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Bournemouth’s ‘little dictator’

Peter Blake looks at the life and achievements of Joseph Cutler

 Gracing the wall of Joseph Terrace, outside Le Chic nightclub in Old Christchurch Road is this image of Joseph Cutler, described by rival developer Henry Joy as 'a good likeness, even capturing the crack in his head'.


Gracing the wall of Joseph Terrace, outside Le Chic nightclub in Old Christchurch Road is this image of Joseph Cutler, described by rival developer Henry Joy as ‘a good likeness, even capturing the crack in his head’.

Walking along Old Christchurch Road in Bournemouth, the observant pedestrian could well spot some elaborate tiled panels on the frontage of what is now ‘Le Chic’ nightclub. Prominently displayed in the middle of these panels is the portrait of a distinguished bearded gentleman, one Joseph Cutler, who, not content with naming the row of buildings Joseph’s Terrace, wanted to ensure that there was no doubt which Joseph was being alluded to.
Henry Joy, a rival builder and developer in Bournemouth at the time (see Dorset Life April 2015), remarked that the tiled portrait was a good likeness, even capturing the crack in his head! This detail sums up very nicely the career of Joseph Cutler: enterprising spirit and a devotion to public service, coupled with a knack for self-publicity which always elicited a reaction from his contemporaries.
Joseph was born in 1830, at the Horse and Groom pub in Bargates, Christchurch (most recently ‘Club Epic’, currently empty at the time of writing). In his autobiography, Joseph recalls seeing smuggled goods being hidden in the pub, and the premises being raided on numerous occasions by the Riding Officer and preventative men who were based in the town. His father, also called Joseph, was a fisherman and rabbit seller. A Joseph Cutler late of Christchurch, mariner and fishmonger, was declared bankrupt in the London Gazette in 1848.

Joseph Cutler in a formal portrait from 1868

Joseph Cutler in a formal portrait from 1868

Joseph left school something of an under-achiever stating: ‘I left [school] not having the alphabet or reaching three times three of the multiplication table.’ He joined his father in selling rabbits and oysters, the latter going for one shilling the hundred. He was then apprenticed to Mr Key, a plumber and glazier in Lymington, spent a year in London as an ‘improver’, then returned to Lymington, marrying Emma Hawkins in 1852. Seeing little opportunity for himself and his family in England, he resolved to go to Australia as the gold rush was developing there. However, he met with little success on the gold fields and returned to England, first to London and then to Bournemouth in 1865, following a breakdown in his health.

 1872 pier head. Cutler used timbers from the storm-damaged pier head to construct the modestly named Joseph Steps

1872 pier head. Cutler used timbers from the storm-damaged pier head to construct the modestly named Joseph Steps.

On arrival in Bournemouth, Joseph began working as foreman for H. Jenkins builder, but soon branched out on his own, building houses around the town. He clearly struggled in the early days. If the 1848 bankruptcy was indeed his father, Joseph followed in his footsteps by being declared bankrupt himself in 1869, when he was described as a builder and decorator. However, this setback was soon overcome, as he was back in business before long, building, amongst others, ‘Muriel’ at the corner of Upper Terrace Road and Exeter Road, a development which attracted a considerable amount of public comment, not all favourable. In around 1877 he was responsible for the completion of the aforementioned Joseph’s Terrace in Old Christchurch Road. 1883 saw him construct the zig-zag path on the West Cliff, using timbers salvaged from the pier following a great storm, this path subsequently being known as Joseph’s Steps. Rather conveniently, these steps led down to bathing machines owned by one Joseph Cutler.

A 1900 photo of Joseph's Steps, built from the timbers of the pier on page 47 and leading down to bathing machines owned by one Joseph Cutler

A 1900 photo of Joseph’s Steps, built from the timbers of the pier on page 47 and leading down to bathing machines owned by one Joseph Cutler

Storms were not always his friend, however. In September 1883, a severe gale damaged his bathing machines, causing losses to the tune of £500 to £600. A number of his friends rallied round to help him financially in his plight, ‘in the substantial form of pecuniary assistance, an expression of their feeling, as well as of their personal regard for him’.
As well as his commercial work, Joseph also played an important part in Bournemouth’s civic development. Back in 1866, he had proposed the formation of a fire brigade, and his eldest daughter recalled a trip to Merryweather and Sons in London to select Bournemouth’s first fire engine. Joseph was himself actively involved in the brigade as a volunteer firefighter for many years. He had also had a keen interest in firefighting while in Geelong, Australia, being involved in the formation of the fire brigade during his time there according to his daughter, although this could not be verified with Geelong City Fire Brigade.
Other activities in his busy life were as a sergeant in the 4th Hants Artillery Volunteers, and being elected in 1870 as first club captain of Westover and Bournemouth Rowing Club,  in which capacity he promoted the first Regatta the following year – the regatta still takes place in sight of Joseph’s Steps. His dedication to public service did not end there, as in 1881 he was elected to the Board of Commissioners – the forerunner of the Borough Council – and to mark the occasion, he presented sixty chestnut trees to the town, planted along Invalids Walk and around the tennis courts. He served until 1890, with one break, until the Board was dissolved. He then served as a Councillor from 1893 until 1896, and as an Alderman from 1896 until 1899.
In addition, he was a member of the Burial Board from 1872, overseeing the development of Wimborne Road Cemetery. One morning, on discovering that about fifty laurels had been planted there, contrary to what had been planned, he immediately ripped out these ‘ugly and poisonous plants’ and disposed of them. One lasting benefit of his time on the Burial Board was the avenue of monkey puzzle trees alternating with golden hollies leading to the Chapel, the majority of the trees still standing today.

 The avenue of araucaria araucana and golden hollies which Cutler, as a member of the Burial Board planted after he had ripped out fifty 'ugly and poisonous' laurel trees at Wimborne Road Cemetery

The avenue of araucaria araucana and golden hollies which Cutler, as a member of the Burial Board planted after he had ripped out fifty ‘ugly and poisonous’ laurel trees at Wimborne Road Cemetery

Unorthodox and controversial views were never far away from Joseph. He had a fairly atypical concern for the lot of the working classes, raising the wages for those who worked for him to above the average for the times, and proposing that the South Western Railway Company extend the reduction in cost for purchasing a return ticket between Bournemouth and Poole, initially only available to 1st and 2nd class passengers, to 3rd class passengers who were less able to pay. Such a reduction was later introduced.
Women’s rights were also dear to his heart, for example when he addressed a meeting on this topic at Bournemouth Town Hall in 1883 and asserted that women should have equal rights to men, for which he received vigorous applause. One unsuccessful campaign was the one he waged against the construction of the Undercliff Drive in 1885. His assertion that the scheme was ‘the most suicidal scheme that could be done’ as it would lead to the erosion of the beach, driving visitors away, fell on deaf ears, and the construction went ahead, with the first section being opened in 1907.
Joseph Cutler was not universally popular. His trenchant views on all manner of topics led to the local press refusing to publish many of his letters. Undaunted, he hired a boy to parade the unpublished letters around the town in a glass case, so that the citizens should not be denied the benefit of his opinions. In 1891 he published his autobiography, which he magnanimously presented to the Town Council for inclusion in a free library as a record of the early history of Bournemouth and his part in it. He was even described as a ‘little dictator…in the person of Mr. Cutler, a retired tradesman, who rules the parish roost with almost undisputed sway, but rules it well.’

Joseph Cutler's memorial stone is, compared with his life, rather unassuming

Joseph Cutler’s memorial stone is, compared with his life, rather unassuming

He was overlooked for election as an Alderman at one time because of, in his opinion, the fickleness of public favour and jealousy of some of his colleagues. But opinionated and argumentative as he was, Joseph was not without friends. They rallied round in time of hardship for him, and many recognised that characters such as his, with ‘his high spirit, uniform cheerfulness, and downright John Bull straightforwardness’ were essential to the development of the town, having the vision and energy to pursue projects which they deemed to be beneficial to the people of Bournemouth, regardless of misgivings those townsfolk might have. Joseph died in 1910 and is buried in Wimborne Road Cemetery.
So, if you find yourself in Old Christchurch Road in Bournemouth at any time, seek out Joseph’s Terrace and pause to look upon the likeness of Joseph Cutler located there. It is not every day you come face to face with one of the founders of
the town.

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