Victorian Bournemouth (162)

Victorian Bournemouth (161): municipal incorporation (3)

Progress against privilege


Victorian Bournemouth (161) suggests that the social background of contemporary Improvement Commissioners shaped the attainment of a municipal charter in 1890. It charts how social differences framed the process whereby the town’s civic government changed. Although many Commissioners wanted to avoid politicising Bournemouth’s government, these social differences within the Board created notional political parties.

Victorian Bournemouth (161): background

Board structure

According to its charter, the Lord of the Manor and his nominee sat on Bournemouth’s Improvement Commission. The remaining members secured their position thereon through election. For much of the Board’s existence, the electoral system employed plural voting. Qualification for the franchise depended on property value, multiple votes accruing to owners of the larger holdings. Even though this characteristic favoured wealthier men, not all the Commissioners came from affluent backgrounds. From its beginning, several builders won election to the Board. These men had originated from humble backgrounds, had worked as artisans, but had achieved civic prominence through commercial success. As such, they belonged to Bournemouth’s embryonic group of middling people. The Commission always included both social types, thereby reflecting the parallel nature of Bournemouth society. Conceived as a convalescent and holiday resort for wealthy people, the town’s residents came to include labouring people employed on its increasing built environment.

Rising criticism

As time passed, the press devoted more space to reporting the Commission’s debates and its decisions. The newspapers appear to have taken an objective stance towards it, adding little comment beyond reporting events. According to the press, the early Commission had successful control of Bournemouth’s infrastructure. During the 1870s, however, matters changed. Annexation of the eastern territories increased the Board’s membership and widened its social range. The net impression of press coverage now included infighting and incompetence. This centred on the Board’s muddled approach to managing the drainage system’s eastern extension. ‘Pitchforking’ also attracted editorial criticism. This process enabled the Board to replace without election any Commissioners retiring early. ‘Pitchforking’ appeared to favour affluent men, although some did not serve long. By the 1880s, a new publication, the Bournemouth Guardian, often criticised the Commission, not least for its stance against incorporation. It became a frequent outlet for opposition to Board decisions.

Victorian Bournemouth (161): Commissioners’ social backgrounds

Middling promoters

Many of those keen on incorporation ran businesses in Bournemouth. They included William Rogers, the draper, and Matthew Cox, the grocer. Most had enjoyed commercial success, some achieving wealth. Cox had sold his business to a national firm. Rogers left an estate worth five figures. Cox’s father ran a grocery, Rogers grew up on a farm. The fathers of other promoters had had similar jobs: weaver, hatter, florist, carpenter and so on. Furthermore, most had a long history in the town. From their shop doors, they had watched others of their ilk share in the town’s prosperity. Success brought social mobility. Bournemouth’s improvement and theirs emerged from this symbiotic relationship. Incorporation represented to them, the next, logical stage in civic and personal development. To their opponents, however, Bournemouth offered an opportunity to share the company of others belonging to gentility. They represented the establishment, social improvement not their priority.

Affluent opponents

Incorporation’s opponents looked back to when most of Bournemouth consisted of wealthy people. To them, Bournemouth represented an asylum separating them from the world. Incorporation brought party politics, higher costs, increasing urbanisation. Worse, it would offer the chance for inferior types of men to acquire importance by donning mayoral regalia. Bournemouth appealed to such people as a retirement colony. Amongst them numbered army captains, unemployed clergymen, lawyers, physicians, bankers. William Fisher, a prominent opponent, farmed over 400 acres. Most of these men came from privileged backgrounds, their fathers having already chosen the same professions. This group included Reverend J. R. Pretyman, a retired clergyman, who achieved civic prominence during the 1870s. He had an affluent background, having sufficient income for early retirement. Pretyman believed working people to have inferior intelligence, a threat to his social position. Despite increasing isolation, he remained opposed to the civic change favoured by the majority. 

Victorian Bournemouth (161): a social divide

Charting the social balance in debates about incorporation

Enoch White, a Commissioner living in Springbourne, from which he ran his nursery business, became an early exponent for Bournemouth’s incorporation. He addressed the Board on this subject in 1883. Support came from a wine merchant, a grocer, a painter, a builder, and a hotelier. Against them stood physicians, retired captains, lawyers, and very wealthy new men. Diversionary tactics gained the latter time and the support of a leading local builder, Joseph Cutler. After the first petition’s failure, more local businessmen secured election to the Commission, including Thomas Hankinson, an ardent promoter. Despite the second petition’s failure, debate reports show affluent Commissioners becoming recusants. The possibility that Bournemouth could become an administrative section of Hampshire County Council may have motivated them. Under this, they would lose much influence on Bournemouth. Thus, incorporation represented the lesser evil, the successful petition’s support showing social harmony. Only Reverend Pretyman refused to bend.

Wider social representation on the first municipal council

Bournemouth’s first municipal election had no scarcity of aspirant councillors. Each of the six wards attracted competition for its representation. Social variety appeared amongst the candidates. They included those having a privileged social position: unearned incomes, lawyers, physicians, even Captain Hartley, erstwhile Commission chairman, incorporation’s stout opponent. The hustings also involved several men who ran local businesses: a tobacconist, a fish merchant, a wine merchant, another generation of builders. Voters chose in favour of the latter. Losers contained more men of privilege than traders, but not all the latter won. Nevertheless, most of these became aldermen, decisions perhaps guided by Bournemouth’s first mayor, Thomas Hankinson, estate agent and stationer. Thus, the mayoral regalia decorated incorporation’s staunch champion, outside and inside the Commission’s chamber. The abolition of plural voting provided a greater opportunity for (male) popular opinion to affect the shape of the resort’s civic power. Meritocracy supplanted privilege.


Victorian Bournemouth (161) has used social analysis to chart how incorporation’s success reflected the decline in influence exerted by residents born into privilege. The dual social nature of the old Improvement Commission evolved into a council most of whose members consisted of local traders. National legislative change empowered local opinion to reduce the civic influence of Bournemouth’s privileged residents.


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