Archive for the ‘History’ Category
A few photos from a misty morning on Flat Holm Island. The ruins were formerly an isolation hospital. Built in the 1880s, it saw heavy use and even expansion in the 1890s after a cholera outbreak in Hamburg meant that numerous ships from Germany and their crews required offshore quarantine. Other quarantined patients included a bubonic plague victim who is buried on the island.
The hospital was closed in 1935 and is now a listed building. It’s currently in a pretty poor state of repair and is closed to the public for safety reasons…you certainly wouldn’t want to do anything silly like wander inside with a camera…
The grainy wobbly mobile phone pic above shows a fairly well known Neolithic site, which I passed several times whilst running around Salisbury Plain today. I entered the Stonehenge Stomp as a training run for something slightly bigger I have lined up for next weekend. It turned out to be pretty challenging in its own right however, as the recent snow and rains had reduced many of the paths and tracks to mud baths. 40 kilometres of slipping and slithering was pretty brutal on the legs and it was very slow going; I’m totally shattered now. I’d best get some rest before next weekend…
The one above is a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun from the Second World War. Until very recently, there was still (corroding) live ammunition racked up on the gun! There are many other larger guns atop the cliffs of Steep Holm, dating from the Victorian era. All were intended to defend approaches to the large ports of the upper Bristol Channel.
A visit to Harlech Castle on New Year’s Eve. The rain fell hard and the panoramic backdrop of Snowdonia’s peaks which the castle is famous for…was nowhere to be seen.
North Wales (Pura Wallia) was conquered by Edward I in 1282-3. He famously stamped English authority on Gwynedd by constructing the most spectacular castles in the British Isles. Described by Thomas Pennant in the eighteenth century as, “The magnificent badges of our subjection”, Edward’s seven new castles cost £100,000 in total. Conwy, Harlech, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Aberystwyth were located on the coast; the first four are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The awesome strength of these concentric fortresses was supplemented by defended docks allowing resupply (Harlech is now 1km inland due to dune formation) and all except Harlech had new towns attached, to raise revenue and perhaps to ‘plant’ English culture and language.
Clevedon Pier, Somerset
Another History lesson, culled from some draft notes I wrote on seaside resorts. Yes, I need a life.
Pleasure piers are the most idiosyncratic feature of British seaside culture. Around 77 survive, although there were over 90 at their peak. Their development helped to feed the growing popularity of a resort, and was often actually the key factor in this.
Pleasure piers originated as what the name literally means; functional walkways allowing access to deeper water for loading and unloading vessels. The first was arguably that built in 1813 at Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Ryde is fronted by a kilometre of shallows, so boats from Portsmouth would unceremoniously dump visitors and their luggage on the sands, to be transported ashore by pack horses. The new pier built to shorten this trek was 527m long and 4m wide. It unexpectedly became a popular attraction in its own right, being extended to 681m and decorated in subsequent decades. From 1840, visitors were charged admission from landward via a tollhouse, and a ‘pavilion’ was added in 1842.
Sam Brown, an engineer who had built piers for coal loading, constructed Brighton Chain Pier in 1822, 106m long with a 24m wide platform at the end; steam ships for France would dock there, but the pier also boasted shops and amusements in booths along its length. This lead to a spate of pier building in the south-east, aimed at tourists from London. Thomas Telford played a part in designing 914m Herne Bay Pier in Kent, but this was soon dwarfed by Southend Pier which was 183m when opened in 1830, soon being extended to 457m and eventually a staggering 2100m. A railway was added to reach its end.
Pleasure piers really took off after the railways linked to (or created) resorts. Their popularity fuelled a pier-building craze from the 1860s, with 60 constructed up to 1900. 16 of the 22 built in the 1860s were originally plain and utilitarian, built to dock steamers. As the realisation dawned that people were willing to pay merely to ‘promenade’ upon them, these piers soon acquired decoration and entertainments. Piers became increasingly extravagant in design; Eugenius Birch’s Eastbourne Pier (1870) was fancifully adorned with Italianate kiosks, exotic towers and turrets. They were built wider and wider, ending in pavilions with concert halls, theatres and ballrooms suspended improbably above the waves. In Scotland, piers developed in close relation with the paddle steamer trade which transported Glaswegian workers down the Clyde to resorts like Helensburgh, where two piers were built to offload visitors. Piers in England and Wales still docked steamers but function had been almost completely replaced by frivolity. The craze for pier-building perhaps reached its illogical extreme on the Isle of Wight, back where it all started; a total of nine Wight resorts had piers (four survive today).
The building of the pleasure piers has been compared to the creation of the rock lighthouses in terms of engineering challenge (but obviously not necessity!). Of course, piers were usually constructed on soft sand or mud and completely exposed to weather, waves and tide. Pointed cast iron piles were originally driven or screwed into the seabed; this was the favoured approach of the celebrated Eugenius Birch who built 14 piers, starting with Margate (1853-7). In building 1335 metre Southport pier in 1860, railway engineer James Brunlees pioneered the use of pressurised water jets to force metal piles ending in disk plates down into the sand.
Clevedon Pier in Somerset (built 1867-69) is generally acknowledged as the masterpiece of pier-building, in terms of both engineering and design. Now protected as a Grade 1 listed building, the pier juts out into the Bristol Channel’s fast flowing tide streams and 15m tidal range, supported gracefully atop eight elliptical spans of 30m. The key construction material was ‘Barlow’ rails from Brunel’s broad gauge South Wales Railway, supplying strength and reduced resistance.
The pleasure piers which survive today have done so against considerable odds; almost all have suffered major damage at some point from storms, boat collision or fire. Many were breached during World War II, lest they be used for enemy landings. Demolitions removed more in the post-war years, but in recent decades there have been many restoration projects such as that which rescued Clevedon. Weston-super-Mare Pier was gutted by fire in 2008, but redeveloped and reopened in 2011; clearly there is still public appetite for pleasure piers.
In 1870, Birnbeck Pier in Somerset opened an extra landing stage. In the first three months, 120,000 people paid 1p merely to walk along it. Why were piers so extraordinarily popular? Obviously they offered entertainments, but there was nothing upon them which could not be found along a resort’s promenade. Yet, they became the central focus of resorts, and often the highlight of a holiday. Whilst second-guessing the mindset of a Victorian or Edwardian holiday-maker is fraught with pitfalls, it seems likely that people walked upon the piers to ‘experience’ the sea, possibly even for the thrill of venturing across a liminal threshold into a ‘dangerous’ or unfamiliar environment, albeit in a safe and formalised manner. An 1834 commentator described Brighton’s new Chain Pier as an ‘agreeable walk’ where one could ‘enjoy the pure breezes, without the danger or difficulty of going out in an open boat’. Promenading along one for yourself is perhaps as authentic a way as any to assess the contemporary significance of pleasure piers; upon reaching the end, look back towards land and form your own judgement.
The following draft notes are a small part of a *much* larger essay I wrote a couple of years back, on interpreting the human impact on Britain’s coastal landscape. Hope it is of some interest…to someone? Feedback welcome, ideally of a non-sectarian hue…
Coastal depopulation and clearance
Vast areas of Britain’s coast and islands which are now sparsely populated or even regarded as ‘wild’ only became so as a consequence of planned ‘clearances’, carried out in the name of economic progress. Perversely enough, these thousands of depopulated or abandoned coastal settlements can be seen as ‘economic landscapes’. These are predominantly found around Scotland, but comparable landscapes can also be found on islands off the south-west of both Wales and England.
The Highland Clearances
The infamous ‘Highland Clearances’ took place in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tens of thousands* of people were moved from their homes, usually to facilitate planned ‘improvements’ by landlords. ‘Clearances’ took many forms, from a single family leaving home voluntarily due to economic hardship, to the forced clearing of entire regions of Scotland.
In 1826-7, the entire 450 residents of the island of Rhum were given notice by landlord Dr Lachlan Maclean and herded onto ships for Nova Scotia; in the words of one victim, “carried off in one mass, forever, from the sea-girt spot where they were born and bred”. When the MacDonells of Glengarry cleared the 400 residents of Knoydart in 1852-3, the sixteen households who refused the offered voyage to Canada were forcibly evicted and their houses burned. Many clearances were more gradual. Arthur Nicholson emptied the island of Fetlar in Shetland in stages from 1822-56. He had his tenants sub-divide the island with walls, successively replacing the residents of each parcel with sheep. During the ‘potato famine’ of 1846-7, Nicholson charitably supplied porridge in return for wall work.
*Estimates vary wildly.
Landscapes of the Clearances
Practically every cleared landscape has its own story of inhumanity and injustice. Whilst anger is a justifiable response to these events, dispassionately considering the wider context in which they occurred is helpful in grasping their significance and in understanding why so much of Scotland’s coast looks as it does today.
A walk or paddle along any sparsely inhabited shores around Western and Northern Scotland should provide insights into the past harshness of rural life on the coastal margins. Deep and wide parallel drainage ditches (‘runs’) and ridges (‘rigs’) will be seen on now-overgrown land; these were ‘lazybeds’. They were used to cultivate crops such as potatoes on infertile and damp soil, with seaweed dug into the rigs for fertiliser. The ruins of the ‘run-rig’ farmers’ homes will be close by, often in clustered communities known as ‘clachans’. These cottages consisted of rectangular low-lying stone walls, previously thatched but now open to the elements. They rarely featured more than one sub-divided room, and would usually have been shared with livestock, due to limited grazing land. In the Hebrides, you will see ‘blackhouses’ with earth-filled double walls and rounded corners, possibly derived from Viking longhouses.
These coastal communities give clues to both causes and effects of the Clearances. Sometimes, they existed because their inhabitants had been transplanted to the coast by landlords wishing to ‘improve’ their spacious inland estates through introducing more profitable forms of farming; sheep replacing families. These displaced tenants were often expected to pay their rents through the gruelling shore industry of kelp burning. At other times, the impoverished coastal communities were themselves seen as the problem, requiring ‘clearing’ elsewhere again. ‘Elsewhere’ could mean anywhere from more marginal land further along the coast, to across the Atlantic Ocean.
Causes of the Clearances
It is important to acknowledge that many tenants participated voluntarily in clearances, disillusioned by the hardships of subsistence farming and perhaps tempted by opportunities in the new cities.
A justification consistently given for carrying out clearances was that islands and coastal regions were over-populated and hence unable to sustain themselves. This was disingenuous, as the same landlords had artificially over-populated these areas to profit from kelp until demand collapsed post-1815. However, the population of these meagrely resourced regions continued to grow until the 1860s; the coastal fringes were over-populated, to a barely sustainable extent. The potato blight which caused famine in the mid-1840s increased hardships further.
The landowners’ perspective?
The bottom line for the landowning nobility was that ‘their’ lands were not economical; tenants’ rents were regularly in arrears and farming output limited, even more so in coastal regions. Owning an estate was practically an altruistic exercise, yet a sense of social obligation seemed outmoded at a time when Britain was embracing aggressive capitalism. Many of the Highland clan chiefs had become disconnected from their clans in the decades since the 1745 rising, preferring to live among Edinburgh or London society. Touring the Hebrides in 1773, Samuel Johnson noted that they were, “gradually degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords”. Ancestral lands became commodities with which to fund lavish lifestyles, to be sold off as convenience necessitated.
In the landowners’ defence, many tolerated loss-making tenants for years, before eventually being forced to sell, rather than evict. However, the incoming new owner would show less sentiment in wishing to turn a profit; hence for example the clearances on Rhum, described above. Many clearances were carried out with reforming zeal, in the sincere belief that ‘improvements’ would benefit all; ‘improvements’ had indeed doubled farming productivity in the Lowlands from 1750-1825. Not all landlords washed their hands of cleared tenants; even the much vilified Earl of Sutherland went to considerable trouble to create alternative employment, building new fishing harbours such as Helmsdale (1814) in Caithness.
Interpreting the Clearances
The Highland Clearances continue to be a highly emotive topic, their legacy of dispossession bitterly recalled overseas by descendants of exiles. The Clearances have even been interpreted by some nationalists as a deliberate ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Gaelic population and culture, somehow linked to English perfidy. Whilst the human consequences were certainly appalling and inexcusable, the reality was perhaps more mundane. The ruined cottages and overgrown lazybeds to be found all along the shores of Scotland’s west and north coast and islands are arguably best interpreted as economic landscapes. It might seem harsh to view the evictions of entire communities as just another facet of Britain’s transformation to capitalism, but this was largely what the Clearances represented; in the Industrial Revolution, there were both winners and losers.
The end of the Clearances
The Highland Clearances came to an end for a number of reasons. The desire to ‘improve’ estates waned, as few such efforts actually proved profitable. From the 1850s onwards, attempts to evict often encountered brave defiance such as that shown in the 1852 ‘Coigach Rising’, where tenants prevented the Sheriff’s boat from landing and burned the legal summons that he bore. The national media were increasingly sympathetic to such causes, and landowners risked public vilification if they embarked upon clearances. Such publicity also helped lead to legal reform; the 1886 Crofters Act granted security of tenure for tenants and created the Crofter’s Commission to arbitrate in disputes.
The retreat from extremities
Improved rights for Scottish crofters did not stem the ebbing tide of depopulation in coastal areas and islands. Through the twentieth century, numerous islands in particular saw abandonment. The reasons for this were partly economic, but also social; island life was decreasingly appealing in the modern age.
The archipelago at the southern extremity of the Western Isles was voluntarily evacuated; Berneray (1910), Pabbay and Sandray (1911), Mingulay (1912). Mingulay had suffered from a lack of quay or harbour, making it difficult for the population to land supplies or participate in modern fishing. The isles also experienced neglect by the authorities; e.g. Mingulay’s teacher left in 1910. The island of St Kilda was evacuated for comparable reasons; many young men had emigrated to the mainland, and the 1930 death of a young woman from appendicitis (there was no doctor) proved the final straw persuading the 36 remaining residents to request evacuation. Most of the Pembrokeshire islands in Wales were abandoned, being sold or donated as wildlife reserves; Ramsey Island’s last tenant farmer left in 1950. Depopulation is still occurring in many island areas, such as the North Isles of Orkney; e.g. North Ronaldsay has seen its population fall to around 60. However, improved communications and better recognition of the value of remote communities augers well for the future; for example, Orkney island flights are heavily subsidised.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The pics show a memorial on the Isle of Portland, taken this evening at sunset, after a paddle. The quarries of the Isle of Portland are the source of stone for most Commonwealth war graves, located around the world.
This post does pretty much what it says on the tin. The ruins are remains of administrative buildings for the long defunct Lundy Granite Company, the distant horizon is North Devon and the high moorland of Exmoor.
Why am I not out paddling today, given the gorgeous autumn weather? Because my gorgeous girl (shown below, camping on Lundy) isn’t feeling too well, so nobody in this house slept much last night…
This secluded cove is in south Cornwall. Fishing boats ply the local coast from this small gap in the granite cliffs. After landing, boats are dragged up the slipway above the waves. Over years, this has worn a groove into the slipway rocks. The original capstan – a human or horse powered winding mechanism – is still present, above the slipway.
Lundy Island’s Old Light was built atop the island in 1819, but proved very ineffective as Lundy’s high summit plateau was regularly obscured by cloud and fog. In 1861, a fog signal battery was built halfway down the western cliffs; the idea was that cannons would be fired intermittently to warn shipping of Lundy’s proximity. Various methods of alterting shipping were trialled with varying success, including firing actual cannon balls (what could go wrong?), firing gun cotton, discharging explosives, ringing bells and blowing whistles. However, by the late nineteenth century it was agreed that new lighthouses were needed; these were built low down the cliffs at both the north and south end of Lundy.
Today, the site is well preserved; you can visit the remains which include the ammunition store (built with thick walls and thin roof, to release explosions upwards), the gun platform, and the houses of the keepers. With the Atlantic below and around, at the bottom of a very long steep set of steps, it’s quite a location.
St Helen’s Church on Lundy Island was completed in 1897 for the Reverend Hudson Grossett Heaven. The Heaven family had owned the island since 1834, buying it as a retreat and hunting estate. Their claims that it was outside the boundaries and jurisdiction of the County of Devon earned the island the moniker, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’.
The cost of building roads and houses on Lundy hit the Heaven family hard, at a time when income from their sugar plantations in the West Indies was diminishing. The Heavens exploited Lundy’s natural resources by setting up the quarries on the east side, but the Lundy Granite Company failed to prosper and shut down before the end of the century.
The church was a somewhat quixotic endeavour, being large enough for a congregation of around 200, yet built at a time when the population of the island was around 60. Allegedly, H.G. Heaven had a choice between spending a bequested sum of money on a proper harbour for the island, or on a new church (there was already an adequate and indeed sizeable church, made from corrugated iron). The expenditure on this (admittedly beautiful) vanity project was a final blow to the Heaven family’s fortunes. Lundy was sold to a new owner in 1918.
Today, the church is looking somewhat worn around the edges, with plenty of mould and damp wood visible inside; plenty of costly restoration work will be needed if it is to survive long-term.
Carreg Samson is one of my favourite Neolithic monuments, overlooking a stunning swathe of the Pembrokeshire coast.
The Neolithic (‘New’ Stone Age) was the period of time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors gradually began to adopt agriculture and fixed settlements, beginning around 4000 BC.
Alongside the newly farmed lands were erected a dazzling range of monuments such as the earth mound at Carreg Samson, which has now eroded away with just the stone ‘framework’ remaining. How Neolithic folk raised Carreg Samson’s roof stone (weighing hundreds of tonnes) is anyone’s guess.
These monuments seem to have been largely been concerned with funeral rites and ancestor worship, but in truth, very little is firmly known. One characteristic feature however, is their regular association with the western side and Atlantic coasts of Britain.