Victorian Bournemouth (176)

Victorian Bournemouth (174): infant mortality (1)

Deadly suburbs


Victorian Bournemouth (174) explores parish records to understand how infant mortality blighted local society during that period. This article sets Bournemouth’s figures against a benchmark of Dorset towns and rural settlements. It acts as an introduction to deeper studies of specific parts of Bournemouth.

Victorian Bournemouth (174): background

National killer

High infant mortality existed throughout English society during nineteenth century. The rate varied by settlement type, region and temperature levels, but during the second half of the century, the IMR ran at around 150 deaths per thousand born. These deaths constituted a major and continuous demographic blight on society. Cholera and typhoid attacked everyone, but others had lethal effects only on children. Diarrhoea could kill in numbers, as did diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles. Studies have suggested three main factors that contributed to this killing. First, inadequate systems of water supply and management of human waste provided fertile breeding grounds for disease. Second, poor housing levels and ill-kept interiors created dangerous living environments. Third, parental ignorance could contribute towards early deaths of new children. The inability to afford medical treatment meant that children from poorer social groups might live their early lives at greater risk than others.

Benchmark statistics

As many immigrants to Bournemouth came over the county border from Dorset, the benchmark consists of data relating to settlements located there. The sample consisted of two towns – Melcombe Regis (pop. 8,000 in 1881) and Beaminster (2,000) – as well as several rural parishes. These had an average population of 500 during 1881. Data refers to different periods in the nineteenth century, but an overall pattern emerges. The analysis uses two statistics. One consists of the number of infant deaths per thousand baptisms. The other relates the mortality figures of infants to all burials recorded for a location. Thus, the former sets infant mortality within the context of life, the other of death. While the data encourages mathematical treatment, the vagaries of the original documents mean that analysis should concentrate on deriving overall patterns. Infant mortality occurred much more often in the first than second year of life.

Victorian Bournemouth (174): geographic details


The rural parishes contained in the sample lay in different parts of the county. They included smaller communities (Winterborne Zelston, Tolpuddle, Hinton Martell) and larger places (Fontmell Magna, Winfrith Newburgh, Sixpenny Handley). Higher rates of infant mortality appear to have occurred in more populous places. Only Tolpuddle went against this, a small place having a rate near the county urban level. This overall pattern, however, appears to match the national picture, where infant mortality occurred at the highest rates in cities. Nevertheless, the levels found for the smaller rural settlements varied from each other, but without a close correlation to population. This suggests that, whereas local climatic or hygienic factors might have come into play, parochial cultural practices may also have had a role. Wimborne St Giles had three times as many people as Winterborne Zelston, but its infants died three times less than in the latter.


In early years, one church, St Peter’s, served both the resort and its nascent suburbs. It provided life-stage services for two social groups. One consisted of the privileged people, both visitors and, later, those choosing Bournemouth as a suitable convalescent or social residence. Labouring people together with building artisans formed the other group. For the most part, such people constructed the built environment, housing people of all social types. In time, the population increased to the stage where St Peter’s could not support the volume of baptisms, marriages, and burials. New churches appeared, some located in the town centre, others located in the suburbs. Several of these churches serviced congregations which inhabited the new suburbs. These had a greater social homogeneity than the resort. Moordown, Springbourne, Boscombe, and Pokesdown served as housing estates for labouring people and building artisans. Analysis suggests that infant mortality caused heavy blight to these areas.

Victorian Bournemouth (174): analysis


In the Dorset towns used, children aged below two died at the rate of around 150-160 per thousand baptisms. These children accounted for about 250 of every 1000 burials. The Dorset villages studied suffered a lower rate of blight, although marked differences might separate the settlements. Here, infant mortality ran at around 125 per thousand baptisms and below 200 per thousand burials. Holdenhurst, the old village located between Bournemouth and Christchurch, appeared to suffer similar levels. Bournemouth suburbs consisted of scattered ancient settlements (Moordown, Pokesdown) or greenfield sites (Springbourne, Boscombe). The figures derived for these places followed the pattern of the Dorset towns for burials per thousand baptisms. Infant mortality here, however, ran at 400 per thousand burials. Thus, dead new children accounted for almost half of all burials recorded in these suburban areas. Death knells from these churches recorded significant attrition amongst infant contribution to the local societies.


This level of infant mortality suggests that the suburban societies, new established and growing fast, faced substantial problems with their infrastructure and community lifestyles. Press coverage from time-to-time highlighted bad conditions with drainage in Springbourne and Pokesdown. Neither area connected with Bournemouth’s drainage system until later. Cesspits and earth closets handled their human waste before. Analysis has suggested that much of Springbourne’s early society consisted of immigrant kinship groups living in proximity. Such groups would perhaps have featured above average social interaction. This could have acted as an accelerant for transmission of disease. Most of the families came from rural settlements, often in Dorset. Their living conditions in Bournemouth’s nascent suburbs, however, would have constituted a very different environment. The fathers of most baptised children consisted of unskilled workers or building artisans. Few would have surplus funds to afford medical support. These factors may explain the areas’ high levels of infant mortality.


Victorian Bournemouth (174) has introduced the subject of the area’s infant mortality recorded during the late nineteenth century. Benchmark figures collected for settlements – large and small, urban and rural – in Dorset suggest that new children came into risk here less often than in Bournemouth’s new suburbs. This level of attrition posed substantial challenges for these communities, growing at a very rapid rate during the last three decades of the nineteenth century.


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