Victorian Bournemouth (162)

Victorian Bournemouth (162): municipal incorporation (4)

Moat of privilege


Victorian Bournemouth (162) examines the process of the resort’s incorporation through the eyes of its promoters. They argued that the town’s size and its commercial momentum exceeded the legislative and personal limits of the Improvement Commissioners. Incorporation would provide an institutional status equal to its reputation. Bias in the electoral system showed signs of transforming traditional social differences into a form of attitudinal apartheid.

Victorian Bournemouth (162): a runaway town

Pace of development

In 1856, the year of its Improvement Act, Bournemouth comprised just under two hundred buildings. Three decades later, on average, each year Bournemouth added to its built environment by this amount. As well as new buildings, annexation had increased the territory under the Commission’s authority. By the 1880s, its size had reached almost twenty-five times that of 1856. Development at this pace appeared to have exceeded the Commissioners and their powers. Debt, accumulated piecemeal at expensive rates, touched on limits set by the Local Government Board. Yet, in addition to financing this debt, the town required more funds. Once a colony for privileged visitors, Bournemouth now included all types of people. Several Commissioners appeared not to recognise the implications of this change. Promoters of incorporation argued for governance that steered Bournemouth towards a planned future. The backward glances of ‘improvement’, appropriate for bad drains in 1856, had become redundant.

Size and expectation

Promoters argued that Bournemouth’s size conveyed expectations on how it related to outside factors. On two occasions, the Board’s infighting had proved embarrassing. The Lord Mayor of London paid an official visit when Bournemouth celebrated the opening of its new pier. Instead of welcoming him, the Commission’s chairman went cruising on his yacht that day. Commissioners squabbled about how to meet the Duke of Edinburgh when he sailed to Bournemouth. He expressed surprise when his greeter arrived in a cab. Incorporation would provide a formal behavioural structure to manage such events. Elite visitors of the future would meet Bournemouth’s Mayor. Detractors portrayed Mayors of other towns as men keen to wear furs and chains before all else. They ridiculed the civic institution as tokenism. Promoters believed Bournemouth’s size brought an expectation that, in public affairs and connections, it should follow civic formats adopted by other towns of similar status. 

Victorian Bournemouth (162): a credible reputation

Danger from ‘dilettanti’

At the first public enquiry, the promoters’ barrister, recounted in detail the Commission’s decision-making during the 1870s. Criticism centred on how it had managed the eastern extension of the drainage system. The bias of the electoral system had enabled several wealthy men of leisure to gain Board membership. ‘ … these gentlemen of wealth, having little to do, always had some hobby, and that hobby was generally something with which they had not been previously connected. It had been an amusement for these gentlemen to come upon the board and play the part of amateur engineers …’ Frequent changes of direction occurred. Outside experts, hired for advice, found both this and their bills refused. The Commission lost several claims brought against them for unpaid fees. Charged as ‘dilettanti’, they not only cost the ratepayers money but damaged the town’s reputation. Improvement had lapsed into disarray and chaos.

The value of credibility

The barrister also detailed the advantage incorporation brought when raising money to finance large projects. Municipalities could issue bonds, whose tradable nature pleased the City. Incorporation would improve Bournemouth’s credit rating. No longer would its clerk have to tout amongst the insurance companies to borrow piecemeal at high interest. Incorporation would enable the town to roll up its existing debt, reissued as a bond. It would replace with trust the quixotic nature that had characterised decision-making of the 1870s. Now, not only the charitable donors would feel reassured about bringing their money to Bournemouth, but also bankers and investment managers. The Board’s reputation caused promoters to make another point. The town’s size required a wider complement of charitable institutions than the Dispensary. Few donors, however, trusted Commissioners with their funds. The drain shenanigans had lost Bournemouth both money and credibility. Incorporation would replace a spendthrift reputation with comforting reassurance.

Victorian Bournemouth (162): social apartheid

Reverend J. R. Pretyman

At the first public enquiry (1884), Reverend J. R. Pretyman rose to speak against incorporation. A lightning rod for feeling, he began his speech to the accompaniment of boos, hisses, but also cheers. He classed the issue as ‘a class question’. It set in opposition ‘the owners of property and the smaller ratepayers’. Warming to his theme, Pretyman declared ‘that there were only three gentlemen, whom he called gentlemen, who were on the board now’. This statement provoked an uproar. Although he consented that ‘the business proportion of the town’ had a fair representation on the board, that he placed them outside the gentry angered Hankinson, one of several well-to-do businessman. Two years later, Pretyman expanded his ideas about social differences when speaking at a Board meeting. He claimed that ‘property was a rough test of intelligence’. The Bournemouth Guardian set his beliefs fifty years in the past.

Privilege’s champions

Many of Pretyman’s group occupied property located in the East Cliff neighbourhood, where they had long rejected authority, preferring to live in isolated privilege and nimbyism. This group may have operated for a while as the ‘Vigilance Committee’: ‘eight gentlemen … led the public to believe that they had been elected by the public’. Its name perhaps indicated a protective stance reflecting Pretyman’s protectionism. His rhetoric dug a moat of privilege, behind which he gave short shrift to middling meritocracy, ignoring all others. From there, they could conduct their ‘wire pulling’ as Christopher Creeke described their methods. Reports of Pretyman’s behaviour at public meetings show him as cantankerous, argumentative, spoiling for fights. At this time, if rural riots had diminished, urban violence became an alternate for working people to express their social perspectives, even at Bournemouth. Without incorporation, Pretyman’s card of gentle superiority could have become dangerous to play. 


Victorian Bournemouth (162) has explored the arguments proposed in favour of the resort’s incorporation as well as the ideological core of its opponents’ position. The Bournemouth Guardian, an ardent supporter of incorporation, had already called time on the Commission. Its editor thought the town’s future success depended on ‘whether the Board in future will continue to keep pace with its work or whether it will become a sort of second-rate debating society “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. Its management of affairs during the 1870s, however, appears to have damaged the Commission beyond repair.


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