Victorian Bournemouth (165)

Victorian Bournemouth (164): local justice at work

Morality plays


Victorian Bournemouth (164) introduces a series of articles relating to the Petty Sessions and Police Court during the 1880s. The Bournemouth Guardian provided regular coverage of these. This article analyses cases occurring in 1884, 1885, 1887 (Petty Sessions) and 1889 (Police Court).

Victorian Bournemouth (164): background


The newspaper published Bournemouth’s court reports about twice a month during this period. Magistrates assessed around ten cases a sitting, the majority concerning single defendants. At this point, before incorporation, Hampshire appointed the magistrates, but many lived in Bournemouth according to the census. Drunkenness, assault, and nuisance accounted for about a third of the summonses. Other cases concerned thoroughfares and transport offences, for example, cabbies driving without licences or cruising for fares. Complaints also brought bicycle-riding, a new behaviour, to the magistrates’ attention. Theft, gambling, begging, and animal treatment (muzzling dogs, punishing cruelty to horses) also featured. The courts acted as a public theatre within which local society purged itself of behaviour adjudged threatening to its peace. Without exception, the magistrates, wealthy men, occupied high social places. Most defendants, however, consisted of working people. The pattern of cases also reflected contemporary police efforts. Convictions occurred for almost all cases.

Media prejudice

Most of the Guardian’s readers would have belonged to the respectable and privileged sections of society. As most defendants consisted of working people, their transgressions provided proof to shocked (if not delighted) readers that disorder threatened respectability. It seems possible, however, that the Guardian spun its coverage to this purpose. Although only about half the cases included geographical details of the offence or participants addresses, Springbourne and Boscombe featured often. Both areas consisted of dense settlements of working people. The press portrayed them as zones of drunken and violent behaviour plus other lawless activity. On one occasion, the report dropped the mask when reporting an assault by one woman on another, both living in the ‘same salubrious neighbourhood’. ‘This was one of those amusing quarrels between neighbours, which are of regular occurrence in that quarter of the town.’ Thus, the Guardian’s accounts resembled morality plays sometimes associated with tabloid press.

Victorian Bournemouth (164): case analysis

Punishable behaviour

Nevertheless, the press coverage depicted a range of criteria which contemporary society at all levels found important. Cruelty to animals featured as a matter of concern, most cases consisting of carters driving wounded or exhausted horses beyond acceptable levels. A very high rate of conviction applied. Several complaints indicated local determination to keep thoroughfares clear. Magistrates punished instances where delivery trucks had blocked the way. They also penalised furious driving through town and bicycling on footpaths or without a light after dark. Social rules punished public indecency, for example during bathing or such anti-social behaviour as obscenity. These drew fines. Begging, however, with one exception, resulted in gaol sentences including hard labour. Such behaviour would have detracted from the resort’s glamorous reputation as a fashionable holiday site. The cases of assault, conducted amongst families, brought to trial indicates that, at times, internal mediation would not suffice.

Controlling working people

Much of the courts’ work lay in addressing complaints arising from drunkenness or assault. Often, indeed, the two events occurred together. The police arrested drunks in public houses but also in public places, the town not wanting such people to disturb visitors any more than beggars. Drunkenness in private, however, at any level of society concerned the courts when it resulted in violence. Alcohol appears to have fuelled several cases of wife beating, for example. Almost all the defendants appearing before the magistrates belonged to society’s lower levels. Yet, the system would not protect respectable people if they had offended against the law. Legislation concerning dog-keeping tightened at this period. As a result, cases where the police prosecuted dog owners for disobeying the law increased during 1887. The names or labels reported for the defendants suggests that as many if not more consisted of respectable rather than working people.

Victorian Bournemouth (164): human interest

‘Take it out of that!’

Beneath the aggregated statistics, the case reports captured both entertaining behaviour and vocabulary. They provide a form of human interest otherwise found in novels. In 1889, for example, Arthur Webb took exception to Charles Trim for an unknown reason. He struck Trim ‘with a salmon on the head’. Then, he ‘pitched into him’. Later, at the police station, Webb struck him again. George Blanchard, a bricklayer, owed rent to James Hall, a cabinetmaker. One evening, the latter stood leaning at his gate, when Blanchard arrived. After the request for rent, Blanchard ‘made a running blow’ and hit him under the chin. He suggested that he ‘take it out of that’. Two plasterers at work squabbled over who should first use a tool. One seized the other’s thumb like a mad dog, almost severing it. The other claimed the plaintiff put his finger into his mouth and his teeth ‘closed naturally’.

‘Chucking a rolling pin at her’

Reporters perhaps sharpened their pencils where assault cases concerning women occurred. The case already mentioned had further colour. One woman informed the other that she was a ‘[Blank] old cow’. Thereafter, she pursued her, ‘being a good hand with her “raw ‘uns”‘. The other claimed her opponent rushed into her garden. She came ‘more like a lion than anything else’, and ‘chucking a rolling pin at her’. One ‘denied “laying a finger”‘ on the other. The contest may have concerned a ‘fish kettle with two handles’. In another case, Rebecca Glass thought her neighbour, Kate Martin, had assaulted her husband. She ‘threw complainant to the other side of the road’. Rebecca could not, she said, ‘stand there and see her husband murdered in the road by stones which were falling like hail from complainant’s children’. The reporter enclosed the vernacular as direct quotes to enhance his report of working people.


Victorian Bournemouth (164) has introduced several articles covering aspects of the magistrates’ courts held during the 1880s. The courts regulated different types of anti-social behaviour, often addressing drunkenness and assaults. Magistrates judged in favour of the complainants most of the time but imposed fines (and costs) much more often than prison. They reserved the latter for some theft, begging and instances of heavy wife-beating. The press used the courts to provide content critical of working people.


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