The John Hooke Tragedy

to Isle of Wight History Centre
The Scientist, The Grocer, The Governor and Grace. Full commentary
Hooke's Diary Extracts from Robert Hooke's diary 1672-1680
Newport Corporation Documents relating to the suicide of John Hooke.
Hooke Family Tree
John Hooke Timeline
Hooke Family Home
Freshwater area in the 17th century
Hooke and Geology
Freshwater Parish
Robert Hooke Timeline
Sir Robert Holmes Timeline
Character Glossary


Freshwater Isle
in the 17th century.

The Freshwater region is very nearly an island, separated by a river estuary that extends northwards from Freshwater Gate on the southern shore of the island as far as Yarmouth in the north. This tidal estuary or creek derives from the River Yar and in effect it cuts the Freshwater presqu'ile off from the rest of the Island. The Yar is tidal as far as Freshwater causeway, south of which it becomes marsh wetland. It was most probably at high tides on the estuary behind the church, that the young Robert Hooke experimented with a model of a fully-rigged ship.

In the 17th century, the Freshwater region was a predominantly agricultural area, made up of scattered, small hamlets and farmsteads, dispersed throughout Freshwater Isle amongst a mixture of enclosed and open field systems. There was no single focus to the settlements in the area and therefore, even in the 17th century, there existed no significant nucleated settlement. From Saxon times, the development of the settlement pattern had resulted in a polyfocal pattern, based on a loosely associated and dispersed collection of settlements. John Hooke's parish therefore consisted of small pockets of habitation, centred on a 'green': More Green, Freshwater Green, Pound Green, Sheepwash Green, Middleton Green, Stroud, Easton, Norton and the settlement round the parish church. However, there were two areas of significant settlement: one centred around School Green and another crowding around the west end of the parish church, in what is today Church Place. Small fishing hamlets existed at Freshwater Gate, Brambles Chine and Norton. The population of the whole region fluctuated around the 500 mark during the 17th century.

By the 17th century, the area of Freshwater Isle was a mixture of enclosed fields and the traditonal, open field system, divided up into individual strips. Indeed, even in 1839, there were areas of the old medieval strip system in existence among the enclosed fields that dominated the Freshwater landscape. These patches of the open field system were situated in the south of the parish: Headon Common Field, Stone Wind Field, Windmill Field, Little Common Field and Easton Field. However, the names of various other former common fields are identifiable in various leases; fields such as North Field, Norton Field, West or Weston Field, Sutton Field, Heath Field, Fernhill Field and Noad Acre Field. These were large, open common fields, in which the tenants held a strip or various strips of land, which were often scattered throughout, so that everyone had an equal chance of both the more fertile and poor agricultural soil. A 1608 survey of Freshwater clearly shows this communal open-field system still intact; many of the tenants have holdings within a number of the common fields. A good example of this strip system can be found in William Prince whose holding consisted of small enclosures and strips in the large common arable fields:

William Prince holds by copy dated 5 Oct 1587 1 tenement formerly in tenure of Richard Syde viz.
house (3 spaces), barn and stable (4 spaces), orchard, garden and curtilage 1 acre
Rodds Close   3 acres
New Close    4 acres
Yorks Parrock   3 roods
Hatcher Close   3 roods
Bunse Close    1 acre
Upper Shores Close   3 roods
Lower Shores Close   2 roods
Utter Greenhill   1 acre
Inner Greenhill   1 acre
arable land in Eastfield    6 acres
arable land in Northfield   4 acres
arable land in Heddenfield   3 acres
arable land at the Maynes    2 roods
arable land in Farnhill   1 acre 1 rood
arable land in Warden    1 ½ acres
one parrock   2 roods
arable land next Tresfords   2 roods
own life, Henry Thring, Joan Thring
rent 13s 4d
annual value £8 0s. 0d.
[PRO E315/388]
Even by the mid 19th century, some of these open, strip fields still existed in the southern part of the Freshwater area and many of the enclosed fields are long and thin, suggesting remnants of the former individual, open-field strips. Even today, remains of the boundaries of this strip system can be seen in the area of Stonewind Farm.

Great chalk cliffs formed the southern boundary of the parish and ran from Freshwater Gate to Alum Bay. They were inhabited by all manner of seabirds and could be dangerous to the cattle that grazed the grassland on top. When this description was written, they were little changed from John Hooke's day:

"The parish of Freshwater from the point where Worsley's Tower formerly stood, opposite to Hurst Castle, round to Freshwater gate, is fortified by those stupendous promontories of Chalk, known by the name of Freshwater Cliffs. The height of these cliffs is indeed prodigious; being in some places six hundred feet above the level of the sea. To form a just conception of their magnitude, they should be viewed fom the sea, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile; when the most lofty and magnificent fabrics of art, compared with these stupendous works of nature, shrink in idea to Lilliputian size. These cliffs are frequented by immense numbers of marine birds, puffins, razor-bills, willocks, gulls, cormorants, Cornish choughs, daws, starlings, and wild pigeons; some of which come at stated times to lay their eggs and breed, while others remain there all the year. The cliffs are in some places perpendicular, in others they project and hang over in a tremendous manner; the several strata form many shelves, these serve as lodgments for the birds, where they sit in rows, and discover themselves by their motions and flight, though not individually visible. There are many chasms and deep caverns that seem to enter a great way into the rocks, and in many places the issuing of springs form small cascades of rippling water, down to the sea; sheep and lambs are seen grazing in the lower parts of the cliff, near the margin of the sea; the cliffs have sometimes proved fatal to them, as well as to other cattle who have ventured to graze too near the edge; from which, hounds in the ardour of the chace, have to their mutual destruction driven and followed their game."
[History of the Isle of Wight by Sir Richard Worsley. London, 1781]
The downland, known as High Down, that also ran along the southern edge of the parish on top of these cliffs, provided valuable pasture for sheep. Certain areas were only useful as 'waste' and therefore became commonland: the cliffs from Alum Bay round to Norton and the furze heath of Golden Hill area. The pound was situated at Pound Green and attended by a piggard. Headon Hill, also known as Headon Warren, had been the site of a rabbbit warren from an early date, farmed by a warrener who had lived in a Warren House at Headon Hill.

By using the Hearth Tax records, the population of Freshwater Isle can be estimated at around five hundred in the last half of the seventeenth century. The majority of this population earned a living from agriculture: in the wills for Freshwater, most people are described as 'husbandman' or 'yeoman'. Between 1571 and 1700, a total of 110 of all the wills give a person's occupation. 39 are described as 'Yeoman', while 36 are given the term 'Husbandman', thus allowing that almost 75 percent of the population were involved primarily in agriculture. The other occupations are allied agricultural trades, such as blacksmith, miller and carpenter, and service trades, such as grocer and butcher. Only 9 mariners are listed. Some also found an additional source of income by descending the cliffs on ropes either to catch sea birds or to collect samphire. The birds were sold for their feathers and as bait for crab pots.

"The country people take the birds that harbour in these rocks, by the perilous expedient of descending by ropes fixed to iron crows, driven into the ground: thus suspended, they with sticks beat down the birds as they fly out of their holes; a dozen birds generally yield one pound weight of soft feathers, for which the merchants give eight pence; the carcases are bought by the fishermen at six pence per dozen, for the purpose of baiting their crab-pots."
[History of the Isle of Wight by Sir Richard Worsley. London, 1781]
Samphire was collected for pickling in barrels, before being sent up to the London market. In the early 17th century, the digging of pipe clay also occupied some of the inhabitants of Freshwater. The pipeclay was exported to London to be used in the manufacture of tobacco clay pipes. This same pipe clay was also in demand for making the crucibles in which molten glass was contained during the glassmaking process. Some inhabitants were employed in digging the white sands at Alum Bay for use in glassworks for making clear crystal glass. But apart from these seasonal occupations, most of the inhabtants were occupied in work in the fields and on the farm.

Being somewhat isolated from the rest of the Island, an agrarian outlook and psyche shaped their way of thinking, their values, their lifestyle and culture. The population of Freshwater were tied to an agrarian calendar, that had changed little in centuries, and their lives were shaped by the seasons, agricultural events and religious holidays and festivals. The church figured highly in all of their lives and much of their psychological world and mental maps revolved around the parish church. The rector or curate presided over their births, marriages and deaths. He looked after their spiritual and emotional well-being and, being one of the few educated men in the area, he was an obvious source of advice. He was a guardian of local morality and was required to monitor people's behaviour and thoughts.

Originally,there had been only two means of access to Feshwater Isle: by ferry boat at Norton across the mouth of the Yar estuary to Yarmouth, and by foot across a narrow neck of land called Freshwater Gate at the southern end of the creek formed by the River Yar, which extended from Yarmouth southwards, effectively cutting off Freshwater Isle from the 'mainland' of the Island itself. This neck of land most probably consisted of a bank of shingle that separated the sea to the south from the marshes of the upper reaches of the Yar estuary to the north. Brannon, writing of Freshwater Gate in the mid 19th century, wrote:

"A low narrow bank of shingly pebbles that are thrown up by the furious waves, here interposes between the briny element and the spring-head of the river Yar, which is supposed to have given the inappropriate name of "Freshwater" to this part of the Island: it rises in a meadow nearly opposite the hotel, and taking a northerly direction, communicates with the Solent Channel at Yarmouth: of course, if ever the present shallow barrier of shingles should be removed, this quarter will then be completely insulated, as is said to have been the case some centuries back."
[Vectis Scenery by G. Brannon. Wootton, 1824]
However, by the 17th century, another communication link had been added in the form of a causeway, that extended from near the parish church across to Afton. That the bridge, known as Black Bridge, at Easton did not exist is clear from Sir John Oglander's comments on the defence of the Island against the French. In 1629, the gentry of the Island were petitioning the Privy Council for money to repair existing forts and to build new fortifications. They were also keen to establish a last line of defence, a sort of natural citadel, to which they could retreat in the event of a successful landing.
"In Januarie 1629 the gentlemen of owre Island concluded to goe to London to petition his Matie for moneyes to haue owre castells and fortes some amended others where most nede requyred, newe erected; and also for to haue 2 places of retrayte if so wee showld be beaten; Videlcet - Freschwater for owre cattel and ye mayne bodie of owre companies; and Yarmoouth for ye bettor sorte of people where they myght by bote have intercorse one with ye other; the fortifiinge of which places of retrayt myght be doone by cuttinge of Freschwater Gate; and Yarmouth by ye cuttinge of ye nicke of land betweene ye 2 seaes with drawe brydges and half moones to secure ye passages."
At some point, Black Bridge was built over the Yar marshes thus avoiding the longer route to the south via Freshwater Gate. Although by late Elizabethan times, the causeway across from Afton to Freshwater church had been constructed [both Mercator's map of 1595 and Speed's of 1611 show a passage here], Oglander did not even consider this, presumably because of the ease with which it could be broken open. This causeway was possibly constructed as the dam wall for a tide mill that existed at the east end of the causeway. When exactly the mill was built is uncertain,but certainly it existed by the mid 14th century. By 1694, this was described as a "water corn mill".

Like Bembridge Isle, Freshwater suffered from a lack of suitable watercourses for powering a water mill. This meant that by the 13th century, a windmill had been built in the area, where the inhabitants could take their grain to be ground. In 1300, a new windmill was built: either a rebuild of the existing one or one on an entirely new site. Certainly by 1769, there were two windmills operating in the area: one on a hill, east of Weston Farm, and another near Freshwater Green. The stocks for the area were located outside the churchyard gate, where the miscreant could be assured maximum exposure to the view of the inhabitants. Any artisans, such as bakers and butchers, were most certainly situated near Freshwater Green or in Church Place, near the parish church.

Chalk was quarried from pits along the north edge of Tennyson Down for use on the fields or for burning into lime in order to make mortar for building. Two limekilns, possibly dating to the 17th century, can still be seen on Moons Hill. Certain strata of chalk was solid enough to be used in building and many of the old stone cottages and farm buildings have an element of chalk block in their construction. Hard, ferruginous sandstone, which occurs in thin layers amongst the softer sands, was also used in construction of walls, while from Headon Hill and Cliff End, Bembridge Limestone blocks were acquired. This availability of different types of stone meant that many of the more humble dwellings and farm buildings are invariably made from a variety of these stones, usually chalk block and sandstone (often so laden with iron as to be termed 'ironstone').

Roads were little more than single-carriage trackways, whose surface had been strengthened with a coating of compacted gravel of variable thickness. Where potholes appeared in the thinner sections, further gravel or gathered stones were deposited in the holes. Gravel terraces around the parish church and at Easton provided a convenient source of gravel. There were also good deposits of plateau gravel on the top of Headon Hill, where numerous depressions and overgrown pits testify to mining activity of this source over the ages. In the Freshwater region, roads often opened out into the large open space of the green on reaching hamlets; here the road became part of the green.

The nature of roads in the area can be seen in this Helen Allingham painting. The roadway is made of compacted gravel and is only wide enough for one cart. There are no definite edges or kerbs and so grass and weeds grow right up to the roadway, which therefore varies in width.
A survey of Freshwater, taken in 1608 [PRO E315/388], lists the tenants of the various landholdings and provides an insight into the nature of the dwellings. Most housing consisted of two or three 'spaces' or bays, with two houses of four bays. Most barns were also two or three bays, while stables were predominantly one bay wide. Most houses had an attached 'curtilage' or yard but only 60 percent of the houses possessed what is termed as a 'garden'. However, two thirds of all houses had an orchard. In the Sutton tything, two bakehouses were recorded too. It is clear then that most people lived in typical two or three bay houses, consisting of a hall (the main living area), a chamber (either a parlour or workroom) and a storeroom (usually divided into a buttery and a 'milkhouse'. Above these were three chambers or 'lofts', usually used as sleeping rooms or storerooms. A two-bayed house consisted of hall or living room (which was evolving at that date into a room called the kitchen) and a parlour. The parlour room was a luxury and the poorer households used this room either as a storeroom or a sleeping room, often combining the two funstions. The Hearth Tax records of the last half of the seventeenth century show seventy five percent of the population paying for one or two hearths, indicating fireplaces mainly on the ground floor. Adding those with three hearths to this figure, it is clear that ninety percent of people still lived in two or three bayed houses.

Two cottages of the Freshwater area. Painted by Helen Allingham, these are typical of the dwellings constructed in the 17th century: walls made of mixed stone, a thatched roof and mullioned windows. (The cottage on the left is 'The Briars' and is still extant.)
John Hooke presided therefore over a predominantly agricultural parish. A number of gentry, whose similar intellectual background would have provided John with sufficient stimulus, lived in the area, but mainly on the east side of the Yar: at Thorley, Afton and Yarmouth. In John Hooke's will, the three witnesses, who were all friends of Hooke, belonged to the minor gentry and wealthier yeomanry: Robert Urry and Nicholas Hockley, while Cardell Goodman was the rector. The gentry of the area were predominantly represented by the Urry family, who owned Afton, Thorley, Weston Manor, King's Manor and property in Yarmouth. Robert Urry lived at Freshwater manor Farm; John Urry lived at Thorley; David Urry lived at Afton; and another Robert Urry lived at Weston Farm. Given John Hooke's connection with one of the Urry family, was he aware of Charles I's visit to Thorley Manor in 1647 at his arrival on the Island, when Capt. John Urry's wife, Alice, laid on a reception for the king?

John Hooke was therefore required to minister to a parish, whose inhabitants and dwellings were widely and thinly dispersed over a large area, and whose population were bound to an agricultural existence, somewhat isolated from the main run of Island and national affairs.