Victorian Bournemouth (169)

Victorian Bournemouth (169): Q1 summary

A runaway town


Victorian Bournemouth (169) discusses and extends aspects of subjects covered in the last quarter’s articles. During the 1880s, Bournemouth, a runaway settlement, raced towards the successful achievement of incorporation, an increase in civic status authorised by the government. Bournemouth’s population grew larger, its footprint spread wider. As a result, its society and culture became deeper and more textured. The articles published this quarter have addressed aspects of this development.

Victorian Bournemouth (169): a kettle on the boil

Role and identity

Few greenfield settlements had accelerated their civic status at the speed with which Bournemouth grew from a colony aimed at convalescents to a corporation housing many social types. As if a computer game about urbanisation, Bournemouth went through levels of achievement: elementary civic government (Improvement Commission), national status (Sanatorium), essential hygiene (drainage system), economic peaks and troughs, regional imperialism, municipal charter. The town’s power-brokers appeared to retain a very clear gaze on the identity chosen for Bournemouth. They used print media, word-of-mouth, and personal networks to establish national stardom for the town. At all times, Bournemouth needed to have open gates, available beds, and attractive entertainment to sustain its objective of becoming and remaining one of the country’s main tourist destinations. Furthermore, during the 1880s a range of clubs and societies rewarded those who came to reside. They enhanced the town’s identity.

Demographic & social

The number of enumerators needed to count Bournemouth’s population in 1891 provides a measure of its growth. The town needed over thirty people to do this job. Three decades earlier, however, three or four sufficed. The population now sprawled across suburbs surrounding its earliest commercial development, the row of villas along the stream. Most people could see visible evidence of growth. Fewer, however, perhaps could sense its invisible counterpart: a social pyramid. This had grown in stature and complexity. Whereas, in the beginning, Bournemouth had consisted of privileged guests and working people, now commercial success had wrought social change. Thus, respectability and its flag-bearers, the middling people, many of humble origin, had emerged. Assured, confident, ambitious for further increase and recognition, such people constituted a social power block. They had the appetite to contest their dream against that sustained by gentle residents.

Victorian Bournemouth (169): privilege against respectability

Two dreams opposed

Once upon a time, a few fishermen occupied mean huts located on Bournemouth beach. Perhaps, they assisted the reputed smugglers to land their cargo. Few knew. In due time, it became part of Bournemouth’s creation myth. Development, however, opposed the myth with commercial reality. On the one hand, physicians had lobbied early investors to accept rus in urbe as their development format. On the other hand, commercial men saw this as wasted opportunity for profit. Thus, this contrast provided the basis for social strife. Gentry, wanting space between them and the rest, retreated to an enclave on the East Cliff. Furthermore, multiple property investments qualified them for success in local elections. They sought to lock their sylvan dream into temporal aspic. Middling people, however, wanted a bustling town, streets lined with rows of houses, respectability from constant increase. Thus, the two dreams illustrated Bournemouth’s social conflict evident in the 1880s.

Presumption of privilege

Thus, the race to incorporation represented another battle in an enduring class war. It opposed privilege and respectability. While the former, using concepts suited to feudal society – articulacy, courtesy, influence – sought deference, the latter refused it. Thus, nobody knuckled their foreheads. The Reverend J. R. Pretyman, hanging onto the coat-tails of privilege, made a presumptuous claim. He and two others comprised the only gentlemen sitting on the Improvement Commission. Furthermore, such foolish statements accompanied like action. For, believing that their breeding alone qualified them to interfere in the drainage works, the gentle Commissioners came up against professional engineers. They had little time for gentle dilettanti poking umbrellas into the drainage workings. Thus, expensive lawsuits fell upon the Commission, inducing fury amongst the respectable types. As a result, the latter, successful businessmen, adopted an organised campaign to win the town’s charter. Their shield-wall pushed Pretyman into lonely isolation.

Victorian Bournemouth (169): outrage, frustration, and violence

Morality plays

Articles about the local petty courts and magistrates illustrated another social war simmering within Bournemouth. Creation of such suburbs as Springbourne, Moordown, and the others enabled Bournemouth to maintain social distance between, on one hand, privilege and respectability, and, on the other, labouring people, the suburban residents. Investors could develop property without having to mingle with the men who built it. The country’s laws shielded privilege and respectability from the social infringements emanating from labouring life and life-styles. Press reports of court cases depicted an endless array of minor disorder: drunkenness; fighting, assaults, even riots; theft. Most of the defendants and many plaintiffs dwelt in the suburbs. Springbourne seemed to seethe with outrage, frustration, and physical, violence. Reporters delighted to reproduce sound-bites expressing such violence in the victims’ vernacular vocabulary. They cast the hardship of labouring life and its easy descent into disorder as morality plays for their respectable readers.

Cracks at St Peter’s

Articles about the disordered legacy left to his followers by Reverend A. M. Bennett after his death illustrated problems in the religious paradise he had constructed over thirty years. Bournemouth’s first vicar to stay the course, Bennett built an empire of the cross based on a vigorous prosecution of High-Church worship. Coming down from the Oxford of John Keble, Bennett grew St Peter’s, both church and parish, into a bulwark against Low-Church practices and the low life, lost in drunkenness and dissipation. An intense advocate of his beliefs, articulated by wide-spread participation in the community, civil and religious, Bennett achieved constant press attention. An unexpected decision by the patron, local proprietor Sir Gervis-Meyrick, to appoint a Low-Church man as Bennett’s successor caused the parishioners to express outrage, frustration, and social violence. They forced his first two candidates to resign. He folded his tent and gave them what they wanted.


Victorian Bournemouth (169) has assembled the first quarter’s articles to illustrate several forces that the town contained as it raced towards Incorporation. Forces set different parts of society against each other. Religious force sewed rebellion between members of the town’s leading parish and its patron. Bournemouth had reached a stage where it needed a more formal and established governing framework best suited to contain such social forces from retarding its civil trajectory.


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