The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The beginnings of Bournemouth

Bournemouth celebrates its 200th birthday this year. John Walker looks back to the town’s early years.

Lewis Tregonwell, who has come to be regarded as the founder of Bournemouth

In 1810, what is now central Bournemouth was little more than desolate heathland leading down to a wide bay and rugged shoreline. There are known to have been one or two isolated buildings, with local activity limited to fishing and smuggling. The area itself was then within the parish of Holdenhurst. Those parts of today’s Bournemouth that existed were limited to the small villages and hamlets, such as Holdenhurst, Kinson and Muscliffe (now Muscliff), that had for centuries been settlements along the River Stour.

From 1796 the authorities faced two threats from a seaward direction in this area of Hampshire and Dorset (Bournemouth and Christchurch were part of Hampshire until the local government re-organisation of 1974). One was from the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, who planned to invade Britain and knew the best places to land his forces. The second was the growing problem of smugglers evading the excise men at Poole by landing their illicit cargoes on the shores of Poole Bay and using the natural cover of the chines to move their bounty north by night and hide it by day whenever there was a risk of discovery.

To counter the Napoleonic threat in particular, an Act of Parliament gave permission for local landowners to raise a force of Dorset Volunteer Rangers to patrol the local coastline. Over five hundred volunteers were enrolled in ten troops under the command of the Earl of Dorchester. The Cranborne troop, under Captain Lewis Tregonwell, was instrumental in patrolling the part of the coast that was to become Bournemouth.

The Tregonwell family’s summer residence, the first building in Bournemouth, is now incorporated into the Royal Exeter Hotel

In 1801, awards were made under the General Inclosure Acts, which enabled land to be divided, enclosed, titled and purchased. These awards identified the major landowners of the future Bournemouth: principally, the Earl of Malmesbury, Sir George Tapps (the family later took the names Gervis, then Meyrick), and William Dean, the founder of the Cooper Dean dynasty. Another very fortunate development, one fought hard for by local leader William West, a Muscliffe farmer, was that despite the General Inclosure Acts, certain areas of common land were placed in trust for the benefit of local people. An eventual result from West’s representations is our enjoyment today of Kings, Meyrick and Queens Parks.

Our story now moves forward to 14 July 1810, possibly the first time that Lewis Tregonwell introduced his rich wife, Henrietta (born Portman), to the country where he had led patrols. They rode over from Mudeford, where they were enjoying the newly fashionable pastime of sea-bathing. It is believed that Henrietta immediately fell in love with the area and said what an excellent place it would make for a summer holiday location for the enjoyment of themselves and their friends. Following up his wife’s suggestion, Lewis then paid Sir George Tapps, the owner of the land, £179 and 11 shillings (£179.55 in today’s money) for 8½ acres west of the Bourne stream – land then considered to be nothing but worthless heathland.

Bournemouth first started to attract visitors because of its supposed health-giving properties. Although prams are more in evidence than bath-chairs in this 1900 picture of what is now Pine Walk, it was originally called Invalids Walk. It was re-named in 1917 when the town was trying to attract a more general tourist trade.

The Tregonwells’ main summer residence, known locally as the Mansion, was occupied by them from 24 April 1812. It now forms the central part of the Royal Exeter Hotel in Exeter Road, both so named in recognition of the Marchioness of Exeter, an early tenant of the mansion. The year in which this land purchase was completed, 25 September 1810, has been accepted as Bournemouth’s start date and the town’s centenary was celebrated in great style in 1910.

From 1812 to 1836 the Tregonwell family (Lewis himself died in 1832) and their aristocratic Dorset friends continued to enjoy their summers at the Bourne Tregonwell estate, now extended over a larger area with holiday villas and staff cottages but with no competing development. Eventually in 1836, Sir George Gervis, the son of Sir George Tapps and the new Lord of the Manor, who owned a great deal of land to the east of the Bourne Stream, began to take notice. He then employed Benjamin Ferrey, a brilliant young Christchurch architect, to design a marine resort in Bourne Mouth (the one-word name Bournemouth dates from 1840) that he hoped would in time rival Weymouth and Brighton. The only parts of Ferrey’s ‘Plan for the new Marine Village of Bourne’ to be implemented were sixteen Westover Villas built between 1837 and 1841 on the east side of what is now Westover Road, the original 1838 Bath Hotel, and a boarding house. The original fabric of the hotel can still be identified above and alongside the main entrance of today’s Royal Bath Hotel.

From its early beginnings as wild heathland within the parish of Holdenhurst, enough progress was made over the period of 1810 to 1856 for Bournemouth to be designated a small town by the Bournemouth Improvement Act of 1856. This empowered a Board of Commissioners to control a circle of one-mile radius, with its central point the front door of the former Belle Vue Hotel (about where Pier Approach is today). Thirteen commissioners – the Lord of the Manor, his representative and eleven elected local businessman and landowners – then governed Bournemouth for the next 34 years. We are indebted to these men for their decision to keep anything considered unsightly or undesirable – such as the original railway station, the cemetery, the gasworks, working class housing etc – outside the one-mile radius over which they had absolute control. By the time the commissioners handed over control in 1890 and the town became a municipal borough, some surrounding districts had been acquired and the town’s population exceeded 17,000.

Bournemouth was regarded as one of the more genteel resorts, as the elegant figures in this photo of the Gardens in about 1900 suggest

An extremely significant event occurred in 1841 when Dr Augustus B Granville, the leading authority on spas of England, was invited to stay in the new Marine Village of the Bourne and give his opinion on it. Following his visit, he stressed the medical importance of the various uses of seawater and the benefit given by the aroma from Bournemouth’s pine trees for chest complaint sufferers. He concluded that, with its mild year-round climate, the resort had the potential to become ‘the very first invalid sea-watering place in England’.

Granville’s views were later echoed by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, and other eminent medical authorities, with the result that Bournemouth became mainly an invalid rather than a holiday resort, with very much a bath-chair image. This led to the opening of many health establishments, including the 1855 (later Royal) National Sanatorium, an early specialist chest hospital, and hotels specialising in seawater treatments including the Mont Dore Hotel (now part of Bournemouth Town Hall) which was built between 1881 and 1885. A path in the Lower Gardens on the bath-chair route to the sea from these establishments was named Invalids Walk.

Bournemouth eventually threw off its reputation as a haven for invalids; a symbol of this was the re-naming of Invalids Walk as Pine Walk in 1917. The town became first a leading winter resort and then a thriving summer holiday destination. From 1840 it had been in range of rail passengers alighting at Holmsley in the New Forest, but it was not until Bournemouth East station opened in 1870 that there was a direct route from London. Bournemouth West station followed in 1877, producing a massive increase in visitors on both day and weekend trips and on family holidays. They could enjoy sea bathing from lovely beaches, walks along the cliffs and through the gardens, pleasure boat trips, West End standard entertainment and top-class sports events and facilities. Apart from the war years, Bournemouth continued to be the focus for this enjoyment until the advent of cheap flights and holidays abroad in the 1970s.

Sea bathing and playing on the beach were popular from the start of the development of the tourist trade. However, in the early years (this is about 1905), bathing machines were still in use to preserve their users’ modesty.

For an appropriate closing quotation, who better to turn to than Cumberland Clark, the town’s magnificently bad poet of the 1920s and 1930s, who included these words in his epic poem ‘Beautiful Bournemouth’:

The climate mild the best is styled

For those who’re seeking health.

The tonic air they meet with there

Is better far than wealth.

So, if you’re feeling rather down,

Just take a trip to Bournemouth town,

And come back looking well and brown.

[This is a short extract from Bournemouth 1810-2010: A Celebration of 200 Years by John Walker, available for £5 post free from the author at 48 Hinton Wood, 17 Grove Road, Bournemouth BH1 3EA]


1 Peter Booton, by kind permission of Mrs Julia Smith

2 Bournemouth Library

3 Author’s collection

4 Author’s collection

5 Author’s collection