Victorian Bournemouth (113)

Victorian Bournemouth (113): Eastward Ho! (6)

Scrooge at the Christchurch Union


Victorian Bournemouth (113) shows how traditional attitudes to the poor united Christchurch’s Union Guardians despite personal animosities. It follows events and decision making which resulted in the new workhouse, situated in Christchurch, but also serving the poor of Holdenhurst (including Bournemouth). The Guardians’ attitudes to their management of local poverty echoed Scrooge’s comments.

Victorian Bournemouth (113): attitudes and perceptions at work

Guardians’ attitudes to poverty

The new workhouse project advanced according to how Victorian society addressed poverty. Attitudes had changed little since Elizabethan lawmakers had responded to fears amongst property-owners that ‘sturdy-beggars’ would attack them. Lawmakers decided to use local taxation as a source of funds for poor relief, assessment based on property values. Thus, the better people had to pay for those they viewed as inferior. Hence, wealthy people, from whose ranks came local magistrates, often devised methods to prevent paupers from settling in their area. Workhouse design also acted as a deterrent. Management imposed harsh living conditions on inmates. Press reports about the design and progress of Christchurch’s new workhouse show how these attitudes continued in the 1870s. Guardians complained about the cost, including the disproportionate financial levy on the local wealthy. The design they approved maintained the tradition for providing harsh habitation. Many regarded paupers as a social blight.

Guardians’ attitudes to each other

A previous article has examined a sharp fault-line that divided the Board of Guardians against each other. Management of the poor within the Christchurch Union dated back to before Bournemouth existed. The resort had grown within Holdenhurst and Christchurch, two of the parishes comprising the local Union for poverty management. Ambition and aggrandisement had turned the attention of Bournemouth’s prominent citizens eastwards. In the 1870s, Bournemouth’s size accorded it greater representation on the Board of Guardians. Press reports make clear the resentment felt by representatives of Bournemouth and Christchurch for each other. Meetings bristled with animosity. Debates consisted of thrust and counterthrust, blows applied at the personal level. Yet, despite the resentments and petty point-making that separated the representatives of each place, they remained united in their attitudes towards the poor. If they disliked each other, they appeared to despise those falling into poverty much more. 

Victorian Bournemouth (113): a new workhouse


According to the census, the Union workhouse in 1851 had 70 inmates. This number dropped to 41 by 1871. Thereafter, the figure increased to reach almost two hundred in 1901. A press account showed a figure of 70 for inmates during 1877, but it also reported that those receiving outdoor relief stood at almost five hundred. Thus, despite efforts to convert those on outdoor relief into inmates, they still far outnumbered those housed on Union premises. In the early 1870s, the Guardians accepted that the existing workhouse had become too small and too decrepit. They began a search for land within the Borough where they could build a replacement. Although Bournemouth contributed higher payments than Christchurch, in 1877 most paupers resided east of the river Stour. Bournemouth people perhaps approved of keeping the workhouse in Christchurch. Such a building would have reminded wealthy tourists of a difficult social problem. 


Considerable discussion occurred over designs for the new workhouse. The firm of Creeke and Burton won the project. Their first proposals envisaged a building to house four hundred inmates. A cost of £23,000 distressed some Guardians. Waterfield reminded the larger ratepayers (in addition to himself) that they might bear this cost. Although even a building this large could not accommodate all those on relief, the Guardians requested one at half the capacity. After some time, they agreed a design. The Local Government Board sanctioned a loan, providing a list of approved lenders. The Guardians arranged a loan from another source, but then found they could not borrow the full amount. As a result of this, they reduced the size of the building. The decision about heating and lighting did not occur until after the building had approached completion. This procedure mystified a Local Government Board inspector.

Victorian Bournemouth (113): construction


During the design stage, the Guardians demonstrated a commitment to micro-management. They became involved in different aspects of the building’s shape, capacity, and application. The subject of where to house the children divided them. Some thought it necessary to separate them from the older adult male inmates, but others saw this as a benefit in life. The issue of heating compounded budgetary concerns with prejudice against paupers. The Reverend Pretyman’s opinion of the poor echoed Scrooge’s. He described 97 in a 100 as ‘professional’ vagrants. In his opinion, the vagrants’ ward should not have heating. On cold nights, its inmates could receive an extra blanket. Furthermore, he considered the heating of corridors an ‘extreme nonsense’. Some inclined towards paraffin for the energy fuel since gas incurred a premium for pipe-laying. Only when they recalled that the former posed a danger to the inmates did they choose gas. 


The Guardians withdrew from the project once they had appointed a clerk of works. A few inspections occurred, the Bournemouth contingent visiting the site when attending meetings. As the end approached, concerns arose about the quality of craftsmanship. To some extent, this may have formed an established basis for negotiating the final cost, clawing back what they could on the agreed expenditure. Nevertheless, the procedure and results for building the workhouse seemed very similar to that attending Bournemouth’s eastward extension of its underground drainage system. There, some Commissioners had the habit of taking measuring sticks to the new sewers during observation trips. They debated restarting the project, even sketching plans for an additional (and substantial) loan for the purpose. Experienced and knowledgeable builders sat on both Boards, sometimes the same people. The Local Government Board’s inspector sat bemused at a meeting of the Union’s Guardians. Parochialism appeared to dilute professionalism.


Victorian Bournemouth (113) has explored the process whereby the Guardians representing both Christchurch and the resort managed building the new workhouse. Their mutual resentment delayed and obstructed its design and construction. Yet, despite this, both parties remained united in the traditional hatred which privileged people felt for paupers and as satirised by Dickens.


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