Victorian Bournemouth (97): female demographics

Victorian Bournemouth (97): female demographics 1851-1871

Town women. Country women


Victorian Bournemouth (97) charts the demographic profiles of women living in the town and their rural counterparts 1851-1871. It highlights several social and economic factors which differentiated the two populations. The article concentrates on the adult (20+) female population of the Greater Westover area. This consisted of Bournemouth and the neighbouring rural settlements. In line with the national profile, the area had more females than males.

Victorian Bournemouth (97): social

Age and marital status

Over this period, Bournemouth’s share of the region’s females grew from a half to almost 90%, reflecting the sudden increase in the resort’s commercial success. Differences in age and marital status emerged. Married women, older, formed the most salient demographic feature amongst those living in the rural settlements. Only a tenth of women had become widows. Unmarried women consisted of spinster daughters or servants. In the town, however, spinsters constituted most of the entire female population. The large number of servants accounted for this, most unmarried. The servants also contributed to the lower average age of the urban females compared to the rural neighbourhood. The proportion of widows in Bournemouth matched that in the rural settlements. Thus, for age and marital status, the two areas had different profiles. Women in the villages tended to have husbands and performed the household’s menial tasks. In the town, unmarried servants took this role.

Social class

Demographers often derive this factor from an individual’s occupation. In Victorian England, however, few women had either paid employment or unearned incomes. Thus, determining social classifications for women during this period encounters difficulties. To an extent, their position echoed that of their husband. The rural settlements participated in an agricultural economy. This comprised employers – landed proprietors and substantial tenant farmers – and their work force. The latter accounted for the bulk of the population. Thus, most females in the villages belonged to the working people. Bournemouth’s economy, however, differed. The town’s commerce formed part of the leisure industry. Most people present consisted of affluent visitors and their support staffs. The town’s balance between employers and employees therefore tilted towards the former. Thus, a greater proportion of females belonged to affluent households than in the country. Hence class became an important demographic difference between Bournemouth and its rural neighbourhood.

Victorian Bournemouth (97): economic

Indirect income

This category refers to woman whose income, in notional terms, depended on their male relatives’ economic activity. This included wives, most adult spinster daughters, and others. The latter consisted of female kinfolk and friends, some visiting, some residing. A few, however, may have had a personal income. Two thirds of the rural adult female population fell into the category of family support. For the most part, as wives and mothers, these women performed economic tasks unrecognised by the enumerators. Other adult females formed a small part of this sector. Enumerators designated between 5% and 10% as paupers, that is, supported by the community through its poor relief system. In Bournemouth, the largest sector still consisted of family support, but the proportion fell to around 40% of all females. The town appeared to have no paupers. Other adult members in town accounted for a similar proportion to that in the country. 

Direct income

Some women, however, enjoyed direct income. This derived from their paid employment or from investments. The rural settlements contained very few of such women, about a quarter of their population. A few shopkeepers, teachers, and servants accounted for rural women who earned their own income. Few enjoyed the benefit of unearned income. A different structure occurred in town, where most women had direct income of either type. A larger number of women worked in retail, for example, shop owners or lodging-house keepers. The enormous servant population represented another type of women earning direct income. The town also had labourers, for example, laundresses and charwomen. About a tenth lived off investment revenue. This consisted of rents, dividends, and the unspecified income belonging to ‘annuitants’, of which Bournemouth had many in 1871. Thus, a greater proportion of the urban female population than their rural counterparts consisted of those living on direct income.

Victorian Bournemouth (97): roles

Servants and wives

The social contribution to a household subdivided into four main roles for adult females: head of household, wife, other adult females, servants. Only a very few servants had a kinship connection with other household members. For the most part, the servants’ relationship within the household consisted of a contractual obligation to obey the wishes of those in authority and their position within the workforce’s hierarchy. In a sense, therefore, they formed a parallel community within the household, subject to their group’s social rules and command structure. In the rural settlements, servants comprised the smallest group of adult females, accounting for around 7% of the total. Quite a different situation applied in Bournemouth. Here, servants accounted for about the same proportion of adult females as wives. Together they made up two thirds of the population. In the rural settlements, however, wives alone accounted for this proportion. 

Heads of household and other adult members

In both areas, the remainder of the adult female population did not differ. This consisted of heads of household and other adult members. Female heads of household did not occur often: around a tenth. Some consisted of widows, people in middle life, aged 40+. Other adult females comprised around a quarter of all such women present in a household. Three quarters of them remained unmarried. Of all the sectors, these had the most even age distribution. The group contained woman at different life stages and having different relationships to the heads of household. The younger women often consisted of adult spinster daughters. Older women here, if not widowed members of a previous generation, tended to consist of indirect kin. Sisters and sisters-in-law often featured in this group. In some instances, women in this group appeared to have ties not of kinship with the heads of household, but of friendship.


Victorian Bournemouth (97) has explored differences between the adult female populations of the resort and its surrounding villages. It has looked at these dimensions: demographic, economic, social. Overall, marked differences separated the two populations, one engaged with a settled rural economy and society, one part of an affluent, mobile society comprising a community based on leisure.


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