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

October - December 2007

October 2007

Every so often the Island's shifting sands reveal a previously unreported feature. In recent months low tide at Seaview has exposed a line of timbers running parallel with the sea wall. This may well tell us something about past sea levels and early attempts to control the shoreline.
  Intertidal archaeology on the Island has received much attention in recent decades. Most of it has taken place along the Wootton-Quarr coast. That area has archaeological finds to support some dating but many exposed timbers around the northern coastline remain a mystery. Some are currently in the process of being carbon-dated. Seaview has temporarily exposed timbers before, although they have been too patchy for their purpose to be established. Unfortunately some of these timbers were probably damaged by heavy machinery during recent work on the sea wall.
  The recently exposed stakes are in a line parallel with the shoreline. They are on a larger scale than any previously recorded features. They are also further out, indicating an earlier date. The stakes are mostly spaced about 35cm apart although many are missing. The overall length is approximately 220m and they are about 100m beyond the present sea wall.
  The most likely explanation is that they were the uprights for an early revetment when sea levels were considerably lower. At their eastern end they appear to finish at what would have been the western edge of old Barnsley creek. Very little is known about past activity in and around the creek, even in post medieval times. A revetment on this scale might suggest there was greater organised activity and in the area than had previously been assumed.

November 2007
A history site on the Net apparently tells the story of an attack on Sandown Fort by American privateers during the War of Independence, which would have presumably been the work of American naval hero, John Paul Jones. The story carries sufficient detail to have prompted enquiries as to why a seemingly major event has received scant attention in published local history.
  It is true there has been little or no mention of the event within local history. Some publications covering Sandown Fort make brief reference to an 18th century attack, while others make no mention of the story at all, perhaps because the authors doubted its validity. The current version of events gives the date of 1779 and claims the attackers were beaten off with heavy losses, suggesting a major engagement. But is there any evidence to support this account?
  We asked a local historian to try and find the primary source for the story. He duly found what seems to be the original reference to the event. It appears in John Hassell's Tour of the Isle of Wight published in 1790. Following a brief description of the fort, Hassell says "During the last war several privateers entered the bay and tried to destroy it but were not able to succeed in the attempt; beating down a few chimneys was the height of their achievements. It was repaired not many years later." In the absence of any other source for the attack, it looks as if additional detail can only be subsequent embellishment.
  It is pertinent that Sir Richard Worsley, in his Island history of 1781, also refers to fort repairs but in an entirely different context. He says of the fort "It had been much neglected but has lately been put into repair at considerable expense to the crown, and the apartments made fit for the reception of the captain, who resides here in the summer." Had an attack taken place by this time, Worsley would have surely mentioned it.
  When John Paul Jones wasn't battling with British warships, he did pursue a policy of raiding English harbours: the most famous involved a landing at Whitehaven in 1778. His campaign came to an end early in 1781 when he returned to America. The War of Independence ended two years later. If Hassell is correct that the attack on Sandown Fort took place during the 'war', but presumably after Worsley compiled his history, the time frame for the event is limited. More importantly, by this period, American privateers had almost certainly returned home. Given France's alliance with America, it seems likely the assailant was a more traditional foe and it was French privateers who attacked the fort. We will probably never know whether it was a carefully planned raid or just opportunistic cannon-fire.

December 2007
Over recent months the County Archaeology Service has been migrating its Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) into a database and integrated computerised mapping system to achieve national standards. This coincides with replacing SMR with the new national Historical Environment Records (HER). The main use of the SMR was as a preliminary check for planning applications. Unfortunately the vast historical detail it contained rarely found its way into the public domain. The HER system was developed in recognition that the range of data justified a wider application, which will hopefully encourage more general publication and firmly establish it as a public resource.
   Systematic recording of archaeological and historic monuments began in this country in the early 20th century. The Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England was set up for this purpose and a highly disciplined mapping system was developed, coupled with a card index which formed the basis of the information now held in Historic Environment Records. Museums and local societies were encouraged keep their own records, and during the early 20th century honorary curators of Carisbrooke Castle Museum marked archaeological sites on a series of 6" to one mile Ordnance Survey maps.
   In the 1960s there was a growing awareness of the rate at which archaeological sites were being damaged or destroyed through development, prompting the need for information to be available to the local authority planning system. It was recommended that county planning authorities maintain a record of field monuments, and throughout the 1970s and 80s Sites and Monuments Records began to be developed throughout the country. On the Island, Vicky Basford created a card index based on a range of data. This information was entered onto a computerised database in the late 1980s.
   In the past couple of decades there has been a move away from simple records of monuments to the event-monument-archive data model. With more sophisticated databases it's possible to link records of monuments with events such as surveys, and bibliographic or cartographic sources. This approach means that information can be recorded more systematically. Sites can be related to records of events, such as excavations, and also to sources, e.g. aerial photographs.
   The Island HER is now a huge resource. Nearly 11,000 sites are recorded, most in considerable detail. Due credit should go to the HER/Archaeological Projects Officer, Rebecca Loader, and her predecessors for years of diligent compilation. Sites could represent anything from buildings, historic landscape, ruins, buried features, earthworks or where individual finds have been recovered. Each feature is supported with detailed documentation. The map below shows locations on record in the area surrounding Newtown Harbour. It's probably fair to say that few Islanders live within a square mile that doesn't have some recorded items.

HER Newtown