Victorian Bournemouth (157)

Victorian Bournemouth (157): the 1880s

From Arcadia to Borough


Victorian Bournemouth (157) introduces articles which analyse different aspect of the resort’s history during the 1880s. During this decade, the town went from Improvement to Incorporation, but not without considerable debate and effort. Population flooded across the suburbs, which acquired a sense of community in the process. The town continued its momentum but reached a larger and more complex stage. Its society and culture became deeper and more textured.

Victorian Bournemouth (157): continuation of moment

Colony to corporation

Bournemouth’s directed, commercial trajectory began as a convalescent colony, planted in a wilderness beside the sea. The first architecture, projected inland with a controlled, straight line of villa mansions. Thereafter, a combination of investment and purposeful marketing created a commercial engine that resulted in a civic settlement having an energetic commercial life. Milestones ticked along: the Sanatorium, a pier, a connected, but fitful drainage system, an Improvement Act, spates of bankruptcy. During the 1870s, the Improvement Commissioners engaged in imperialism by the forcible annexation of Springbourne and Boscombe. National civic initiatives added to Bournemouth’s agenda the possibility of Incorporation by gaining a municipal charter. Those encouraging the trajectory, the successful, ambitious middling locals, came up against reactionary gentry, keen to retain the colony’s pastoral, undeveloped origins. During the 1880s, these forces clashed several times, the gentry managing to postpone but not prevent incorporation.

Improved documentary basis

From the 1870s, growth of local churches resulted in several parish registers emerging. These support trend analysis on life-stages and deeper studies of the area’s social dynamics. Examples of these include infant mortality, illegitimacy, social levels of respective marriage partners, and age differences at marriage. The signatures (or otherwise) placed on their certificates by marriage partners offer insights into literacy levels. The registers, thus, provide a valuable parallel to the census, one having greater chronological granularity than ten-year intervals. Bournemouth had long benefited from a local newspaper: the Visitors’ Guide. This, however, has not surfaced online. In the 1880s, the Bournemouth Guardian appeared. It experimented with its coverage during that decade, but, overall, offered a wealth of information about Bournemouth’s widening community. This newspaper and its older counterparts provided a documentary mortar which filled cracks between the bricks represented by the census and parish registers.

Victorian Bournemouth (157): larger and more complex stage

Critical mass

In 1851, four enumerators had sufficed to survey the population without undue pressure. Forty years later, however, the task required thirty-three men, each having almost three times the work. During the 1880s, the suburbs annexed by the Improvement Board increased both their footprint and population. Civic structures appeared in Moordown and Winton. The area’s society expanded from its original parallel structure comprising working people and privileged counterparts. Success at property development or retailing gave birth to middling people. Their ambition elbowed them into the social structure, elevating it and enhancing its texture. Occupations listed in baptismal records suggest that the economy increased in variety. Not only bricklayers found work, but also brick pointers. Bournemouth’s commerce approached the complexity long found in the economies of such established spas as Brighton, Bath, and Cheltenham. Bournemouth had achieved critical mass ready for its next civic stage.

Mass of critics

As portrayed by the Bournemouth Guardian‘s reports of civic meetings, the movement towards incorporation arrayed two masses, each critical of the other. Their civic visions differed as did their social position. Middling people, some, now, very wealthy, saw their actualisation in pushing the settlement, not fifty years old, into the ranks of new municipalities. This would direct it ever more towards the outside world, one of civic formality and badges of office. Men of more gentle background wanted none of it. They derided an apparent eagerness for mayoral regalia amongst the retailers ambitious for acclaim. An Arcadian paradise, now perceived as lost, if it ever existed, housing the gentry, constituted their dream. Progress had no role within this backward-looking colony, perched on the East Cliff. They blocked the path to incorporation several times, though, each time, the tide supporting municipal status eroded further their defiant sandcastle.

Victorian Bournemouth (157): conflict and charity

Social and religious conflict

After a long campaign, the Commissioners had succeeded in obtaining the right to hold Petty Sessions in Bournemouth. By the 1880s, a police court had also opened, but the magistrates appeared identical to those on the Petty Sessions. Much of their bench time consisted of listening to examples of Springbourne’s disordered and dysfunctional society. Drink and poverty set people at each other’s throats. The magistrates levied fines and costs most often, imposed prison for others, as well as sending the more serious cases to the assizes. Different conflict occurred at the death of Rev A. M. Bennett. It ignited a doctrinal firestorm that raged for much of the 1880s. Opposing worshippers drew up along Evangelistic or Ritualistic lines. Bennett’s legacy resulted in several resignations, frequent protests from parish members, and urgent letter-writing to the press.

Charity direct and indirect

The Christchurch Union, to which Bournemouth belonged, provided for the area’s poverty according to conventional methods of managed hardship. The Guardians postponed as long as possible installing heating into the ‘tramps’ wards’ for fear of encouraging study beggars. During the 1880, as tasked, they brought increasing numbers of needy into the workhouse, but the cost of outdoor relief continued to rise. Concerned ladies in Bournemouth provided help, including books for the workhouse library, though perhaps inmates varied in the capability to read them. Friendly Societies grew their presence in Bournemouth. They had a mission and ability to provide parallel, indirect assistance to the needy able to afford insurance payments. Charitable donations had long supported the Sanatorium but now also assisted the Dispensary, another institution aimed at helping the poor. Thus, the local culture provided a varied number of supplemental income streams alongside the official, tough love available from the Workhouse.


Victorian Bournemouth (157) has introduced the 1880s through a series of broad brushstrokes for fuller exploration in later articles. As a snake sloughs off its skin, the town discarded its original, simple model as convalescent colony for wealthy people. An organised campaign by its middling residents looked away from an Arcadian backwater to a bustling future in which borough status would provide significant support for their ambitions.


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