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Like most towns in the early 19th century, Torquay’s drinking water came from rivers or wells which was where much of the rubbish was dumped. There were no drains and toilets consisted of a pit or hole in the ground which was occasionally dug out when impossibly full. Torquay’s population grew rapidly in the 19th century. In 1801, the population was 838 and by 1871 it was 21657. This made problems with drinking water and lack of drains even worse.
Conditions for working people became particularly difficult and unhealthy as many lived in very cramped conditions, often twenty people to a house. Drinking water was contaminated by rubbish and sewage and the streets often smelt of human excrement. These conditions led to dreadful diseases such as cholera breaking out and many people dying. This gave a bad name to the high class resort of Torquay and so in 1867 ’The Board of Health’, the people who made the decisions in those days, started to improve the water supply, providing fresh water in pipes, from Dartmoor. New sewage pipes and tunnels were also created in 1867 making Torquay a far healthier place to live.
By the later 19th century, people bathed for the pleasure of it, not just for their health. But being healthy and active when you were on holiday was very important to visitors to Torquay in the 1890’s. Promenades and gardens were built where you could walk. Cycling was popular and there was tennis with the ladies playing in their long dresses and hats. In the bay you could sail or go for a row round the harbour. In the evening there were grand balls, or the band to listen to in the park. The Winter Gardens were designed to provide entertainment for the winter holidaymaker. The building could seat 1,000 and an Italian band gave concerts inside. There were also three tennis courts and a bowling alley. The Winter Gardens were built in 1889 and were made of metal and glass. More and more facilities were provided to satisfy the needs of Torquay’s wealthy visitors. But the Winter Gardens in Torquay were not very successful and the building was sold to Great Yarmouth in 1903.
Learning about the natural world around them was also popular as an activity for both residents and visitors. For a few local people, including a gentleman called William Pengelly, exploration of Kent’s Cavern was something very exciting in the world of science at the time. What they discovered together with many people collecting and studying plants, rocks, seaweed and birds’ eggs, amongst other things, led to the building of Torquay Museum.
’Health and Happiness’was the motto of Torquay by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901. The town’s population was now over 25,000 and people were now coming during the summer as well. Torquay was still more popular with people who were well off and liked it because it reminded them of Italy and especially the Bay of Naples. It became known as ’The Queen of English Watering Places’,’The English Riviera’. Torquay had well and truly arrived.
The Belle Vue Boarding House stood where the Pavilion is now and next door was the town's first public library, known as Sydenham's Reading Room. The Belle Vue offered accommodation for visitors who preferred the 'retired and quiet mode of life' and had the added attraction of a billiard table. The Bath Hotel quickly became the leading hotel in Bournemouth. Its guests included many rich and famous people as well as royalty. Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) stayed there for the first time in 1856.
In 1841 a famous doctor wrote a book that helped to turn Bournemouth from an isolated holiday village into Britain's leading health resort.
In the middle of the 19th century Bournemouth was an exclusive health resort and not a place for family holidays. The popular pinewood walk off Westover Road became called 'Invalids' Walk' (although later changed to Pine Walk). The town's attractions were advertised in 1842 to include a 'resident surgeon'! Many hotel guides described facilities for chronic invalids and quoted death rates for Bournemouth compared with other towns.
Bournemouth's reputation as a 'warm and sheltered locality' ideal for people with 'delicate constitutions' also led to it being chosen as the site for the world's first purpose-built sanatorium. The National Sanatorium for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest opened in 1855 next to the present Town Hall. The sanatorium was designed with all its wards facing south and its amenities at the back so that patients could enjoy the benefits of maximum sunlight. To start with the sanatorium was regarded in Bournemouth as something to be proud of. But its popularity rapidly declined once the infectious nature of consumption (also known as TB) became known in the 1880s.
Bathing and drinking sea-water was also thought to be very good for you. Many photographs of the beach in Victorian times show rows of bathing machines, small cabins on wheels which were pulled to the water's edge so that bathers could step straight into the sea. At first people did not swim for pleasure but plunged into the water and straight out again.
Bournemouth's first public baths, which also used salt water, opened in 1838 on the east side of the modern Pier Approach. The building was the first of three public baths on the same site. The second baths were built to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 andreplaced in 1937 by the Pier Approach Baths, demolished in the 1980s. The IMAX Cinema now stands on the site.
Bathing costumes in those days covered most of the body. Even so during Queen Victoria's reign men and women were not allowed to share the same part of the beach. This became a problem for the increasing numbers of families who started to visit the seaside for their holidays. At the end of the 19th century, mixed bathing was still banned at Bournemouth, both in the sea and public baths, but at long last attitudes were beginning to change. Paignton became the first seaside resort to permit mixed bathing once more.
One of the schemes designed to make Bournemouth an attractive place for visitors was the development of the Upper and Lower Gardens, or the Pleasure Gardens as they were originally known. In the 1840s a ten-acre area between Westover Road and the Bourne Stream was laid out with walks, shrubs and pine trees. Invalids' Walk was added in 1858 with the rest of the Lower Gardens being created between 1869 and 1873 on what until then was rough and often waterlogged grassland on either side of the Bourne Stream. At about the same time the Upper Gardens were created in meadows above The Square. (see also Winter Gardens)
The popularity of boat trips to and from nearby towns meant that that no self-respecting Victorian resort was complete without a pier where boats could dock. The first steamboat excursion from Bournemouth was about 1868 and regular steamboat trips began on the Heather Bell, owned by George Burt of Swanage.
There have been several piers at Bournemouth. The first was completed in 1855 and was known as The Jetty. It was only 6ft (2 metres) wide and 100ft (30 metres) long and included a portable platform which could be wheeled along rails supported by wooden piles sunk into the seabed. A much bigger pier, known as the Wooden Pier , opened in 1861 but was eventually wrecked by storms and replaced again by the first Iron Pier. This was opened in 1880 by the Lord Mayor of London. Other piers were later built at Boscombe and Southbourne. By this time, piers had become popular for people to walk along and enjoy the fresh air and views.
The opening of the direct railway link between Bournemouth and Southampton in 1884 was an important turning point in the town's history, allowing many more people to visit, not just those with horse-drawn carriages. The town was growing and joining up with the surrounding villages. In a little less than a hundred years the barren heath had finally turned into a holiday resort.