Bournemouth – A Victorian Town

by Albert Preston

Before the early nineteenth century, the area of barren heathland between the towns of Christchurch and Poole was nothing more than an occasional base of operations for fisherman and smugglers on the South Coast. Over the course of the century this sparsely populated area developed into one of the country’s leading coastal resorts. The Victorian period saw Bournemouth’s population boom in size, due to its reputation as a health resort coupled with the arrival of the railway in the latter half of the century. The historian Simon Gunn states that population growth was most rapid ‘in the seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Bournemouth’.[1] Population growth led to significant changes in Bournemouth’s infrastructure, with many examples of Victorian architecture still visible in the town today. Being a town born out of the Victorian era, many of the institutions and ideas associated with the Victorians are easily identifiable within Bournemouth such as the class system, population growth, the railway and architecture.

Invalid's Walk

Invalid’s Walk circa 1890

With the continued industrialisation of the country, many Victorian holidaymakers sought to escape from the soot and polluted air of the cities and travel to coastal areas for clean air and the health benefits that came with it. In 1841 the mayor of Bournemouth, Sir George William Tapps-Gervis, invited the physician and writer Augustus Granville to visit the fledgling resort. This led to Granville including a chapter on Bournemouth in his book The Spas of England. This endorsement by Granville saw a significant increase of tourists visiting the area, enticed by quality of its pine scented air and medicinally beneficial sea water. Alan Delgado comments on the attraction of the seaside to Victorians and states ‘the deplorable conditions under which most of them lived made it essential that they should escape for a time from the smoke and grit that fouled the air they breathed’.[2] One attraction that was developed for health conscious Victorian tourists which survives to this day was the ‘Invalids’ Walk’, a path stretching from the town centre to the pier approach that was bordered with pine trees, which attracted many day trippers who suffered from chronic respiratory issues such as tuberculosis.

One development that saw Bournemouth, and many other coastal resorts, experience rapid change was the introduction of the railway system. When the railway arrived in 1870, Bournemouth was able to attract significantly more holidaymakers from London as well as from further afield, such as Birmingham and Nottingham. While this influx of tourists and permanent residents had a positive effect on the economy and infrastructure of the town it was not without its problems. Loutish tourists, labelled by locals as ‘Day-trippers’, posed a problem to public order in the town, as they were often drunk and disorderly. This became such an issue that ‘A ban on Sunday trains at Bournemouth was not lifted until 1914’.[3]

In Victorian history, the notion of class is always present and Bournemouth is no exception. In his essay The ‘Social Tone’ of Victorian Seaside Resorts of the North West, H.J. Perkin notes that ‘the class consciousness of the Victorians… was nowhere more evident than in their pleasure resorts,’ and he highlighted the contrasts between resorts stating ‘the social tone could be gauged in many ways: in the prices charged by the hotels and boarding houses (higher in Southport than Blackpool, higher in Brighton and Bournemouth than either)’.[4] While many of the seaside resorts of the North such as Blackpool attracted the working class from cities like Manchester and Preston, the same cannot be said for Bournemouth. With no major centres of industry in close proximity, Bournemouth relied on its reputation of being an area of great natural beauty and as a health resort to attract visitors from further afield. While many of the Victorian visitors to Bournemouth were working class, Bournemouth attracted a more upmarket clientele than its Northern counterparts, ranging from middle class artisans from London and Birmingham to prominent members of the aristocracy including Winston Churchill, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Empress of Austria.

The influence the Victorians had on Bournemouth is displayed most prominently in its architecture. From the mid-1860s to the end of the century, development and building increased rapidly. Boscombe, a suburb of Bournemouth where I lived for most of my life, is home to many notable pieces of Victorian architecture. Such examples include the Royal Arcade, a classic Victorian shopping arcade, and Shelley Manor, which was originally the home of the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.


Bournemouth and the Railways

During the Victorian Period the arrival of the railway to isolated coastal resorts heralded the beginning of major development, with many towns that had been on the periphery of society being propelled into the consciousness of those within the connected, industrial core of Victorian Britain. Mary Davenport states in Bygone Bournemouth that ‘Change was not welcomed, however. There was much opposition to the advent of the railway age’.[1] This opposition to the railway led to a public meeting, in which the vote went against the opponents and the development of the railway began. While railways were a symbol of change and progress, they also embodied popular resentments toward the continued promotion of an industrialised and uniform world, the altering of a long established social structure, and of course, their tendency to mow down anything that opposed them, be it public opposition, family land, natural  or national history. As well as the physical destruction of the environment that came with railway construction, there were the major social changes and upheaval that came with it. Those resorts that missed out on the arrival of the railway suffered to the benefit of those that were connected. Before the arrival of the railway in Bournemouth, there were several small resorts competing resorts that shared the same stretch of coast, such as Boscombe Spa and Southbourne-on-Sea. With the population boom experienced by Bournemouth in the years after the first trains arrived, both of these resorts were quickly engulfed and became suburbs of Bournemouth. Such social development was typical for many other coastal resorts of the period, resulting in the loss of identity and small communities being assimilated into larger towns.

[1] Michael J. Turner ‘Political Leadership and Political Parties 1846-1900’ in Chris Williams (ed), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Blackwell 2007), p.241.
[2] Alan Delgado, ‘Victorian Entertainment (David and Charles 1971), p.82
[3] Janice Anderson and Edmund Swinglehurst, The Victorian and Edwardian Seaside
(Country Life Books), p.94
[4] H.J. Perkin, The Social Tone of Victorian Seaside Resorts in the North West, Northern History, p.180
[1] Mary Davenport, Bygone Bournemouth, (Chichester 1988), p.2

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