Town hall’s century of civic pride

As Bournemouth prepares to join its civic neighbours Christchurch and Poole in the BCP unitary council, what part its largely Victorian town hall will play in the new era is yet to be decided. 

Michael Stead and Keith Lomas at Bournemouth Town Hall

A century ago the former Mont Dore Hotel was bought to house Bournemouth’s municipal apparatus and the irony that its future is even now being debated within its walls is not lost on former chief executive and town clerk Keith Lomas, who served at the helm of the council from 1972 until his retirement in 1992.

Standing in the wood-panelled Council Chamber that has remained largely unchanged since it was built in 1932 he reflects on the discussions that have warmed its walls.

‘There was the building of the new Winter Gardens in the 1930s, Bournemouth’s plans for the War, the great debates over the BIC in the 1970s and 1980s, the IMAX of course, and the Winter Gardens, right up to the amalgamation with Christchurch and Poole that is on-going,’ he says.

‘The thing with Bournemouth Council is there was never much political opposition, but that hasn’t stopped the members falling out among themselves of course.’

Once part of the sprawling Branksome Estate the land around the town hall was developed from 1852 onwards and the site was initially home to The Glen, which by the 1870s was being run as a boarding house. In 1881 permission was granted to develop a large hotel, which at the suggestion of Dr Alfred Meadow JP, one of the town’s first doctors, was to bring the Mont Dore cure – a hot spa treatment from France for breathing conditions and nervous and rheumatic paralysis – to Bournemouth.

King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, whose Queen Sophia took an interest in medical treatments, laid the foundation stone on 26 May 1881 and the Mont Dore Hotel opened in 1885 at a cost of £85,000. Standing in three acres of grounds it had 122 bedrooms and a host of features including Turkish baths, a vapororium and inhalation hall where pine vapour was taken, and a gargle room – all quite properly divided into ladies’ and gentlemen’s sections – as well as a covered lawn and tennis court, a winter garden and concert hall. Its hot and cold salt baths used water pumped from the sea for the benefit of its clientele of wealthy consumptives.

Requisitioned by the War Office on 20 November 1914 for soldiers of the Indian Army Corps wounded in France, it became a British military hospital a year later and from July 1916 also admitted ANZAC troops. The following year it was a convalescent home for officers and remained so until it closed in the summer of 1919. 

The Council Chamber has remained largely untouched since it was built in 1932

At that point Bournemouth Corporation resolved to buy the building for £33,000 to house its town hall and civic offices, replacing previous ones in Yelverton Road. When the building was reopened in 1921 it had undergone a £47,000 refurbishment. Outside the tennis court had been replaced by the new Braidley Road, built over a stream that drained down from Meyrick Park (originally Marsbarrow Valley) and into the Bourne Stream. A new bridge had also been built to carry St Stephen’s Road over the new road.

Although much has changed since Mayor Charles Henry Cartwright opened the new town hall the building’s illustrious past is still in evidence. 

‘I’m told this magnificent foyer was originally a covered throughway for horse and carriages,’ offers Keith Lomas. ‘The ladies and gentlemen would disembark and enter the hotel through doors on the left or right.’

The entrance to the left leads to the Mayoral Suite past the town’s 1910 centenary banners and a pre-Revolutionary Russian flag presented on 31 July 1917 in gratitude for Bournemouth’s support of the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd. The Mayor’s Parlour is the former ladies’ drawing room and the Mont Dore’s dining room was divided into a Hall of Remembrance for the town’s war dead and the Mayoress’s Parlour. The hall is now a kitchen. 

‘Of course one of the features of the Town Hall having previously been a luxurious hotel is that it has several ornate public rooms on the lower floors and some really quite shabby office spaces the higher you go,’ says Keith. ‘What we used to call the maid’s quarters in the roof are particularly dingy.’

They are, however, still in use as storage spaces and the doors still bear number plaques probably from the building’s time as a hospital.

‘Some of them were also made into flats for a while,’ says historian Michael Stead from Bournemouth Library. ‘The macebearer had a flat in the roof, as did the facilities manager and, for a short spell, my Uncle Fred. It was his first job of the day to climb up through the roof of the tower to the flagpole and raise the flag each morning. I went up there once, it was terrifying.’

The Mayor’s Parlour is lined with portraits including the town’s founding father Lewis Tregonwell and various first citizens, most obviously a vast canvas depicting Sir Merton and Lady Russell Cotes. It’s said Lady Russell Cotes was so offended the artist had the temerity to show an opened envelope lying on the floor by her husband’s foot she refused to accept the painting.

‘For years Bournemouth used to pride itself on having extremely low rates,’ says Keith. ‘It had high rateable values, but the council was known to be averse to raising the rate. There was one occasion after World War 2 that a significant increase was discussed and it was said the portrait of Mayor Cartwright, who was long gone by then, fell off the wall during the night in shock.’

For many years Bournemouth Town Hall did not have an actual town hall and council meetings took place in the hotel’s former palm lounge above the Turkish baths until it was decided in 1932 that a new West Wing should be built to incorporate the Council Chamber that is still in use today.

Outside is an old mayoral chair that prompts Michael to share some ghost stories.

The former hotel’s main staircase remains intact as does the town crest window installed in 1921 when the building was reopened as the town hall

‘A headless maharajah has been seen sitting in this chair,’ he whispers. ‘The chair was made from Indian teak repurposed from a coffin. In the basement an Indian soldier has been seen washing his head bandage in a sink that is a feature of our ghost tours. A World War 1 nurse has been spotted and one of the ghosts is thought to be Gerald Hoare, who was wounded in action and died here in 1918. He was only nineteen, the nephew of Bournemouth MP Brigadier General Henry Page Croft.’

The hotel’s main staircase is impressively intact as are four ornately decorated circular cast glazed blue Doulton columns on the first floor and a set of slightly less well preserved plaster versions in green on the attic floor above. A stained glass window dates from 1921 and depicts the town’s crest almost as a stamp of civic ownership.

Perhaps unlike any other building in Bournemouth the Town Hall is marked throughout by episodes from its civic history. The HMS Phoebe Room commemorates the money raised locally towards the cost of building the M-class destroyer of that name in 1916. Subsequent ships bearing the name maintained a close link with the town and when the last of the line passed by in 1991 after being decommissioned Keith Lomas was among those who gathered on the Pier to bid her farewell.

‘A few tears were shed that day, it was incredibly sad,’ he recalls.

He’s far happier that he never had to make official use of the bunker built in the basement in the event of a nuclear war. Today it serves the town more prosaically – as the council’s photocopying room – although the blast-proof steel and concrete door remains.

‘We had to have emergency plans and had the unthinkable happened it would have been my duty to kiss my wife and family goodbye and come down here with whatever members could be gathered and run Bournemouth until the all clear was given.’

Keith Lomas and Michael Stead (back to camera) with your humble reporter in the town hall’s former bunker now used as the printroom

Surplus to requirements at the end of the Cold War, the bunker’s metal-framed bunk beds served as shelving for photocopy paper that had previously been stored in the old Turkish baths.

‘One woman was quite upset when she found out that when it was a hospital the baths had been used as the mortuary because of course they were the ideal shape to hold the bodies,’ says Michael.

The last vestiges of the Turkish baths disappeared along with the fondly remembered Grand Hall in 1991 when a new extension was built.

‘That hall was used for everything – from dinner dances and discos to rock bands, political speeches, the election counts were always in there, the Sinfonietta and Chorus used to rehearse there,’ remembers Keith. 

‘That reminds me of the time Bournemouth hosted a Rotary conference and the main speaker was the Archbishop of Canterbury. To reach all the delegates he had to give a speech to 1500 in the Winter Gardens, then to another 1500 in the Pavilion then to a final 800 in the Grand Hall. We used the example of the Archbishop trailing around the town as one of the factors in favour of building the BIC so Bournemouth could accommodate major conferences or risk being left behind.’

And so it was, in perhaps one of the Lord’s more mysterious moves, that the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion played a part in the building of Bournemouth International Centre.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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