Victorian Bournemouth (53)

Victorian Bournemouth (53): A triptych of images

Barren heath. Fledgling resort. Queen of watering places.


Victorian Bournemouth (53) consists of a triptych of portraits showing its development as charted by press references between 1837 and 1870. These portraits captured the growing town’s image as people gathered it from the newspapers. The press portrayed a barren heath as the site of the town’s creation story. In the triptych’s final panel, less than forty years later, the town had graduated to Queen of the watering places. 

Victorian Bournemouth (53): Barren but bountiful

Barren heath

Charles Mate in 1910 recognised a human association at Bournemouth’s site stretching back into prehistorical times. He referred to barrows and bones scattered across the area. Victorian observers, however, preferred a different panel to the triptych. ‘Bournemouth never was anything until it sprang into being’. The site had consisted of a forest, long since incinerated, translated into peaty soil. ‘Bournemouth was a barren uncultivated heath, a place almost without a name.’ A trade directory (1849) thought the site had accommodated ‘a few poor fishermen’, although Mate denied this. They may have beached their catch there, but never built their homes. The importance of the barren heath myth perhaps lay in drawing the sharp contrast between its recent desolation and the rapidity with which a small town had risen, as if by magic. The contrast emphasised ideas of progress and quick efficiency that would have value during the nineteenth century.

All-year climate

Another part of Bournemouth’s creation story lay in its climatic benefits. An article appearing in 1860 praised the resort’s winter climate over that of other places. The article took a measured approach to the subject, combining temperatures and correspondents’ reports. A visiting invalid reported that he had managed to get out walking for 77 of the hundred days he stayed. The writer reproduced reports made by tourists who had visited Madeira, the south of France, and Egypt. In most cases, the angle lay in how Bournemouth’s winter weather outdid that reported in the far away, that is expensive to reach, places. Bournemouth’s advantage, the writer claimed, lay in a combination of factors. ‘The attraction to Bournemouth we steadily hold is due to its dryness of climate, its soil, and shelter from its fir woods’. These natural bounties, therefore, emerge as a benefit of the ‘barren heath’ part of the story.

Victorian Bournemouth (53): Long term trajectory

Not fade away

The second panel of the triptych concerns the trajectory Bournemouth could take in its development. A lengthy article, appearing in 1858, touched on this subject, by addressing the terrible concept of fashion. The resort had started life as a convalescent zone for affluent tourists. The article’s writer pondered about how such people often sampled but did not become repeat purchasers. He talked about ‘a tide of fashion in these things, and its ebb has left many places’. A town’s success and growth might detach it from its original appeal causing core purchasers to defect. The writer felt this would not affect Bournemouth, referring to its climate earlier than the above article. Bournemouth’s geography made its climate good all year. It pegged its appeal not just to a vague vogue, but to a specific, timeless health benefit. The resort would continue to attract. It would not fade away.

Class or mass

This part of the triptych includes the essential dilemma behind developing exclusive brands: to what extent should the mass taste class? On the Isle of Wight, Ventnor residents, considering improvement, talked about ‘an influx of commerce, pleasure-seekers, and invalids’ coming to Torquay and Bournemouth. Investors and developers saw no need for restriction: at Bournemouth building never stopped. As soon as a property’s last brick went into place, a leaseholder appeared who filled it without delay. By 1858, the developers eyed the sleepy, sylvan villas at Bourne Tregonwell. Improving this and providing an alternate route to the beach could double the town’s size. The portrayal includes a public disagreement with this policy. A feeling arose that some had delayed the railway’s arrival because they wanted Bournemouth to remain small and private. Such people, however, could not halt the tide any more than could Canute. Society believed in improvement, as did business. 

Victorian Bournemouth (53): Graduation


During a train trip to Portland in 1861, a passenger overheard a conversation about Bournemouth. He heard about the town’s pastors, the Sanatorium, and its fish-market. This reference introduces the third panel in the triptych: Bournemouth’s graduation to achieving a broader public presence. The place that Dr Granville had missed on his first trip to the area drew the attention of editors north and south. The town had therefore become a type of public media property. To ambitious outsiders, Bournemouth as a business project became a benchmark for other towns. A writer thought he saw an opportunity to develop West Lulworth along the lines of Bournemouth. He wrote about the ‘great addition made by a gentleman … by the commencement of the improvements at Bournemouth … its now very extensive occupation’. Bournemouth did indeed have an ‘attractive influence’ for media people as well as holiday tourists.

Queen of the watering places

Despite no railway line, a promotional press essay about the South-Western Railway referred to Bournemouth in 1862. The copy anointed the resort as ‘Bournemouth, the Queen of Southern Watering Places’, continuing thereafter to praise its features. The town delivered ‘gratification of no ordinary kind’: villas, walks, climate, and pier. Robert Kerley’s archery grounds pushed Bournemouth towards this title in Grantley Berkeley’s opinion. ‘Here in Bournemouth you have the blue sea close up to your elegant villas, and only wanted some such place as this to render Bournemouth the Queen of watering places.’ Reference to the barren heath had vanished from the picture. This triptych panel contained a very different view. It depicted many baths, pleasure boats, shady groves, magnificent gardens. ‘In fact, truly may it be said that Bournemouth is the ” Queen of watering places”.’

Victorian Bournemouth (53): Takeaway

During its first half-century, Bournemouth’s image underwent substantial changes in its press rendition and, as a result, how the public perceived it. Analysis of press references during this period suggests that three phases – a triptych – occurred in the development of its media image: barren heath, a town at a crossroads for its future trajectory, graduation to Queen of the watering places.


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