Victorian Bournemouth (162)

Victorian Bournemouth (159): municipal incorporation (1)

Weaponising social cracks


Victorian Bournemouth (159) introduces articles that address different aspects of the process whereby the resort incorporated into a borough (1890). This article provides the background to a movement that came to the boil during the 1870s.

Victorian Bournemouth (159): background

Anarchic construction

An illustration of early Bournemouth existed at the time of the resort’s announcement in the press. This unified vision, however, came to life amongst commercial anarchy as developers proceeded to build in an independent way. Their methods resulted in an inadequate drainage system across the site, creating a potential health threat to the population. The Improvement Act laid the foundation of organisational direction, but the independent attitude continued to shape the town’s identity. Successful local traders wanted to continue to improve the town without government interference. Affluent residents, however, prizing the early settlement’s seclusion, wanted to live in an unchanging context under very loose governance. These contrasting visions shaped the later debate about incorporation. Meanwhile, government initiatives to exert local control quickened, threatening to extinguish Bournemouth’s identity. There arose the possibility that Bournemouth would proceed as a component within a wider, county administration. Independence of any sort would disappear.

Controlled independence

In part motivated by the increasing insanitary conditions developing not just in Bournemouth but across the country, successive governments began to impose national administrative standards. Although this added bureaucracy for local decision-makers, it brought benefits. Bournemouth’s Improvement Act had pleased many for its charter to control the growing infrastructure. Ratepayers, however, would not fund the civil engineering projects envisaged by the Commissioners, making borrowing necessary. The Board agreed to operate within the Local Government Act in part because it helped their borrowing capabilities. Nevertheless, this benefit rendered the Commissioners liable to supervision by the Local Government Board. Thus, the unrestrained appetite for continuous commercial improvement came at the risk of surrendering some of the resort’s cultural independence. The prospect of becoming an anonymous component within a future county legislation made incorporation desirable to this cultural need for independence. This status, while subject to legislative control, nevertheless would retain Bournemouth’s identity.

Victorian Bournemouth (159): the 1870s

Might to rule

Much of the debate about Bournemouth’s drainage system had centred on the location of its outlet. Early thoughts about inland had evaporated before an agreement to use the sea. Insulating bathers and the pier, however, meant the need for access further along the coast. Attention fell eastwards. Pipes could carry effluent there. Developers, however, had run ahead of this debate. Settlements had appeared to the east: Springbourne, Boscombe, and the East Cliff. The Commission’s jurisdiction did not reach these areas. An eastwards route for Bournemouth’s effluent would have to run under but also to integrate with the eastern settlements. The East Cliff residents, domain of the affluent asylum seekers, resisted the Commission’s attempts to control their environment. The working people constituting most of Springbourne took a similar approach. The Local Government Board now proved advantageous to the Commissioners for it decided they could annex the eastern territories at will. 

Wider footprint, greater tension

After annexation, some perhaps viewed the acquired territories as a Trojan horse. Extension increased the Commission’s size by adding members resident in the eastern area. Progress of the drainage system eastward opened the existing members up to the parochial agendas promoted by their new, eastern colleagues. Micro-management extended to one member walking about the construction works using his umbrella as a measuring tool. The eastern drainage project showed the Commission in a bad light. A larger Bournemouth appeared, governed by men without experience or competence, unsupported by professional staff beyond the clerk and the surveyor. The annexation introduced to power different visions for the resort’s future development. To some extent these correlated with their promoters’ position within local society. Thus, the old building anarchy became translated into social tension that restricted the Board’s decision-making. Its disarray encouraged questions about the extent of its representation and its electoral basis for power.

Victorian Bournemouth (159): social framework

Social heritage

Bournemouth had begun life as a resort aimed at affluent visitors, convalescent or pleasure-seeking. Its success, however, involved an increasing infusion of working people. In time, as the opportunity for retail commerce grew, middling people arrived in Bournemouth. Thus, by the 1880s, the town had evolved a social structure composed of many different types. Commercial success, however, had brought some working and middling men onto nodding terms with gentility. Their long-term presence on the Improvement Commission seemed to create a sense of social harmony within the town’s governance. The affluent residents of East Cliff, however, had pronounced and prejudiced views about other social types. As men from here became Commissioners they chose to disturb the Board’s previous social harmony. Men from Springbourne who joined the Commission often had humble origins. Their presence furthered the possibility for social dissonance amongst the decision-makers. Debates about incorporation thus suffered from corrosive social differences.

Public will, plural vote

The franchise such as it had existed at Bournemouth had reflected the historic bias which awarded power to the affluent. Possession of the vote depended on property values. The press remained hazy about whether the franchise involved ownership or occupation. Nevertheless, ballot power resided with the affluent because of plural voting. Under this system, an individual’s votes increased according to the rateable value of their property holdings. Thus, the affluent could distribute their votes across a range of favoured candidates. As a result, Commission membership reflected the bias towards affluence within the franchise. The government would abolish plural voting as it related to Bournemouth’s condition towards the end of the 1880s. Until then, however, the resort’s affluent residents sought to protect this power and use it to their advantage. They harnessed it in their attempts to retain their version of Bournemouth: an isolated asylum for wealthy emigres.


Victorian Bournemouth (159) has provided a background to the drive for incorporation which achieved success in 1890. It has sketched the social cracks within the governmental system which became weaponised in the battle over contrasting visions for Bournemouth’s future. Incorporation became the latest focal point for a debate that had existed from the resort’s commencement.


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