DID you know Boscombe once had three stately homes or that in the 1920s a curse was cast on a theatre which dared to open on Sundays?

These are among the historic titbits offered by retired businessman John Browne who, now a qualified tour guide, Boscombe resident and budding historian, is offering free tours of the town.

He said: “I’m delighted the public is giving its support to the regeneration campaign ‘Backing Boscombe’ and hope a better appreciation of the area’s history will encourage more community pride. “Boscombe has a rich history.”

Now the focus for regeneration spearheaded by Boscombe Area Regeneration Group and the partnership Bournemouth 2026, Boscombe is a far cry from its heyday in the late 1800s and 1900s. But you needn’t look far for a glimpse of days gone by – including spectacular Victorian and Art Deco buildings.

John added: “Although shop units mask Boscombe’s beauty and history at ground level; look up and you’ll see stunning architecture.

“Good examples include the Royal Arcade, the site of KFC, the Primark building and the Art Deco Motabitz building.”

In 1878 Boscombe’s first building – a coaching inn known as The Ragged Cat – was built to provide a resting place for those taking the long journey from Christchurch to Poole. It’s now the Palmerston Arms Hotel on Christchurch Road but the archway where horses and carts once entered still stands.

In 1884 people began to build houses and shops. Salisbury Hotel (where Greens Bar now stands) was built in 1886.

The area attracted the wealthiest in society.

The Royal Arcade was opened by the Duke of Connaught (Queen Victoria’s third son) in 1893 – look up and you’ll see boarded up windows which cover what were once homes for residents and shop-owners. Boscombe Hippodrome (now the O2 Academy) opened in 1900 as a theatre, music hall and entertainment complex.

But the decision to open on Sundays was greeted with disdain by the Lord’s Day Observance Society who, claiming the devil would be watching, erected a gargoyle devil on a building frontage directly opposite (which is still there today).

Other buildings once significant in the precinct include Primark (once the Savoy cinema), WH Smith (once the main library) and Sainsbury’s (once the town’s main Post Office).

Further up Christchurch Road the Wetherspoon pub Sir Percy Florence Shelley was once a 2,000 seat cinema called The Carlton.

The tour continues up Haviland Road with a look at the Julie Adams Stage School (once a Temperance Hall, where men would gather, free from the temptation of alcohol).

The street is also home to the town’s most significant lamppost – an aged and damaged light under which a meeting was held in 1899 to form Boscombe Football Club (now AFC Bournemouth).

Boscombe’s three stately homes included:

• Bournemouth Collegiate School in College Road – home to the Earl of Portman until 1923 when it became Wentworth School.

• Shelley Park – home to poet Sir Percy Florence Shelley (whose mother Mary Shelley was best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein).

• Burlington Mansions – formerly the Burlington Hotel was built by Sir Henry Drummond Wolff (an English diplomat and Conservative politician) in 1868 in Italian Renaissance style, with 200 bedrooms and gardens sweeping down to the sea. It was called Boscombe Towers. Wolff was the man behind Boscombe Chine Gardens and sought to develop Boscombe Spa as a resort to rival Bournemouth.

Boscombe’s Undercliff Road was built in the 1920s, connecting Bournemouth to Southbourne.

The pier, constructed at a cost of £3,813, was 180 metres long and opened in 1889.

John added: “In the 1930s one particularly eccentric vicar – Revd James Mackay of St George’s Methodist Church – used to row around the pier during the summer months preaching the gospel to holidaymakers in his booming voice. He had a captive audience.”

The pier was partly demolished during World War II to combat the threat of invasion.

It was refurbished in the 1960s and the building at the end evolved from the Mermaid theatre to a roller skating rink and latterly an amusement arcade before closing in 1989.

• To express an interest in attending future tours email John Browne at jpbrowne@hotmail.co.uk.

To give ideas for how you’d like to see Boscombe improved or to volunteer locally, please email bournemouth2026@bournemouth.gov.uk.