Little Book of the Isle of Wight

Little Book of the Isle of Wight

by Jan Toms

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Did you know? A new species of cat-like dinosaur, yet to be named, was discovered on the Isle of Wight in 1988. Darwin began his world famous ‘On the Origin of the Species' while staying at the Kings Head Hotel. There are 21 tourists to every Island resident. The Little Book of the Isle of Wight is a funny, fact-packed compendium of the sort of frivolous, fantastic or simply strange information which no one will want to be without. The Island’s most eccentric inhabitants, blood-curdling murders and literally hundreds of facts combine to make this required reading for locals and visitors alike. Illustrated with humorous cartoons and delivered with wit and flair, this captivating compendium is almost impossible to put down.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750953962
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 04/26/2011
Series: Little Book Of
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 896,213
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jan Toms is descended from a long line Islanders. She has published 11 novels under the name of Janet Mary Tomson; her novels often set on the Isle of Wight. She writes regular historical features for the magazine Island Life and has produced more than 50 articles for the online magazine Suite 101.

Read an Excerpt

The Little Book of the Isle of Wight

By Jan Toms, Catherine Cox

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Jan Toms
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5396-2




According to William Camden, the seventeenth-century historian, the Island 'is not so well fortified by its rocks and castles as by its inhabitants who are naturally warlike and courageous.' On the plus side, General Jack Seely, a rich mine owner whose family settled in the nineteenth century, reported that true islanders 'despised strangers but in an emergency, would risk life and limb to help them.'

Who were these 'Islanders'?

By the time William the Conqueror arrived, they were already a mixture of hunter-gathering, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Jutish and Celtic Vikings with a dash of Nubian/Moorish blood thrown in. The Revd James White concluded that: 'the dark hair and brilliant eyes of the natives are derived from a Roman ancestry.'

The Island was probably the last place in Britain to be Christianised. J. Redding Ware was not impressed, writing that it 'was not a colossal achievement, for Caedwalla had put all the wretched islanders to the sword, with the exception of 300 families, who accepted the new faith as an exemption from death'. What would you have done?

The Domesday Book mentions eighty-four different places in the Isle of Wight, the names of the tenants reflecting their Saxon and Viking heritage. Looking for an unusual name for your son? How about: Alfsi, Alnoth, Ansketel, Bolla, Edric, Herbrand, Herpolf, Swarking, Thorald, Tovi, Wihtlac, Wulfsi. Technically they were now Norman but they carried on as before.

Here is a taste of 'Island speak': Wops – a wasp, Mallyshag – a pale green caterpillar of the large (cabbage) white butterfly, Emmet – an ant, Hoss stinger – a horse fly, Dumbledore – a large bumblebee, Galleybagger – a scarecrow, Knittles – a string used to tie up sacks – probably derived from the time when nettles were stripped and the stalks used as thread. Prate – the noise made by chickens, Chid – a young female sheep, also applied to young women, as in 'she's just a chid of a girl', Gimmer – an old ewe, probably one that was barren. The name was also used for widows, especially those housed in the workhouse, implying someone no longer of any use. A Gert Biggun – a great big one. Zummat – something, Wole – old, Bembridge weather – a rain shower when the sun is still shining, Scrouw – wet windy weather. Shrammed – chilled to the bone. A Luccomber – a squall coming around Dunnose point from the south. Nammet – a 'ploughman's lunch' taken by workmen into the fields along with ale to drink, currently applied to a coffee break – 'elevenses'. Nipper – from the seafaring habit of getting lads to nip up the rigging on ships; often applied humorously from one older man to another in memory of their lost youth. The Screws – vivid description of joint pain, probably arthritis. Queer – having two distinct meanings, neither relating to being strange or to sexual orientation. To feel queer is to feel unwell, while to be queer means to be annoyed about something.

A native Islander is an Isle of Wight Calf, the derivation too old to trace. They are also called Caulkheads, allegedly because of the Island preoccupation with the sea and caulking boats to make them waterproof. Some people call them Corkheads, implying that they are so empty headed that they float.

Island pronunciations of towns and villages: Isle of Wight – Oil o'Woight, Newport – Neppert, Ryde – Roide, Shorwell – Shorrel, Shalfleet – Shufflet, Swainston – Swanston, Whitwell – Whittle, Brighstone – Brighstone – It was known as Brixton but the Islanders won the day, Bowcombe – Buckham.

Some local surnames surviving from Domesday times: Ballard, Barrett, Brett, Buckett, Burt, Calloway, Caws, Cheverton, Dingley, Dore, Downer, Erlesman, Fallick, Harvey, Holbrooke, Jolliffe, Kent, Kingswell, Lacey, Lale, Mackett, Meulx (Mew), Rayner, Salter, Serle, Trickett, Tutton, Urry, Wavell, Woodnutt.

More local surnames surviving from at least Elizabethan times: Angell, Attrill, Barton, Baskett, Blow, Champion, Cheke, Colenutt, Cotton, Fleming, Frissell, Galpin, Gosden, Goter, Leigh, Merwood, Millmore, Newland, Pragnell, Rudge, Siggins, Sheath, Stallard, Trenchard, Wade, Westmore, Woodford – spellings were at best idiosyncratic.

Carving the Island up. The Island was once divided into two districts, the East and West Medine, the river Medina being the boundary.

The East Medine consisted of Brading, Wootton, Yaverland, Whippingham, Shanklin, Arreton, Bonchurch, St Helens, St Lawrence, Newchurch, Whitwell, Binstead and Niton.

West Medine was made up of Northwood, Brixton (Brighstone), Carisbrooke, Calbourne, St Nicholas, Mottistone, Gatcombe, Brook, Chale, Shalfleet, Kingston, Thorley, Shorwell, Yarmouth, Freshwater and Newport.


Yarmouth is the smallest town in the United Kingdom with a population of about 1,000, while the neighbouring village of Freshwater has a population five times as large.

Bembridge claims to be the biggest village in the UK, although its population is smaller than Freshwater. The Romans exported Bembridge limestone to the mainland to build Fishbourne Palace near Chichester.

The hamlet of Limerstone was the site of an ancient manor and chapel employing three priests. The heiress, Isabella, who married Sir Roger de Tichborne, was famed for her good works.

Niton was once known as Niton Regis, being part of the manor of King Edward the Confessor.

Rookley was in the eighteenth and nineteenth century the distribution point for smuggled goods. It is estimated that in 1840 alone, 100,000 casks of spirits were brought ashore around the coast.

Praise in 1794 that Newport was a 'well built, handsome town, the shops are numerous and, as superbly stocked as they are in most of the English cities.' Rather more snootily, the writer thought that: 'The little hamlet of Norton exhibits some rural cottages that have lately been erected, with more expense than taste.'

Borthwood is a corruption of Broadwood, for the type of trees long growing there. Island oaks furnished much of the navy, it taking upwards of 700 trees to build one warship.

In 1844, Samuel Landon, 'the biggest man in the world', was buried in the churchyard of the Holy Cross, Binstead.

Chillerton epitomises village life in Victorian times. The 1861 census reveals 191 inhabitants and only four were not born locally. Village occupations nearly all depended on agriculture. There were blacksmiths, shepherds, ploughboys, cowboys, carters, carpenters, with most listed simply as agricultural labourers. Sixty-five children attended the village school. There were two non-conformist chapels and a pub – the Foxhound, the landlord also working as a carpenter. The village now has few of those Victorian families' descendants, and even less of the occupations that once supported them.

Shanklin owed its early popularity to three factors – a sandy bay, the discovery of health-giving waters and the presence of the Chine. In 1903, a visitor enthused: 'What more beautiful spot in all the Island can you behold than Shanklin Chine? Artificial beauty? Oh no, the hand of the gardener or his spade never comes here: this is Nature, she plants and trims herself.'

He fell in love with the 'huge, magnificent chestnut tree' that overhung the Old Village – alas no more, and the 'beautiful swans disporting themselves' on the duck pond, also sadly absent although ducks are in abundance. Regrettably neither does one hear the 'loud tones of the town clock ring over the town every hour of the twenty-four'. Most public clocks have long since been silenced.

Following the discovery of Ventnor by the Victorians, John Betjeman observed that 'Little Osbornes' were built on every available piece of cliff, every ledge and cranny and each Little Osborne had its garden of palms, myrtles and hydrangeas and its glimpse of the sea.

According to the father-in-law of Samuel Wilbeforce (one of the three bishops after whom the pub at Brighstone is named), the village was 'notorious for villainy and loose living due to the influence of the barracks and smugglers.'

Time For a Cuppa?

The Edinburgh Wool Mill shop in Newport's High Street is the likely site of Smith's grocery shop. Here, Job Smith sold his brother-in-law John Horniman's first ever packaged tea.

Hard Cheese

The Island once had its own brand of cheese made with skimmed milk. It was so hard that it was known locally as Isle of Wight Rock. Having bought a consignment that he could not sell, a local grocer placed it outside his shop in the hope that locals would take it away. The following morning, two cheeses had gone. Leaving them out again, the next day he discovered that the stolen cheeses had been returned!

The Right to Vote

The Island is the biggest parliamentary constituency in the country. Between 1295 and 1584 however no one represented it in Parliament. Although they had a right to nominate someone, being an insular lot the Islanders preferred to avoid the expense.

When the first Queen Elizabeth's cousin, Sir George Carey, came to make the Island ready for Spanish invasion he negotiated that Yarmouth, Newport and Newtown should each send two men to Parliament, promptly nominating his brother as MP for Newport. At the time the Island population was under 9,000 and for nearly 300 years it continued to be represented by six men.

Island MPs have included the Duke of Marlborough and the Prime Ministers Canning, Melbourne, Palmerston and Wellington. It wasn't until 1885 that the Island was reduced to one MP.

Women over thirty were given the right to vote in 1918, when 17,535 Island girls swelled the electorate to 41,718. Twenty years later the local Liberals selected the first female candidate in Helen Simpson, an Australian novelist and wife of a Harley Street consultant. Tragically, she died early so any future advance to Parliament was halted.

Saving One's Bacon?

Before the 1949 General Election, the Labour Party held its conference at Shanklin Manor. About sixty members of the NEC arrived including Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan, Sir Stafford Cripps, Dr Edith Summerskill and a young Harold Wilson. A crisis arose when the organisers ran out of glasses but was averted when the Conservative Club magnanimously supplied them.

Not so simple was the discovery that in these days of rationing, the organisers had overrun their bacon ration by 2lbs. They were prosecuted, thus ending an historic visit. The Labour Party 'Bigwigs' have not been back since.

Happy Retirement?

On 1 January 1909, David Lloyd George introduced old age pensions. Ranging between 1/- and 5/- (5p and 25p) they were available only to those whose income was less than 12/- (60p) a week. 1,300 Islanders qualified.


Latin or Lager?

In 1855, Miss Lucy Strange of Shanklin advertised her services in running a boarding school and as a beer retailer.

Good Attendance?

Rookley School took the prize for 100 per cent attendance in 1906. This was achieved only at the last minute when one pupil physically carried his friend to school each day because he had a sprained ankle. He should have gone far, that boy!


The gayest time in Newport was to be had at the Whitsuntide Fair and on three successive Saturdays at Michaelmas, when agricultural servants received their wages and were re-engaged for the following year.

In 1826, a new factory arrived in Newport. Coming from Nottingham, the home of lace-making, Mr W.H. Nunn and his family moved to the island where he began to produce expensive French, blond lace, in a honey colour woven in fine silk. In 1833, Mr Nunn took out a patent for an improved machine and at its height the factory employed some 200 people. This useful employment ended in 1870 on Mr Nunn's death, when the factory closed. His heiress, Mary, turned the premises into a rest home for the elderly. The building is currently a local government office. Mary and her father are buried at St Paul's Church, Barton, close to the factory site.

When wigs were in fashion, Newport was the Island centre for the manufactory of starch and hair powder, 'which consumes a great quantity of flour, the duty of which alone amounts to £3,000.'

Saving for the Future?

A branch of the Isle of Wight Trustees Savings bank opened at Calbourne in 1834

What's in a Name?

In his book Egypt and the Isle of Wight, Rendel Harris concludes that the Island was colonised by Egyptians, this based on place names that could be construed as having an Egyptian origin. The following words back up his theory: Chine – the Egyptian word for cut is 'tcha' and the chines are cuts into the cliff. Yar as in the river and Yarmouth – the Egyptian word 'yor' means river. Medina, as in the river, is in his opinion self-evident Medina being the sacred Arabic city.

The Egyptians made use of woad and that too can be deduced from the names Woodhouse and Wootton, deriving from woad house and woad ton.

As if that isn't proof enough, what about apse as in Apse Heath and also apes as in Apesdown that is reminiscent of the Egyptian sacred bull – this does sound rather like a lot of sacred bull.

X Marks the Spot!

During the English Civil War, fearing attack by the parliamentary forces, royalist Eustace Mann buried his treasure in the grounds of his estate at Osborne. When the threat had passed he went to retrieve it but could not locate the spot. As far as is known, it was never recovered. The area is still known as Money Coppice.

In the wall of the thatched church at Freshwater Bay is a stone bearing the date 1622. In fact, the church was built on land donated by Lord Tennyson's son Hallam in 1910. The dated stone came from a demolished farmhouse in Hooke Hill, where Robert Hooke, the inventor and scientist was born in 1635. His father was the local curate.

The building on the corner of Holyrood Street and Crocker Street at Newport was once the Sun Inn and extending above Reads Livery Stables were the Assembly Rooms, a ballroom where local society dances took place. Here, young bloods in military uniform, wealthy farmers and young ladies guarded by chaperones cavorted all night. The club had a rule that all wagers and debts should be paid only in claret or Madeira. It lasted from 1760 to 1820.

Listed Buildings

The Island has nearly 2,000 listed buildings. Following English Heritage guidelines, they are divided into three sections – grades 1, II* and 2.

Grade 1, unsurprisingly, comprises the most important and there are twenty-six, of which twelve are churches. The churches are St George's, Arreton; St Mary's, Brading; St Mildred's, Whippingham; St Olave's, Gatcombe; All Saints, Godshill; All Saints, Newchurch; St Mary's, Carisbrooke; St Thomas's, Newport; St John the Baptist, Northwood; St John the Baptist, Yaverland; Church of St Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet and St Peter's in Shorwell.

The secular buildings are Osborne House at East Cowes, Appuldurcombe House at Wroxall, Carisbrooke Castle and Yarmouth Castle, all administered by English Heritage while the windmill at Bembridge is under the guardianship of the National Trust.

Of the others, the Roman Villa at Brading and the Roman Villa at Newport are open to the public.

Norris Castle in East Cowes, the Bailiff's House at Norris Castle Farm, Farringford House at Freshwater, Golden Hill Fort at Freshwater, the Roman Villa at St Mary's Vicarage Carisbrooke, Yaverland Manor at Sandown and Wolverton Manor at Shorwell are all privately owned.

There are fifty-six grade II* buildings, most on a par with the list above. They include Arreton Manor, Haseley Manor, Nunwell House, Northwood House, Newport Grammar School, God's Providence House at Newport (a restaurant), the George Inn at Newport and the Bugle in Yarmouth.

Also listed are tombstones, a mounting block (Hasely Manor), a telephone kiosk (Bembridge High Street), a drinking fountain (Bembridge), a hammerhead crane (Cowes), bridges at Beacon Alley Godshill and Newtown Creek, an animal pound at Brading, seven water hydrants at Whitwell and the railway station at Shanklin.


An all-Island Workhouse opened in about 1800 – the first in the country. It was erected where St Mary's Hospital now stands and until recently the original red-brick building was used as a geriatric ward. Men were separated from women, husbands from wives and children from parents.

Work involved knitting, labouring in the fields at harvest time, filling potholes in the roads and that old task, oakum picking – unravelling frayed, tarred rope so that the threads could be re-used. Diet included a preponderance of bread and potatoes with a few pieces of meat and veg thrown in.

Clothes were changed weekly and bed linen monthly. For the first few years there were not enough beds to go round and inmates had to share.


The worst to suffer were unmarried mothers, who were separately housed and had their names recorded in a Black Book. They wore coarse yellow gowns to distinguish them from the 'respectable' women.

In 1881, the workhouse contained 377 inmates ranging in age from three months to ninety-two years. Of these, 110 were children.


Excerpted from The Little Book of the Isle of Wight by Jan Toms, Catherine Cox. Copyright © 2013 Jan Toms. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 A Bit of Island History,
2 Shipwrecks, Smugglers, Pirates and Spies,
3 Posh People,
4 The Good, the Bad and the Dodgy,
5 (Extra)ordinary Folk,
That's Entertainment, 6,
7 All Creatures Great and Small,
8 Some Geography,
9 Health and Climate,
10 Military Matters,
11 Planes, Boats, Cars and Trains,
12 On this Day on the Isle of Wight,

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