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Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight Collection

History Archive - Isle of Wight Collection

WIGHT, ISLE OF, an island off the south coast of England, forming part of Hampshire, separated from the mainland by the Solent and Spithead. It is of diamond shape, measuring 22 1/2 m. from E. to W. and 13 1/2 from N. to S. (extremes). The area is 147 sq. m. The south coast is for the most part cliff-bound and grand, and there is much quietly beautiful scenery both inland and along the northern shores. Although east winds are at times prevalent in winter and spring, and summer heals may be excessive, the climate, especially in certain favoured spots, is mild and healthy. As a result numerous watering-places have grown up on the coasts.

A range of high chalk downs crosses the island from east to west, terminating seaward in the Culver cliffs and the cliffs near Freshwater respectively. It is breached eastward by the Yar stream flowing N.E., in the centre by the Medina, the principal stream in the island, flowing N., and by another Yar, flowing N., in the extreme west. These downs reach a height over 700 ft. west of the Medina, but east of it do not greatly exceed 400 ft. The slope northward is gradual.

The north-west and north-east coasts, overlooking the Solent and Spithead respectively, rise sharply, but hardly ever assume the cliff form; they are beautifully wooded, and broken by many picturesque estuaries, such as those of the western Yar and Newtown on the north-west, the Medina opening northward opposite Southampton Water, and Wootton Creek and the mouth of the eastern Yar on the north-east. The streams mentioned rise very near the south coast, the western Yar, indeed, so close to it that the high land west of the stream is nearly insulated.

A second range of downs in the extreme south, between St Catherine's Point and Dunnose, reaches the greatest elevation in the island, exceeding 800 ft. in St Catherine's Hill. Below these heights on the seaward side occurs the remarkable tract known as the Undercliff, a kind of terrace formed by the collapse of rocks overlying soft strata (sand and clay) which have been undermined. The upper cliffs shelter this terrace from the north winds; the climate is remarkably mild, and many delicate plants flourish luxuriantly.

This part of the island especially affords a winter resort for sufferers from pulmonary complaints. Along the south coast the action of small streams on the soft rocks has hollowed out steep gullies or ravines, known as chines. Many of these, though small, are of great beauty; the most famous are Shanklin and Blackgang chines. The western peninsula shows perhaps the finest development of sea-cliffs. Off the westernmost promontory rise three detached masses of chalk, about 100 ft. in height, known as the Needles, exposed to the full strength of the southwesterly gales driving up the Channel. During a storm in 1764 a fourth spire was undermined and fell.

Geology.—The geology of the island possesses many features of interest. Its form has been determined by the simple monoclonal fold which has thrown up the Chalk with a high northward dip, so that it now exists as a narrow ridge running from the Needles eastward to Culver Cliffs. Owing to a kink in the fold the ridge expands somewhat south of Carisbrooke. On the north side of the ridge the Chalk dips beneath the Tertiaries of the Hampshire Basin. Immediately north of the Chalk the Lower Eocene. Reading beds and London Clay form a narrow parallel strip, followed by a similar strip of Upper Eocene, Bracklesham and Bagshot beds. The remaining northern portion of the island is occupied by fluvio-marine Oligocene strata, including the Headon, Osborne, Bembridge and Hamstead beds. The various Tertiary formations are exhibited along the north coast, and may also be studied to great advantage in White Cliff and Alum Bay. In Alum Bay the vertical disposition of the strata is well shown, and the highly-coloured Bagshot sands and clays form a conspicuous feature. From the excellent coast sections many fossils may be obtained. South of the Chalk ridge that rock has been completely removed by denudation so as to expose the underlying Upper Greensand, which has slipped in many places over the underlying Gault (locally called “blue slipper”), forming picturesque landslips. The Lower Greensand formation may best be studied in the cliff section from Atherfield Point to Rocken End, and in the chines of Shanklin and Blackgang. Beneath the Greensand the Wealden is exposed in the section from Brook to Atherfield, and also, to a much less extent, in Sandown Bay. The Wealden strata have yielded abundant fossil remains of extinct reptiles (Iguanodon), especially in the neighbourhood of Brook and Cowleaze Chines; and at Brook Point an extensive fossil forest exists, being the remains of a great raft of timber floated down and deposited in estuarine mud at the mouth of a great river. At Brook also the characteristic Wealden mollusk, Unio valdensis, occurs abundantly.

Towns, &c.—Newport at the head of the Medina estuary is the chief town, Cowes at the mouth the chief port. The principal resorts of visitors are Cowes (the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron), Ryde on the north-east coast, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor on the south-east, Freshwater Gate on the south-west, and Yarmouth on the Solent. Others are Totland Bay near the mouth of the Solent, Gurflard near Cowes, and Seaview and Bembridge south of Ryde. The principal lines of communication with the mainland are between Cowes and Southampton, Ryde and Portsmouth, and Yarmouth and Lymington. Newport is the chief railway centre, lines running N. to Cowes, W. to Yarmouth and Freshwater, S. to Ventnor, with a branch to Sandown, and E. to Ryde. A direct line connects Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor, and has a branch to St Helen's and Bembridge. There are few industries in the island. The land is chiefly agricultural, a large proportion being devoted to sheep-grazing. Fishing is carried on to a considerable extent on the south coast—lobsters, crabs and prawns being plentiful. Oyster cultivation has been attempted in the Medina, in Brading Harbour and in the Newtown river. At Cowes shipbuilding is carried on, and timber is grown for the British navy in a part of the ancient forest of Parkhurst, between the Medina and the Solent. The general trade of the island centres at Newport, but in the coast towns the chief occupation of the inhabitants consists in providing for visitors. The island shares in the defences of the Solent, Spithcad and Portsmouth, there are batteries at Puckpool near Ryde, and on the eastern foreland, and along the west coast between the Needles and Yarmouth. Strong associations connect the Isle of Wight with the British royal family. Osborne House, near Cowes, was a residence and the scene of the death of Queen Victoria, and was presented to the nation by King Edward in 1902 (see Cowes). Princess Beatrice succeeded her husband Prince Henry of Battenberg as honorary governor of the island in 1896. The island is divided into two liberties, East and West Medina, excluding the boroughs of Newport and Ryde; and it forms one petty and special sessional division of the county. The urban districts are Cowes, East Cowes, St Helen's, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor. Until 1885 there was one member of parliament for the island and one for the borough of Newport; now, however, there is only one member for the whole island. Episcopally the island has for many centuries belonged to the see of Winchester. Pop. (1891) 78,672, (1901) 82,418.

History.—Among the most interesting relics of the Roman occupation of the Isle of Wight following its conquest by Vespasian in A.D. 43 are the villas at Brading and Carisbrooke, the cemetery at Newport, and remains of foundations at Combly Farm, Gurnet, and between Brixton and Calbourne. Of the settlement of the island by the Jutes no authentic details are preserved, but in 661 it was annexed by Wulfhere to Wessex and subsequently bestowed on his vassal, the king of Sussex. In 998 it was the headquarters of the Danes, who levied their supplies from the opposite coasts of Hampshire and Sussex.

From the 14th to the 16th century the island was continuously under fear of invasion by the French, who in 1377 burnt Yarmouth and Francheville (the latter being subsequently rebuilt and known as Newtown), and so devastated Newport that it lay uninhabited for two years. In 1419, on a French force landing in the island and demanding tribute in the name of King Richard and Queen Isabella, the islanders replied that the king was dead and the queen sent home to her parents without any such condition of tribute, “but if the Frenchmen's minde were to fight, they willed them to come up, and no man should let them for the space of five hours, to refresh themselves, but when that time was expired they should have battayle given to them”, a proposition prudently declined by the Frenchmen, who returned to their ships and sailed home again. A more formidable raid was attempted in 1545 when a French fleet of 150 large ships, 25 galleys, and 50 smaller vessels drew up off Brading Harbour, and in spite of the brave defence of the islanders wrought much serious destruction. Wolverton near Brading having lain a ruined site ever since. As a result of this, the last French invasion, an organized system of defence was planned for the island, and forts were constructed at Cowes, Sandown, Freshwater and Yarmouth. During the Civil War of the 17th century the island was almost unanimous in support of the parliament, and Carisbrooke Castle was the prison of Charles I. from 1647 to 1648, and in 1650 of his two children, the princess Elizabeth and the duke of Gloucester, the former dying there from the effects of a chill after only a few weeks of captivity.

The lordship of the island was granted by William the Conqueror to William Fitz Osbern, but escheated to the crown by the treason of Roger, son of William, and was bestowed by Henry I. on Baldwin de Redvers, whose descendant Isabella de Fortibus sold it to Edward I. in 1293 for 6000 marks. Henceforth the island was governed by wardens appointed by the crown, who in the reign of Henry VII. were styled captains, a title revived in 1889 in the person of Prince Henry of Battenberg. The ancient place of assembly for the freemen of the island was at Shide Bridge near Newport, and at Newport also was held the Knighten Court, in which cases of small debt and trespasses were judged by those who held a knight's fee or part of a knight's fee of Carisbrooke Castle. The feudal tenants held their lands for the service of escorting their lords into and out of the island, and of serving forty days at their own cost in defence of Carisbrooke Castle. In the Domesday Survey twenty-nine mills are mentioned, and salt-works at Boarhunt, Bowcombe, Watchingwell and Whitfield. The island quarries have been worked from remote times, that of Quarr supplying material for Winchester cathedral. Alum was collected at Parkhurst Forest in 1579. Alum and sand for glass-making were formerly obtained at Alum Bay. In 1295 the united boroughs of Yarmouth and Newport made an isolated return of two members to parliament. From 1584 the boroughs of Lymington, Newport, Newtown and Yarmouth returned two members each, until under the act of 1832 the two last were disfranchised. By the act of 1868, Lymington and Newport lost one member each, and by the act of 1885 were disfranchised.

Antiquities.—Early antiquities include British pit villages near Rowborough, Celtic tumuli on several of the chalk downs, and the so-called Long Stone at Mottiston, a lofty sandstone monolith. The Roman villa near Brading contains some beautiful and well-preserved examples of tessellated pavements. Carisbrooke Castle is a beautiful ruin built upon the site of an ancient British stronghold. There are slight remains of Quarr Abbey near Ryde, founded for Benedictines (afterwards Cistercians) by Baldwin de Redvers in the first half of the 12th century. The most noteworthy ancient churches are those of Bonchurch (Norman), Brading (transitional Norman and Early English), Shalfleet (Norman and Decorated), and Carisbrooke, of various styles.


See Victoria County History, Hampshire; Sir R. Worsley, The History of the Isle of Wight (London, 1781); Richard Warner, The History of the Isle of Wight (Southampton, 1795); B. B. Woodward, History of Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight (3 vols., London, 1861-1869); Percy Stone, Architectural History of the Isle of Wight (London, 1891).

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28 pg. 626.

Available Books


Image Name
Puckaster Cove
Head of Shanklin Chine
View near Freshwater Bay
Shanklin Chine [I]
St. Lawrence Church
Title Page
Freshwater Bay
Interior of Godshill Church
Wooton Bridge
Blackgang Chine [II]
Ventnor Cove
Alum Bay
Scratchell's Bay
Watcombe Bay
East Cowes Castle, the Seat of John Nash Esqr.
Niton Church
St. Boniface Down
The Priory, Seat of Edwd. Grose Smith Esqr.
Sandrock Hotel
Shanklin Chine [II]
Newport from the South
Bembridge, from St. Helens
Appuldurcombe Pk. Lord Yarborough's
Steephill, the Seat of John Hamborough, Esqr.
Carisbrook Castle
Freshwater Cave
Castle and Village of Carisbrook
St. Clare, the Seat of Lord Vernon
The Needles and Scratchell's Bay
Map of the Isle of Wight
The Needles from Scratchell's Bay
Brading, looking towards St. Helens
Town Hall, Newport
Blackgang Chine [I]
Cowes, from the East
Fernhill the Seat of Samuel Sanders Esq.
Arched Rock, Freshwater Bay
Norris Castle, the Seat of Lord George Seymour


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