Physicians formed a virtual opposition party. More letters appeared. Several rancorous public meetings occurred. After stonewalling, a reluctant Commission agreed to fund a report on their system from an outside engineer. This marked perhaps the greatest opposition during the Commission’s first period.


Glimpses occur in the press references of how the Commissioners managed membership of the board. During the second period, some Commissioners came and went, while others persisted over the long haul. They served for a set period, but not all retirements coincided. From press reports, it seems that most of those retiring offered to stand for a further term. Thus, the work seemed attractive to most board members. Early in the period, little competition seems to have existed. Many retirees succeeded in gaining re-election without difficulty, although on one occasion ratepayers refused to endorse a candidate. He did not meet the requirement to reside in the town. As time passed, press reports of elections show that competition began to occur, for results show that more candidates than seats offered themselves at the polls. This illustrated the attractiveness of the post, but also indicates that disagreements on policy must have developed. 


Victorian Bournemouth (100)has shown how town and Commissioners became accustomed to each other during the Board’s early years. The Commission addressed issues of health (drainage) and tourism (pier and pleasure ground). Determined opposition from organised physicians exerted pressure on the Commissioners. Growing competition for places suggests that disagreements with the board’s policy and actions emerged. To sustain its original format as a self-sustaining oligarchy became harder as time passed.


For references and engagement, please get in touch. Main primary sources: here and here (subscriptions needed). See also here.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply