Victorian Bournemouth (116)

Victorian Bournemouth (114): Improvement Commission 1870s (1)

Infrastructure and Income


Victorian Bournemouth (114) begins a series of articles concerning the workings of the Improvement Commission during the 1870s. This piece addresses the main objectives pursued by the Commissioners and their challenges during the decade.

Victorian Bournemouth (114): major objectives


In the resort’s early days, unrestrained building had resulted in concerns about health because little attention had gone on creating an efficient and interconnected drainage system. These concerns, in part, contributed towards the establishment by Parliamentary Act of Bournemouth’s Improvement Commission in 1856. Addressing the drainage constituted one of its main objectives. Over the subsequent years, whereas the Commissioners and their surveyor, Christopher Creeke, spent much attention and money on this issue, concerns remained. They had survived a storm of medical protest in the mid 1860s. The creation of Local Government Boards in 1871, however, introduced an external, official level of supervision. Soon, the Commissioners found it necessary to address their Board’s imperative for removing doubt about the drainage system. The main problem lay in how to dispose of the sewage. Most saw the sea as its terminus. Attention fell on the entry-point to the sea, Boscombe the favoured place.

Gas and water

In 1864, a company based in London tendered to supply both water and gas to Bournemouth. After a while, discontent with the company became a leitmotif at Commissioners’ meetings. For the most part, this concerned the low quality of gas supplied, but price of supply also attracted adverse attention. They hired specialists to assess gas pressure and water quality. In addition, however, the Commissioners found difficulty with the company’s directors. In late 1875, a meeting heard that from ‘the sneering tone adopted by that director (Major Stuart), it was clear that the company cared nothing for the Commissioners’. ‘Mr Hankinson observed that the directors of the company exhibited undisguised contempt of the Commissioners.’ They saw opportunity, perhaps as a revenue source, in taking control of supplying the two commodities, but they needed a Parliamentary Act. The company, having greater experience of political lobbying, contested the Commissioners on this front.

Victorian Bournemouth (114): important objectives


Despite early resistance, the Commissioners negotiated agreement for local rates as a form of income. The board, however, soon found that rating income would not suffice for some of their more grandiose ideas, for example a pier. Borrowing provided an additional source of funds, a well-established practice by the 1870s. Now, however, the need to clear borrowing through the Local Government Board proved an obstacle to their abilities to deliver expanding infrastructure and such showcase projects as a new pier. Estimates for the latter and the new eastward drainage extension ran to £50,000, an enormous sum. The Local Government Board would not sanction this amount, but still required an efficient drainage system. Thus, annexation of the new eastward areas offered a way to achieve both. Adding this area to their district provided the Commissioners with greater control. Inhabitants would also augment the Board’s rating income, the cause of new resistance.


Absorption of the new territories – Springbourne, Boscombe, and East Cliff – constituted an important stage in Bournemouth and its Commission’s development. Organised resistance occurred, but it faded against the Local Government Board’s observation that no legal means prevented the Commissioners from annexation. The press gave considerable space to this event, reporting the debates occurring within the local resistance groups. The Commissioners won the battle, but they had to add three new members, elected by voters living in the new areas. Over the next few years, these men often opposed the established members during Commission meetings. Thus, the annexation provided a way to deal with the drainage and income problems. It also extinguished the possibility that a competitive site to Bournemouth, under its own governance, would flourish. For a while, the press had covered ideas and actions whereby Boscombe might achieve this position. The annexation, however, removed this possibility.

Victorian Bournemouth (114): other objectives

Building control

The speculative but haphazard building programme that shaped early Bournemouth constituted another area for the Commissioners. References in the press suggested that they had addressed this to the extent that new building projects needed registering with the Commission. Nevertheless, during the 1870s, on several occasions the board had to deal with builders who ignored this requirement or found ways to circumvent it. Henry Joy, for example, when summoned, claimed that his building project lay just beyond the Commissioners’ district line. Then, in 1877, the suggestion that Colonel Hay’s development had encroached on other sites took much of the Commissioners’ time. This had happened inside their district. Investigation, however, showed that little record existed to prove boundaries one way or the other. They shelved the matter. Thus, the early resort’s entrepreneurial attitude towards building, despite their controls, had continued but in a covert way.

Tourist sites

Bournemouth promoters understood the importance that a pier would have in growing the tourist trade. At first, cost and feasibility postponed this, but soon concerted action made a pier possible. A combination of ill-luck, the weather, and questionable design caused many problems. Talk arose of building a second pier. The Commissioners understood that a successful pier resulted in a revenue flow which they could use as collateral on further borrowings. By the early 1870s they had appointed a contractor. Soon, however, the builder’s liquidity problems stopped the project. The Commissioners decided to continue with the pier but under their management. This would require substantial borrowing, in turn bringing pressure on the ratepayers. It seems, also, that the Commissioners envisaged substantial building work that would happen along East Cliff and the shore below. This grandiose vision, while attractive to many tourists, dismayed a large body of ratepayers who organised resistance.


Victorian Bournemouth (114) has explored the range of objectives undertaken or envisaged by the Improvement Commissioners during the 1870s. Some addressed infrastructure imperatives, others aimed at boosting tourist income. In managing these projects, the Commissioners found themselves squeezed by two substantial forces: the Local Government Board, local ratepayers.


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

Leave a Reply