region has a number of seaside resorts, Bournemouth being the largest and best-known. One
early resort which flourished in the Georgian Regency era was Mudeford alias Sandhills, on
the edge of Christchurch. It was eclipsed when neighbouring Bournemouth came into fashion,
and is today almost forgotten. Nevertheless, some of its elegant buildings survive, and it
is well worth a visit for those with an interest in history.
The French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars ended the
English upper class fashion for the European Grand Tour and holidays at continental spas.
Instead, the new 'sea-bathing' resorts of Brighton, Lyme and Weymouth became fashionable
Regency-era "watering-places," growing within a generation into popular tourism destinations.
One resort however, despite meeting the basic requirements for a fashionable Georgian-Regency
resort, and enjoying patronage from the nation's elite, never grew to become a household
Perhaps it was due to its having such an unpromising name that the Christchurch district
of Mudeford together with neighbouring Highcliffe, in what was then southwest Hampshire never
grew to be another Brighton or Margate. "Muddyford," as it was previously, does not sound
as if it has much of a beach, which may have made it uninviting to the public who began to
frequent seaside resorts when the railway age arrived. And Highcliffe was not adopted as
a village name until 1892, the local hamlets being known before that as Chuton, Newtown,
and Slop Pond. On the other hand, names such as Mude or Muddiford had the advantage for the
fashionable set of discouraging strangers and keeping the resort exclusive, away from the
hoi polloi. In fact, the district's other name was Sandhills, after the large dunes stretching
along the shore.
Wars with France and other European countries over the Colonies, then the French Revolution
and subsequent 'Terror' of the 1790s, and finally the Napoleonic Wars combined to put an
end the English upper class fashion for the European cultural 'Grand Tour' and holidays at
continental spas, which offered mineral-rich water to drink and sometimes, mud-baths. In
England, inland spas, notably Bath, were long established on the Continental model of health
spas like Lourdes. George II's old Prime Minister, Pitt the Elder, for instance in 1768 retreated
to Bath suffering from the flying gout - the age's polite label for mental-health problems.
The new English sea-side resorts would come into popularity during the heyday of the up-and-coming
Prince Regent, in the years between the Storming Of The Bastille in 1789 and Waterloo in
1815, which ended the French threat.
From 1789 on, George III suffered from mental-health problems which could not be concealed,
and his re-appearance at Weymouth in the summer of 1789 to take the waters was a welcome
sight, for the situation in France prompted a fear the English monarchy could also collapse.
Watched by a puzzled and fascinated crowd, the King entered the sea from a bathing machine
for his royal dip while a band played God Save The King. It was the King's regular public
dips at Weymouth through the 1790s that helped popularise the new "spa" idea of salt-water
sea-bathing had curative properties. Next, Brighton was made fashionable by the Prince Of
Wales, who would become Prince Regent when the King was forced into retirement by his madness.
Even Southampton became a 'spa town.' Mudeford would also soon join the short-list of fashionable
new "watering-places” when it too received the necessary official hallmark of approval -
the Royal visit.
At this time, Mudeford, previously known as a smugglers' bolthole, had just begun to acquire
its first veneer of respectability after a former British Museum curator and retired director
of the Bank of England bought up much of the district and began to invite members of the
aristocracy down to stay. The house Gustavus Brander (1720-87) had built was in downtown
Christchurch itself (in the grounds of Christchurch Priory, in fact), but as a keen antiquarian
and naturalist, with a summer-house on Hengistbury, he would soon be showing various VIP
visitors around the area. And the selling off, by the Brander family, of High Cliff estate
to Pitt's retiring Prime Minister Lord Bute would lead to a new chapter in the growth of
On the neighbouring High Cliff estate along the clifftop a mile eastward, a second aristocratic
home stood, for a while anyway. Here until 1794 stood the stately home called 'High Cliff,'
built in a mediaevalist style to a Robert Adam design in 1773. It was the seaside residence
of George III's first Prime Minister the 3rd Earl of Bute, John Stuart (1713-92), who had
risen to power through his connections with the Royal family. The ex- Prime Minister had
retired here in 1770 after being brought down by a lengthy rabble-rousing press campaign.
Lord Bute was one of those aristocrats prevented by hostilities with France from continuing
to enjoy European 'grand tours' to look at art treasures. As well as being an art enthusiast,
he was also a keen botanist (a co-founder of Kew Gardens), and in 1779 he had paid the most
famous landscape designer of the time, Capability Brown, to lay out a parkland on the High
Cliff estate. The house itself was built on the clifftop "to command the finest outlook
In fact it proved too close to the crumbling clifftop, and in the 1790s it had to be demolished
stone by stone. Most of the estate was sold off following Bute's death, after being injured
in a fall trying to pick wildflowers on the clifftop. In the meantime, the only house on
the estate was a modest dwelling called Bure Homage. The 4th Earl of Bute, Lord Stuart de
Rothesay, grew up there while contemplating his grand scheme to rebuild the family home lost
to the sea. A diplomat serving in France, he bought back the rest of the estate in 1807 and
began to build a magnificent house which he would furnish with stained glass windows from
Rouen and other French art treasures 'rescued' from the aftermath of the French Revolution.
This —the present, now-restored Highcliffe Castle— would not be completed until 1835, the
eve of the Victorian era, but it would become the area's most fashionable house throughout
the Victorian and subsequent Edwardian ages.
Before the Castle was complete, another set of 'royalty' came to the Highcliff estate. During
the era of 'The Terror' as they fled the guillotine, French aristocrats such as the Duc de
Bourbon had settled in exile in southern England from 1789 on, until Napoleon's fall made
possible the Royalist émigrés' return. A generation later, in 1830, revolution again broke
out in France, and the new King, Charles X, fled to Poole. Louis-Philippe, the Duc d'Orleans,
was elected 'King of the French' by the new regime. He also became protector of the "Queen
Of Chantilly" Baronne de Feucheres, alias Sophie Dawes, the Wight-born daughter of a local
smuggler, who had reinvented herself as a femme fatale. She had escaped the poorhouse
permanently in her teens while working as a servant in a Piccadilly brothel, where (it was
said) she was won by the exiled Duc de Bourbon in a card game. She gave up her Nell Gwynn
style London career as an actress and orange-seller, and taught herself French to make her
way in the world as a courtesan. After a ménage a trois with the Duc and her husband
the Baron de Feucheres was exposed, she was strongly suspected of faking the suicide of the
aged Duc, by then a Prince, in order to obtain title to the vast Chantilly estate.
Though she was never tried, she became persona non grata with her former protector
King Louis-Philippe. Ironically, both would end their lives in England. With the 1848 uprisings,
the onetime “King Of The French” would flee here (disguised as a “Mr Smith”) and often stayed
in the area, at Highcliffe Castle or with Gustavus Brander at Christchurch's Priory House,
while the former "Queen Of Chantilly” bought Bure Homage in the 1830s. The still-wealthy
social adventuress ordered it rebuilt in the style of a French villa, but died soon after.
It was in the 1790s that the key residents in the story of Mudeford's rise to fashion appeared.
In 1790 George Rose (1744-1818) became a Member of Parliament for Christchurch. Rose first
served in the Navy, where he was twice wounded in action, but left when promotion failed
to materialise, and became a civil servant instead. After buying Cuffnells Park (later a
hotel, since demolished) in the New Forest near Lyndhurst, he became an MP for Lymington
in 1788. Rose was by now such a close friend and supporter of the new Prime Minister, William
Pitt the Younger, he was known as "Pitt's Rose." (Pitt, who became Prime Minister at age
24 after his father's retirement, himself had Dorset family roots.) Christchurch had two
Members of Parliament, and from 1796 Christchurch's other MP was George Rose's younger son,
William Stewart Rose (1775-1843). Rose's main family residence was in the New Forest at Cuffnells,
where he wrote books on finance and policy, and from where he even tried to run his cabinet
post of Treasurer Of The Navy.
He also entertained both Pitt and the King there. George III, an acquaintance since 1784
(the year Pitt swept to power), visited him at Cuffnells in 1789 on his first visit to Weymouth,
and again in 1801, when he stayed for four days at Cuffnells the week both Rose and Pitt
announced their retirements, and again in 1803. Pitt would return to office in 1804 for two
final, killing years to engineer the political alliance needed to combat Napoleon, staying
at Cuffnells for a last time the year of Trafalgar, 1805, Rose himself dining with Nelson
just before he sailed.
Villas At Mudeford
In order to have a seaside residence for himself and his family to indulge the new fashion
for sea-bathing, Rose around 1785 also built a house just east of Mudeford Quay, named Sandhills,
behind the large sand dunes which then stood there. The two Christchurch MPs used their seaside
properties as summer residences. Sandhills House was occupied by George Rose's eldest son,
Sir George Henry Rose, who was elevated to the diplomatic service through his father's influence
with Pitt (Sir George named his son George Pitt Rose). With George Snr at Cuffnells, and
George Henry at Sandhills House, the younger son William Stewart Rose from 1796 lived during
the summer in a row of seaside cottages completed in 1796 on the Sandhills estate, just east
of the main house. This house, and in fact the entire row of white-washed seafront houses
(which still survive), would be named "Gundimore," after which Gundimore Promenade between
Mudeford Quay and Avon Beach is now named.
And The Literati
The house's famous talking point was a room designed to look like a Persian tent, this feature
being the outcome of WS Rose's interests as an amateur poet and translator. The Romantic
Poets of the time often used exotic Eastern references (as with Coleridge's Xanadu), and
dressing a room in Arabian Nights style and giving the house a Kiplingesque exotic name such
as "Gundimore" (the heroine in a poem he translated) would be in keeping with this literary
fashion. One can compare the Brighton Pavilion, built for the Prince Regent in the style
of an Oriental pavilion-tent with minarets and cupolas, and sometimes described, after a
phrase from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," as a Royal "pleasure dome." (It had a secret tunnel
so he could receive his mistress - actually his secret Catholic wife.) Several of the surviving
Gundimore row of houses today have low, round domed-roof rooms or extensions.
The Romantic poets also had a penchant for Mediterranean Romance-language works as well as
Mid-Eastern exoticism, and the word villa seems to creep naturally into descriptions of these
seaside houses. Pevsner's Buildings Of England notes a Mediterranean feature in
the original Sandhills House: it was built up with exotic features in the form of a 2-storey
Tuscan-colonnade verandah. Rose was himself translator of such exotic Romance-language European
works as Orlando Furioso, Amadis, and Ariosto, of which a future
Poet Laureate and visitor, Robert Southey, composed his own version.
Southey was just one of a series of writers to be invited down to Gundimore. While George
Rose invited national leaders such as Pitt, Nelson and the King, William Stewart Rose preferred
writers, and to Gundimore came distinguished literati of the day. Having writers
on hand had been a feature of court life since the Renaissance established the idea of the
patron, and even for the aristocrat not interested in the arts it was what we would now call
a status display. The Prince set the example, and it became part of English Regency life,
adopted officially via the still-current Poet Laureate scheme. Future Poet Laureate Robert
Southey not only visited Gundimore, but took a pair of cottages at Burton a mile inland to
use as a country retreat, 1797-1800. Sir Walter Scott was a Gundimore visitor, while working
on his poetry ('Marmion') and later on his first historical novel (Waverley). Southey's
brother-in-law, the decadent Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, visited Gundimore later
on, in 1816, when William Stewart Rose had returned (with an Italian wife) from his two years
of living abroad. Coleridge grandly planned a poem about the house, but (as with "Kubla Khan")
never finished it - he was, as usual, recuperating from various ailments. Instead, Rose wrote
a poem of his own, commemorating these, and other, visits by Coleridge and Scott, called
When Southey later became Poet Laureate, his mandatory memorial poem for his late patron
George III was ridiculed by Byron and others, who felt Southey might just as well depict
the King entering Heaven in a bathing machine. While George III's favourite seaside resort
had been Weymouth, he did visit Sandhills en route at George Rose's bidding. Rose had him
stop over at Cufffnells on his first journey to Weymouth, on 29 June 1789, and some sources
say he also stopped at Sandhills. He also visited Sandhills on 3 July 1801, but better known
is his 1803 official visit. In 1803 Rose arranged an official Royal 'inspection' style visit
to Mudeford, complete with military parade, on another stopover by the royal yacht en route
to Weymouth. The Christchurch Artillery fired a 3-volley salute echoed by another on Wight
opposite, while detachments of the Scots Greys and the local Volunteers stood lined up on
the beach. So that the King should not get his feet wet as he re-embarked on the royal barge,
the pier-less resort's three new bathing machines were laid end to end in the shallows. Sir
Arthur Mee adds in his The King's England guidebook series, "After that Mudeford brightened
and increased the number of its bathing machines" (apparently from three to seven).
"...A picturesque little story which will, no doubt, ever be told of Mudeford," commented
the Bournemouth Times & Directory.
Despite these claims, that was the end of George's public patronage. The Prince Regent seems
not to have visited either: generally, he tended to steer clear of anywhere his disapproving
father might be found. The Prince had privately married the Catholic widow of the owner of
Lulworth Castle, but in 1795 he had to put aside his secret Catholic wife and remarry to
help pay off his debts. This arranged marriage was disastrously unhappy for both parties.
His new Princess Of Wales, Caroline Of Brunswick, did stay at Sandhills in 1796 before she
moved back to the Continent. The King's brother, HRH Duke of Cumberland, also stayed with
Rose on New Year's Eve 1803 to inspect, and thank for their service, the Christchurch Volunteers
who had lined up for his brother, although in the event rain cancelled the official parade.
However after he became King, the former Regent did visit Gundimore and Mudeford, in the
An early Cooke's guidebook of circa 1835 refers to this visit: "the admired spot, the
favourite summer residence of numerous families of distinction ... Muddiford, a beautiful
village on the sea-shore, possessing every convenience for a watering-place, having good
bathing machines, and a fine sandy beach. His late Majesty, George IV, honoured this spot
with a visit, and his admiration of its scenery. The air here is salubrious.... These qualities
were appreciated and emphatically remarked on by his Majesty George III, who with the royal
family honoured Mr Rose with a visit at Sandhills."
“Marine Village Of Mudiford”
Mudeford was classed as a “marine village,” a term which seems to have evolved for such small
new, purpose-built seaside resorts. It sounds discreet and exclusive, with a small-is-beautiful
implication in the word village. But inevitably, as seaside resort holidays became more common,
there were expectations that Mudeford-Sandhills would grow. An 1820s guide notes what we
would now call an attempt at rebranding with a name change, from Mudiford to 'the more appropriate
name of Summerford.' (The adjacent modern district of Somerford is named after the medieval
Manor of that name.)
A guidebook to Bournemouth and Mudeford of circa 1840 refers to a plan to build up to 90
residences as summer lodgings for 'families of respectability' on the Highcliffe estate,
and comments, 'Nature has done much - art and capital, judiciously applied, will make
Mudeford the first watering-place on the coast.” Another meaning of 'watering-place'
was that traditional spas had healing wells or waters. Where Bournemouth had to import French
mineral water, there was even a local well (Tutton's Well) nearby at Stanpit on the Harbour's
edge, said to have curative properties.
New buildings appeared. The old smugglers' inn on the Quay, Haven House (in 1784, the year
Pitt had come to power, the Navy had actually bombarded it in a bloody pitched battle) was
converted to respectability. It became "a sea-bathing lodging house for fine company
who came down from London for sea air," said Marchioness Louisa de Rothesay, who in
1845 took over Highcliffe Castle. An artist admired by Ruskin, Louisa was also the pioneer
of a colony of artists drawn to the area's picturesque views. The adjoining estate, at Chewton
Bunny, long notorious as a smuggler's rendezvous, became the home of a naval veteran turned
children's novelist, Captain Marryat, where he wrote Children Of The New Forest.
(He also did the original sketch of nude women bathers, bathing machines, and lurking voyeur,
which the artist Cruikshank turned into an illustration that became the forerunner of the
humorous seaside postcard -'Hydromania.')
The Castle would continue to host aristocratic guests through the Victorian and Edwardian
Eras, including members of the English Royal family. There would come Gladstone and the future
Edward VII (whose mistress Lily Langtry would retire to Bournemouth). Both the Prince and
Princess of Wales in fact would visit by yacht, sailing direct from Osborne. The Royal Yacht
would also bring their Continental cousins, relatives of the crowned heads of Europe. To
Highcliffe Castle came the now-exiled Louis Philippe, and Queen Victoria's grandson King
Wilhelm II, alias the Kaiser. However any plan to make Mudeford “the first watering-place
on the coast” would come to nothing.
Of An Era
The eclipse of Mudeford as the local resort was already well underway. In 1810 one of its
summer residents had ventured over the heath to the west as Southey had done in 1800. But
where Southey had complained he saw only "desolation," Lewis Tregonwell saw something else
at Bourne Chine, the possibility of "an unreclaimed solitude" away from now-busy
Mudeford. There, at the mouth of the Bourne, he bought land and built a mansion in the so-called
"Strawberry Hill" style of Horace Walpole's country house of that name in Sussex, which a
neighbour of Rose's at Cuffnells had adopted for what Pevsner calls the best “Gothick” house
in Hampshire, Foxlease.
Tregonwell's manor house (now the Royal Exeter Hotel) became Bournemouth's first respectable
residence. As a former High Sheriff of Dorset, based originally in Cranborne Chase and a
guest and hunting companion of the Prince Regent there, he was respectable enough to attract
wealthy visitors, and soon Mudeford had a rival exclusive resort, the "Marine Village of
Bourne," with a cluster of cottages and guest chalets towards the sea.
The Georgian-Regency Era ended with Victoria's accession in 1838. Part of the failure of
Mudeford to develop could be attributed in part to its lack of royal favour during this lengthy
era. (Significantly, Bournemouth's premier hotel, the Royal Bath, opened the same day.) The
young Princess Victoria had stayed at Highcliffe Castle with her family, one of her Ladies-in-waiting
was Louisa de Rothesay's sister Charlotte, and her son Prince Edward visited several times
bringing VIPs from Osborne on the royal yacht, but the Queen herself never visited Highcliffe-Mudeford.
[See sidebar, “Victoria's Seaside Days”]
In the subsequent Victorian age of railway-driven mass tourism, the court set, including
the young Queen Victoria and family, would flee the commuters and day-trippers on the mainland,
retiring to Osborne across the Bay from Mudeford, and Wight likewise became a favoured retreat
with the next generation's cultured set - Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Macauley, Swinburne, Turgenev,
and the new Poet Laureate, Tennyson, after whom Tennyson Down across the bay was named. The
Prince Regent's favourite watering hole, Brighton, became the premier seaside resort town,
and even William Stewart Rose retired here, dying there in 1843. It had the advantage of
being within commuting distance of London. In 1823, the journalist Cobbett noted it was home
to London "stock-jobbers" who commuted daily by stagecoach.
Nor did it develop as a health spa. While Bournemouth's Mont Dore Hotel (now the Town Hall)
imported French mineral water, and neighbouring Boscombe exploited a clifftop mineral spring
to reinvent itself as Boscombe Spa, the local healing well on Christchurch Harbour was never
exploited. Locally, it was Bournemouth that would become the popular resort of the general
public, soon expanding to meet up with Boscombe Spa and another upstart rival, Southbourne-On-Sea,
on the other side of Hengistbury Head.
With no spa waters, no ornamental gardens, and most importantly no pier for the steamers
carrying day-trippers to land at, Mudeford and Highcliffe-On-Sea were bypassed, saved from
the holiday-tripper and related development. Its attractions remained old-fashioned, one
local writer complaining that in speech and manners it was fifty years behind fashionable
Lymington. "Fashion has not made it a watering-place," added another, "it possesses
none of the recommendations of modern dissipation." Even Highcliffe Castle fell on hard
times and was sold. Gordon Selfridge, of Selfridge's stores fame, took it over in the 1920s.
Not content with this 'fairy palace by the sea,' he planned to build a private castle
of his own the size of St Paul's on Hengistbury Head. But his personal fortunes fell, and
the Head was saved from privatization and development for the time being. Highcliffe Castle
was sold and re-sold, set on fire, left derelict, vandalised and looted of its magnificent
Thus, Mudeford never became a household name like Lyme, Weymouth, Swanage, Bournemouth, or
Margate. And although its aristocratic Georgian-Regency heyday is now all but forgotten,
this is not a tale of rise and fall, but is in its own quiet way a success story. As another
19th-Century guidebook put it, “The present inhabitants … possibly are not sorry that
Mudeford did not develop into a second Margate.” It was an example of a remarked-on
phenomena among seaside resorts, of an exclusive resort next to a 'mass-market' one, remaining
content with being old-fashioned or behind the times - in the local motto, a place 'where
time stands still.'
Today, despite all the day-trippers and their quarter of a million dogs to the adjacent ancient-monument
site of Hengistbury Head, Mudeford retains much of its exclusive character. The bathing machines
which the wealthy could hire for privacy have been supplanted, on the adjacent sandspit,
by a line of beach huts which often feature in the national press for the record prices they
bring in when sold. Originally owned long-term by local families who passed their huts on
from generation to generation as family heirlooms, these are now increasingly bought up by
wealthy non-residents, with the old-timers and local families being squeezed out again as
the resort moves back upmarket. On the mainland side, the established residents of Mudeford
village refer to the hut owners, however wealthy they are, as "sheddies."
Highcliffe Castle was restored to its former magnificence in the 1990s by the Council as
a public amenity, while the one surviving fragment of Lord Bute's original 1773 High Cliff
house, the gatehouse lodges, became an upmarket hotel and restaurant. Nearby, novelist Captain
Marryat's former family home would become the area's other five-star hotel, the Chewton Glen.
Muddiford House, once home to retired army officers, became the harbour-front's largest hotel,
The Avonmouth, now Christchurch Harbour Hotel & Spa.
In their 1937 retrospective piece about George IV's visit, the local newspaper, the Bournemouth
Times & Directory, noted with surprise that the obscure term "Mudeford Beach" was
used in the national press without reference to Christchurch or Bournemouth to indicate its
location. This policy is long-standing, and continues today. Hengistbury Head, for example,
is not promoted as a tourism attraction. Neither is Mudeford, even in free publicity - as
when it made a TV appearance, in Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island 1999 ITV
series. In it, Bryson, a former Bournemouth Echo reporter and now an English Heritage
commissioner, interviews Victoria Wood, holidaying with her family in a Mudeford Sandbank
beach hut, about English attitudes to seaside holidays. However to discourage anyone who
saw the programme wanting to visit, the location was not identified. Even in this media-dominated
age, some standards of discretion are still maintained. ***