When Lewis Tregonwell, the founder of modern Bournemouth, came to town in 1810, there was an inn standing near what is now known as the Square but not much else.
Visitors at that time had to cross the Bourne Stream by walking across a plank, which was finally replaced by a brick-built bridge in 1849, during the town’s increasingly rapid expansion.
As the layout of roads took shape, the Scotch Church was built at the corner of Richmond Hill and Old Christchurch Road in 1872. It was later replaced by the Hotel Empress, now the NatWest bank. The 1860s and 1870s saw the building of the Wilts and Dorset Bank building nearby, later extended to two storeys as Hankinson’s estate agency.
Bournemouth continued to expand rapidly and in 1925, a tram shelter was built at the centre of the Square. The clock that stood on its roof was given to the town by Captain HB Norton, a magistrate and former councillor.
Trams were gradually replaced by trolleybuses and were withdrawn altogether in 1936, leaving the shelter derelict. It was demolished in 1947.
With the rise of the car, the Square became a circle, with a roundabout built in its centre and Captain Norton’s clock installed on the top of a distinctive new tower surrounded by flower beds.
Pedestrianisation had been suggested as early as 1943, but by 1963, Bournemouth council was considering a plan that would have roads dominating the Square.
The Echo reported that the Square would be developed on two levels, with pedestrians on the lower level and large roads above them. The borough engineer was reported as hoping “to be able to plan it in about three or four years’ time”.
All this time, the culvert carrying the Bourne Stream under the Square was subsiding, and as early as 1972, people were noticing that the clock tower seemed to be listing. Officials insisted it was an optical illusion, but when the trees and bushes around the tower were cleared in 1992, it was revealed that Bournemouth really did have its own leaning tower.
Another succession of ambitious plans for the Square were announced in the 1980s. In 1986, there were plans to create a “Crystal Palace bridge” across the Square, with hanging gardens and shopping arcades running from the old bus station in Exeter Road almost to the war memorial in the Central Gardens.
In 1987, a scheme was revealed that would take three acres of the gardens but put back five acres of terraced gardens above new shops.
Two years later, the Echo reported a plan which was “95 per cent certain” to go ahead.
It involved the pedestrianisation of the Square, with a 300,000sqft shopping precinct spreading from the Triangle along Avenue Road and the bottom of Commercial Road.
More wrangling followed before a new scheme for a pedestrian “piazza” scheme was unveiled in 1991. This involved closing Bourne Avenue at the Square and blocking off the junction with Richmond Hill.
When details were revealed that May, Joe Samworth, vice-president of the Landscape Institute, called it “one of the finest examples of a major, traffic-free civic space, created in this country since the Second World War”.
But the idea was controversial, and in September 1992, more than 50 yellow cabs joined residents and traders in a protest. It was claimed that the scheme would add £1.50 to a cab fare to Winton, while Braidley Road residents could lose £50,000 each from their property values if traffic were diverted away from the Square.
Work on pedestrianisation began that month, although a compromise had meant traffic could still pass along the edge of the Square along Bourne Avenue and Avenue Road.
On September 23, the Echo reported the outrage of passers-by as the trees on the roundabout were felled. Town centre councillor Lilian Rhodes said: “It’s a day of mourning for the centre of Bournemouth that we love. I stood there with tears in my eyes.”
The £277,000 pedestrianisation scheme was offered as an experiment. The landscaping work and paving could be lifted to reveal the highway underneath if the scheme was a flop.
But the impact on trade seemed to be good, with double-figure percentage rises in car park use. On November 30, the Christmas lights switch-on doubled as the official opening of the pedestrianised Square, with Neighbours star Stefan Dennis and EastEnders’ June Brown doing the honours.
That December, two thirds of traders said sales had increased since the pedestrianisation.
There were more changes ahead, and in May 1997 it was revealed that the clock tower was set for demolition as part of a £1.9m revamp which would include the addition of a cafe with a first floor camera obscura.
The scheme went ahead, with the Captain Norton’s clock installed on top of the cafe building, although the camera obscura has long been out of action. By the 21st century, the town’s churches had raised funds for the addition of an “eternal flame” in the Square, while new shopping and restaurant developments were being planned as developers brought new schemes to the town.
It was all a long way from that little plank over the stream.