Victorian Bournemouth (165)

Victorian Bournemouth (165): justices of the peace

Elite defenders of order


Victorian Bournemouth (165) analyses the men who sat on the local judicial bench, applying the law to maintain order. The analysis considers their social background, their attitudes and their behaviour. It continues the series about the local administration of court justice during the 1880s.

Victorian Bournemouth (165): background

Social elite

The Bournemouth Guardian reported about two hundred cases for each year heard by magistrates sitting sometimes twice a month. Most cases concerned a single defendant, but a few applied to multiple people summoned on the same charge. The press reports mentioned almost twenty magistrates sitting during these years. Seven of these, however, sat in various combinations for 90% of the cases. A typical bench consisted of three magistrates. All men, most had reached their forties or fifties. Around half, at least, had made a career in the armed forces. Of the rest, some had had legal training, even practicing for a while. Most benefitted from indirect income, much derived from land holdings. Probate records have survived for most. These show a range of estate values, a few worth four figures, most more. On average, they left estates worth £43,000 or, without the smaller values, £68,000, marking them as wealthy men. 

Ancestral wealth

In common with many of Bournemouth’s wealthy residents, most magistrates originated elsewhere. An exception, W. W. Farr, qualified as local, a native and resident of Iford. A small number originated in Hampshire, but most came from other counties. Their fathers appear to have had similar social positions. Paternal ‘occupations’ included a peer, a baronet, lawyers (judges, barristers), landed proprietors, clergy, and ‘esquires’. If married, the magistrates found partners whose fathers occupied a similar social position to theirs. A minority appear to have stayed in Bournemouth for the rest of their lives, but most moved elsewhere, according to their probate records. Their places of death suggest that they favoured spa life: Hove, Ramsgate, Torquay, Bath. Almost all the cases that the magistrates heard related to labouring people, many of whom lived in Springbourne, a congregation of such. Thus, a substantial social gap separated magistrates from defendants.

Victorian Bournemouth (165): leading magistrates

Regular chairmen

Of the seven magistrates who sat most often, some chaired the bench often, some not. Although William Farr, appeared only 68 times before his death during this period, he took the chair always. Everett and Stephens chaired the bench for the majority of the times they sat, but did not appear as often as the others. Of these two (Moore and Venner) chaired more often than the others, but less than Everett and Stephens. Captain Elwes, whose sat the most often chaired only one in ten. Indeed, Captain Elwes, a member of the Improvement Commission at the beginning of the 1880s had to resign in order to concentrate on his duties as magistrate. The press article announcing this hinted at the captain’s officious approach. His frequent appearances on the bench perhaps adds weight to that judgement, but also illustrate the extent to which a magistrate took an interest.

Community stalwarts

Obituaries have survived for some magistrates. They differ in length, an index of their subjects’ relative stature within the town. William Everett attracted lengthy copy. The editor described him as ‘a staunch Conservative of the old-fashioned type’. Mr Everett hunted all his life. At Bournemouth, he took an interest in the Herbert Convalescent Home. W. W. Moore became Deputy Lieutenant of the county and also sat on several local charities, including the Sanatorium. He became president of the local Unionist Association. Elwes, ‘a loss to Bournemouth’, appears to have continued much as earlier. ‘ … until quite recent years he was most regular in his attendance on the petty sessional Bench’. Outside the court, he took an interest in field societies and the local church. Thus, these wealthy and connected men, qualified as such to administer local justice, appear to have played wider roles within the town and its community.

Victorian Bournemouth (165): magistrates at work


Magistrates appeared to differ in their behaviour according to type of complaint. For drunkenness and road issues (misuse of transport methods, obstruction), they convicted almost all cases. Penalties consisted of fines. Such offensive behaviour threatened order for society in general. The role of the magistrate here tended towards encouraging more civilised behaviour. For cases of assault and theft, however, they exhibited different behaviour. These complaints concerned damage to individuals, either in person or through their property. These cases had lower rates of conviction, but a greater likelihood for the guilty to receive prison sentences or committal for trial. In the cases of begging, however, magistrates awarded prison with hard labour to all except one defendant. Analysis of case results according to each magistrate shows very little variation amongst individuals. Thus, they appeared to have interpreted the law and administered justice in a coherent and uniform manner.

Outlook and policy

English society saw privileged people, the gentry, as the unquestioned group having abilities needed to administer justice. Thus the obituaries praised those magistrates whom they could associate with the lifestyles of traditional gentry or with express support for Conservatism in practice and politics. Those chairing sessions most often fell into this category. The obituary of Sir William Heathcote has some interest in this respect. ‘The Heathcotes were exemplars of the maxim that times bring strange changes.’ Their country home, once used by Richard Cromwell, had become ‘the gathering ground of notabilities of all shades of thought’. Now it might host ‘an assembly typical of the catholicity of the friendships of the family’. Magistrates needed sound judgement to make firm decisions in defence of society. They had little room for shades of thought. Perhaps this may explain in part why Sir William Heathcote attended so many sessions, but chaired not one.


Victorian Bournemouth (165) has explored the magistrates who dispensed local justice at the resort during the 1880s. It has assessed how they combined, their judgements, as well as their social profiles and wider contributions made to the local community. It has found men of wealth, some large, for the most part having conservative outlooks, several of whom participated in local charity organisations. Their community engagement perhaps extended their commitment to maintain local order. Obituaries suggest that a few acquired notable local esteem, if not stature.


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