La même chose
Victorian Bournemouth (115) continues the series of articles which analyse the Improvement Commissioners’ activities during the 1870s. This piece traces how their traditional style of administration had become inadequate to match its development ideas or the town’s size and complexity. As a result, the seeds of incorporation began to germinate.
Victorian Bournemouth (115): early questions
Changing skill sets
At first, Bournemouth’s Improvement Commission perhaps acted as a taskforce addressing the resort’s drainage problems. Over time, however, it became a ruling-body, arbitrating on the built environment at many levels. The Commissioners came to manage a local environment which changed almost every day. Construction appeared never to rest at Bournemouth, except during occasional crises of financial confidence. The Board often charged people for building offences. The population, perhaps quadrupled since their start, presented further challenges to amateur administrators. Growing national concerns about public health and drainage standards required Commissioners to have greater professional knowledge. Their capabilities drew criticism. A piece in the Christchurch Times satirised the Board’s exposure in a more professional environment. ‘ … no subject appears to come amiss to them, excepting occasionally the subjects which they ought to understand.’ From time-to-time ratepayers formed protest groups, questioning projects, and complaining about cost. The press saw opportunities for stories.
Influenced by the most important local landowner, the Commission’s early approach resembled that of a medieval manorial court. Although the Meyricks operated at a distance, they had the right to nominate two members. As close ties often linked together members of manorial courts, so did they connect the Commissioners. Coming from the town’s growing commercial ranks – speculative builders and retailers – several members will have shared attitudes towards its management. In addition, kinship links connected several long-serving members. Furthermore, Commission elections turned office-holding almost into a form of incumbency. Members retiring from a three-year term might offer themselves for re-election, resulting in some members serving for years. In cases where a member resigned, the Commission could appoint a replacement without election. Some complained about this practice, described as ‘pitchforking’. Thus, the Commission bore the characteristics of an introverted and interlinked group, resistant to innovation, preserving their traditional, amateur approach.
Victorian Bournemouth (115): a rickety structure
Press references suggest that, by the 1870s, the board needed greater professionalism. They operated for a while without dedicated office space. They had had no treasurer for many years, Christopher Creeke absorbing this role within his surveyorship. Earlier, a local bank manager had offered his services, but investigation showed that his priority lay in winning the Commission’s account. Creeke also appears to have acted as an independent consultant during the eastward expansion of the drainage system. When newer Commissioners decided to terminate this, his demands for a fee embarrassed them, the level requiring a loan. They had no procedural standing orders. The several committees appeared to act as resting places for unwelcome issues. Some did recommend contracts or suppliers, but at times the Commissioners examined stone samples as if in their building yards. These deficiencies caused the Board to become ever less capable to manage issues produced by Bournemouth’s continued growth.
More of the same
Attention to minutiae persisted, however. Some members took to visiting the drainage extensions, poking at them with umbrellas, and reaching uninformed conclusions. Quixotic decisions on consultants and builders led the Board through a trail of unpaid bills, court cases, and fines. Nevertheless, outsiders showed appetite to serve. In 1875, for example, twelve men competed for four seats. New men attempted innovation, to replace amateurism with professional systems. One wanted to review finances, another to measure Creeke’s loose remit against the law. They faced opposition. The increase in board numbers after the Eastern annexation could have brought innovation, but fierce localism shaped their behaviour, stimulating greater politicisation. In one election, candidates divided according to whether they favoured a single or double drainage outfall to the sea. Thus, little change in overall approach occurred. Amateur dabbling and inconsistent decision making continued. Questions of the Commission’s suitability grew outside the board room.
Victorian Bournemouth (115): time for a change
The Commission depended on rates for much of its income. Commissioners would monitor the number of houses under construction to estimate future additional revenue. On the other hand, collection of the rates did always operate well. Sometimes, the Commissioners took people to court for non-payment, but doubts about the collection system existed. One ratepayer, for example, had visited the collector’s office six times without finding anyone to take her money. Recognising that rates did not provide enough income, the Commissioners also sourced outside capital, often taking loans from insurance companies. They secured these against established revenue streams, for example pier tolls. By the 1870s, however, the scale had increased. The Board contemplated borrowing up to £50,000, a huge sum compared to before. The Local Government Board, having supervision on such matters, refused permission. Thus, the Board’s financial system came under strain. Further grandiose ambitions promised little relief, however.
A new format
By the end of the 1870s, the Commissioners’ ambition and amateur management systems appear to have crystallized thinking about its fitness for purpose. The combination of grandiose construction plans, weak management systems, and financial difficulties raised questions about the Commissioners’ terms of reference, decision making, and processes. Not content with annexing Springbourne and Boscombe to facilitate the eastern extension of Bournemouth’s drainage system, the Commissioners had assumed responsibility for financing and building the new pier after the selected company went bankrupt. After the new pier’s opening and the conclusion to the drainage works, the Commissioners floated ideas for construction around the East Cliffs. By now, the Board had assumed a substantial debt, often taken on unfavourable terms. Knowledgeable people saw that Bournemouth needed to slough off its old, amateur administrative system by obtaining a charter bringing better ways to manage debt. Such a structure could better guide Bournemouth’s continued growth.
Victorian Bournemouth (115) has explored the administrative procedures and systems apparent within the Improvement Commission from its beginning to the 1870s. It finds that the old system which had produced an introverted, amateur group had reached its limits. Bournemouth’s future direction required incorporation. This would bring a better administrative system, whereby members elected by a wider range of people, would provide adequate local representation, laying the basis of professional government. The time had come to move from Improvement to Incorporation.