to Isle of Wight History Centre Archive of Monthly News Items
As previously featured in the History Centre

January - March 2010

January 2010
Most people would assume an historic site located on a remote spit would be one of the Island's least threatened set of structures. In fact the unique brickworks on Elmsworth Spit at Newtown has suffered decades of neglect and vandalism. It has finally been recommended for modest protection under the Local List programme, seventy years after its historical importance was first recognised. Its dilapidation stands as a stark reminder of the cultural limitations that can imbue the concept of 'heritage'
  The story of this brickworks is about one family's unusual lifestyle and their dedication to craftsmanship. Brothers Henry, William and Alfred Prangnell set up operation at Elmsworth around 1887. They developed the brickmaking facilities and built a small cottage as their home. In time a generation was born and raised on the spit, in relative isolation. Their remote, self sufficient existence left them with an individual dialect that was often difficult to understand.
  Unusual though their lifestyle may have been, the Prangnells were highly skilled brickmakers without equal on the Island. The land provided clays for both red and yellow brickwork and their intricate products were in demand along the south coast. Alfred Prangnell would frequently challenge other brickmakers to match the output of their kiln, which none could do. The brickmaking operation ceased just before the First World War but the family continued to live in the little cottage and farm the area until 1954.
  They left a unique, self contained site of industrial and social significance, consisting of kiln, cottage, drying shed and small quay. As early as the 1940s the British Brick Society recognised its importance and carried out a complete survey. When the site fell into council ownership it was assumed it would be protected. In fact it was effectively abandoned, allowing it to be robbed and vandalised by visitors and local residents alike. In the 1980s the Island's brick expert, Jill Reilly, twice petitioned the Conservation Dept to protect the site but her plea was ignored.
  The application for Local Listing was made in 2007 but remained unprocessed for over two years. The Conservation Dept deny their inaction was due to a continuing indifference towards industrial features and say they were unable to visit the site. They may have been reluctant to do a long walk. Head of Planning, Bill Murphy, seemed to be under the impression the spit is an offshore island and claimed his department were waiting for a boat. They never did visit the site and appear to have ultimately accepted the application to avoid further embarrassment.

The kiln had two chambers and ten flues (three shown at left). It was unusual in that it combined a highly efficient design with style and ornamentation. The cottage included decorative brickwork (right) to display their range to visiting buyers.
cottage   Anne and Bill Prangnell photographed in front of the cottage in 1953, positioned beneath the magnificent barley-sugar twist chimney that epitomised the family's workmanship.
  In the early 1990s the council beat this chimney to the ground, presumably as a convenient alternative to maintaining it. Local industrial archaeology enthusiasts were so appalled they salvaged some of the bricks and, in conjunction with the local college, rebuilt part of it. They put it on display at their museum at Clamerkin. The rebuilt chimney attracted much attention, prompting the council to reclaim ownership so they could present it to the National Trust, who have now acquired the land at Elmsworth.
  Today the chimney section is on display in Newtown Town Hall. It depends on your point of view whether it represents a pride in local craftsmanship or the ruin of a once classic site.

February 2010
Winston Churchill's famous 'We shall fight them on the beaches' speech made it clear the Germans were planning an invasion in 1940/41. German occupation of Britain may have been a worst case scenario but provisions for local resistance movements had to be made. Planning involved the construction of secret facilities, but where are they?
  Under the direct authority of the inner war cabinet, a small army of resistance fighters was established, known as the 'Auxiliers'. They were said to be in excess of 3000, financed by MI6. Their precise deployment is unknown but they were probably concentrated in the Southern and Home Counties. Details of this body were highly secret and little by way of written records were kept. Local knowledge would have been useful so many would have been recruited locally. In the event of occupation, their job would have been to carry out covert operations to inflict damage on the occupying force, often from within specially constructed hideouts.
  Full details of the German invasion plan, Operation Sealion, were not discovered until after the war but the main options were anticipated by the authorities in 1940. The Isle of Wight provided an obvious bridgehead for a mainland landing. Defences were stepped up here but it must have been assumed the Island would fall under German occupation at the outset, whatever inroads their forces may have made thereafter.
  The Island had its share of Auxiliers. In fact the numbers here were said to be boosted later in the war, during D-Day preparations, when it was feared the Germans might launch a counter invasion on Overlord ports. Some Island historians have been keen to try and establish where local hideout facilities might still exist. The problem is they were naturally designed not to be found, mostly underground buildings located in woodland. Once abandoned they probably became quickly overgrown, leaving little remaining evidence of their existence.
  The only officially recorded site was at Robin Hill. It was dismantled in the early 1990s but not before it had been fully surveyed. It was categorised as an Auxiliary Unit Operational Base and consisted of two nissen huts buried in earth, with a concrete tunnel between them and an entrance at each end. A more recent discovery is in a copse at Kemphill, near Ryde. The entrance is just exposed but now appears to be on the verge of collapse. The full extent of the structure is unknown.
  There is some anecdotal evidence for other underground structures. Hideouts were occasionally discovered by children playing in woodland after the war, and some locals can recollect a general location, although not necessarily the precise spot. Other examples may come to light, although there may be some confusion with post-war Royal Observer Corps bunkers that were built for use in the event of a nuclear attack.

Kemphill unit
The entrance to what is assumed to be an Auxiliary Unit Base at Kemphill.

March 2010
The protracted World Heritage bid process has been reorganised by the government and now all applicants must apply in 2010. The Solent nomination has been in the running throughout the last round of considerations but now, at this critical point, authorities on both sides of the Solent are giving a lukewarm response to the idea.
World Heritage solent bid
  The ultimate decision on establishing World Heritage sites falls to UNESCO. Each country arrives at its own list of bids for the prized status. Local authorities and others organisations throughout the UK have the opportunity to nominate sites for assessment by an independent expert panel. A new UK list of candidate sites will then be drawn up for submission to UNESCO in 2011.
  The area covering the existing proposed Solent site is shown on the map above. Even if it goes forward there is likely to be competition from other UK sites. A major strength in the Solent bid would be that there are no other World Heritage sites providing history and archaeology within a cultural seascape. A number of presentations have been made to Island councillors and interested parties in recent months. There was even talk of extending the Island side of the proposed coastline further east and west. It therefore comes as something of a surprise to discover that some authorities are not keen on being part of an any bid, including the Island
  The problem arises in weighing up the costs and benefits of having World Heritage status. Clearly it is favourable in terms of tourism, heritage grants and the kudos it brings to the area. On the downside there will be administration costs in making the original nomination and managing the controls thereafter. The recent financial difficulties experienced by local authorities may influence current thinking. There may also be some planning implications in restrictions on development within the site and a buffer zone around it, although much of the Island's proposed coastline is already designated a conservation area.
  Portsmouth City Council were originally in favour of the bid but are now having second thoughts. Hampshire County Council still seem to be keen supporters. In talks with the bid organiser, Island officials gave the impression of being in favour but the Planning Dept has now issued a briefing paper recommending the Island does not support the nomination. However, this recommendation is based purely on an analysis of the disadvantages, with no consideration of the benefits. Island councillors may request a more balanced assessment before ultimately reaching a decision.
  Some have suggested the decision need not necessarily rest with the central Island authority. Parish councils at Ryde and Brading are said to be enthusiastic supporters and, in theory, could prepare the Island's contribution to the nomination, although they would need funding. Nobody seems to know just how much support there is for a Solent World Heritage site amongst Islanders generally. A number of councillors have declared enthusiasm and some businesses and local organisations have expressed support, but they remain disparate voices. It seems unlikely public support will register without a coordinated campaign.