Victorian Bournemouth (141)

Victorian Bournemouth (141): theatrical entertainment arrives

Music-halls and morality


Victorian Bournemouth (141) explores the appetite which the resort’s audiences had for theatrical entertainment despite its moral threat. It finds that a wide range of entertainment went on offer, from music-hall turns to melodramas that explored such social issues as marriage across social borders. In addition, there evolved an indigenous group of amateurs who created an artistic community forged from different talents. ‘Puritan’ opposition, feared by some, did not arise.

Victorian Bournemouth (141): background

Approach with care

Bournemouth’s growing population – visitors and residents – provided commercial opportunities for those active in the entertainment industry. In 1875, the Town Hall Company took a licence to allow it to perform stage plays in the building. Christopher Creeke, the town surveyor, reported ‘applications for the use of the hall for such purposes had been made, which were desired by some of the inhabitants of the town.’ The Bench approved with caution, granting one for six months, ‘as it was a new thing, and might be objected to by the inhabitants’. The Belle Vue Assembly Rooms gave notice of their intention to apply for a licence at the next session. Their wariness perhaps arose in response to the active religious authoritarianism and campaigns against drunkenness associated with one section of the community. Such people could have subscribed to contemporary views that theatres provoked as much social harm as did the public houses.

David Sydenham

The Sydenham family had arrived early in Bournemouth. John Sydenham established a library and reading room. It acted as an information hub and community centre. Two of his daughters ran this, recorded in 1851. By 1871, their brother, David, had joined the business. During the 1870s, his name appeared in the press, connected with a range of entertainment and leisure activities. He became involved in the formation of Bournemouth’s Regatta Club, soon playing a role in organising events. Later, he took on a management role with the local Steam Packet Company. During the late 1870s, his name became associated with theatrical entertainment. He helped to assemble the local amateur dramatics group. In addition, he acted as an impresario, organising and perhaps underwriting several shows and performances conducted by professionals. Thus, despite potential opposition from conservatives, David Sydenham harvested the commercial opportunity he saw within the production of theatrical performances.

Victorian Bournemouth (141): stage performance types


Press references indicate that professional dramatic companies produced plays at Bournemouth. For example, Archer and Roberts performed Little Emily, based on David Copperfield. Otherwise, amateurs seemed to provide such entertainment, some twenty plays receiving mention. Bournemouth audiences had the opportunity to watch both melodramas and farces. Some plays ran over several acts, others consisted of one. John Madison Morton (1811-1891) and Thomas John Williams (1824-1874) wrote several of the farces performed. Tom Taylor (1817-1880) wrote two of the melodramas produced: The Ticket-of-Leave Man and Henry Dunbar. Where recorded the names of other playwrights indicate that either group selected plays which had appeared on London stages. On occasion, they selected works which provided social commentary and or explored new formats of story. Caste addressed marriage between social classes. The Ticket-of-Leave Man featured a story about crime, a prison sentence, and a detective.


A range of music-hall acts came to do business at Bournemouth during this period. Several ventriloquists and conjurors appeared, including Dr Lynn’s Living Marionettes. Audiences also had the opportunity to see such well-known performers as Alfred Vance and Harry Liston. They created musical entertainments based around the ‘lion comique’, salient characters taken from street life, sometimes poking fun at the gentry. They wore smart clothing and sang signature songs that achieved popularity, for example ‘Champagne Charlie’, performed by another artiste, George Leybourne. The German Reed company visited, providing ‘entertainments’ less dependent on burlesque formats, more acceptable to conservative audiences hesitant to enter theatres. Bournemouth also became an early market for the new D’Oyly Carte company’s comic opera H. M. S. Pinafore in 1879. Its repeat performance early in 1880 reflected its national popularity. Thus, audiences at Bournemouth during this period had the opportunity to watch melodrama, farces, and musical entertainment.

Victorian Bournemouth (141): assessment

An entertainment venue (1)

The need to attract visitors and to continue so doing lay deep within Bournemouth’s genes. Unlike towns that sprang from medieval markets, which consisted for the most part of exchanging necessities and consumables, Bournemouth’s business lay in entertainment. At first, its appeal inclined towards convalescents, medics acting as travel advisors, but before long it tapped into the spa-set, privileged people who drew strength from each other’s company and recognition as much as the resort’s climate. Along the way, the colony became transformed into a small town having a voracious appetite for growth and expansion. It acquired awareness through the country, events and features covered in both London and provincial press. In this perspective, the town appeared to have a unified commercial focus on becoming a leading entertainment destination. Yet, Creeke’s apprehension that not all inhabitants would welcome theatrical fare suggests differences of opinion lurking behind the scenes.

An entertainment venue (2)

Salacious stories about bathing at Bournemouth had peppered press columns over the years. The Temperance movement worked hard to eliminate alcohol, concentrating on turning working people towards tea and lectures. Reactionary conservatives lobbied against the incorporation movement, seen by its promoters as an important capstone to the town’s image. Such people could well have dug in and resisted professional entertainers, often associated with inferior moral behaviour. Creek’s statement implies they had the strength to try. Yet, the stream of entertainment arriving in Bournemouth suggests they avoided confrontation. In the 1870s, the latest acts, the popular performers, new programme formats felt it worth the while to travel down to Bournemouth. Audiences wanted Charles Halle’s piano performances as well as H.M.S. Pinafore, also, ventriloquists and conjurors. It wanted to laugh at stars performing their version of ‘Champagne Charlie’ without having to worry about Temperance interference. The ‘puritans’ faded to black.


Victorian Bournemouth (141) has explored the patterns in popular entertainment on show at the resort during the 1870s. Its width, nature, and quality suggest that the town had achieved a reputation and identity that placed it on a level of other resorts. The cultural hunger signalled part of a deeper appetite for national prominence. The town’s puritans remained quiet.


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