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

April - June 2016

April 2016
Timbers emerging from eroding mud flats at low tide will always arouse some curiosity. Fishbourne's past has seen periods of intense activity, so these discoveries are likely to generate more interest than most.
  The timbers are exposed at on the west side of the ferry port, at the mouth of Wootton Creek. It is unclear why the intertidal area is eroding. It could be the wash from the ferries or just a temporary change arising from weather and tidal patterns, in which case the features could become buried again at some future point.
  There are a number of theories as to what the features might represent. The most obvious possibility would be shipbuilding stocks, not least because intertidal timbers exposed on the east side of the port are assessed to have that origin, thought to be associated with shipyards of the List family. From the early 19th century, Fishbourne was renowned as a shipbuilding centre, its output including a number of warships.
  Another consideration has to be that they might have much earlier origins. Fishbourne was a major archaeological site, producing a huge range of artefacts, ranging from Iron Age through to medieval. It has evidently been a port that has seen considerable activity, particularly during Roman times, where coin and pottery finds demonstrated wide ranging continental trading connections. It was these discoveries that gave rise to the comprehensive Wootton-Quarr project, which exposed intertidal features dating from the Neolithic onwards, including wooden trackways and post alignments.
  Clearly there is no shortage of possibilities to fuel speculation. It is unknown whether any of the timbers are suitable for dendro-dating.
Above: Detail from a painting of 1812 showing a vessel under construction on the east beach at Fishbourne, supported by a framework of stocks. Below: The remains of stocks on this foreshore can still be seen at low tide.

May 2016
The abiding image of the First World War is one of bitter and costly trench warfare, waged across Central Europe. Less well known are the daily sea conflicts that were taking place along the English Channel. Many of these resulted in numerous sinkings off the Island. These largely forgotten wrecks are now the subject of a major research project.
  The naval conflict of the First World War evolved around the Allied Powers' strategy to blockade sea access to the Central Powers and the latter's attempts to break the blockade. The major battles were in the North Sea but German U-boats and raiders we active along the English Channel, taking a huge toll in lives.
  The Maritime Archaeology Trust are half way through a four year project to research and record as many of the South Coast wrecks as possible, including some underwater surveys. It is estimated there are around 700 wrecks in the area, involving a range of merchant and naval ships, each with its own tragic story. The Trust's Forgotten Wrecks project is aimed at engaging communities and volunteers to improve knowledge of these archaeologically significant sites, to feed into local, regional and national historic records. Many of these wrecks are unrecorded and lie degrading on the seabed off the Island's coast.
  The HLF funded project seeks to encourage volunteers to learn new skills in research and technology. There are a number of volunteering opportunities, including some that can be undertaken remotely. The Trust are planning some artefact recording sessions on the Island and are keen to hear from anyone who might be interested in getting involved with these. Full training and support will be given.
  The information collected by the project is made widely available through the internet and is being turned into an extensive range of educational resources for schools and local organisations. The Trust's seasonal 'Sunken Wrecks' exhibition at Fort Victoria will this year have added content from the Forgotten Wrecks project. This month will see a presentation to Arreton Primary School and on the 18th there is a talk to the Friends of Carisbrooke Castle Museum. Any local organisation wishing for a presentation can arrange it via the Forgotten Wrecks website.
SS War Knight
The threat of U-boats was such that convoys were often forced into hastily manoeuvring in darkness, creating risky situations. The SS War Knight, an armed merchant ship, was involved in a collision off the Island on 24th March 1918 and became engulfed in fire. Only 11 of its 47 crew survived. Attempts to tow it ashore failed and it now lies on the seabed in Freshwater Bay. This is one of the wrecks the Maritime Archaeology Trust have extensively researched and investigated through diving fieldwork. Full story here

June 2016
Following rejection of the East Cowes Regeneration plan, attention now turns to the proposed Medina Yard development at West Cowes, where there are important features representing the history of Island shipbuilding. The basic details of the planning application have been published in the County Press, but at the time of writing, full details have yet to appear online.
planning application
  The development is presented in the form of an unusual hybrid application. There are three phases. Phase 1, at the northern end, is a detailed planning application while the other phases seek only outline planning permission. The north end of the site comprises residential and leisure facilities, becoming industrial to the south. Even if planning permission is granted and phase 1 gets underway, there is no guarantee subsequent phases will be progressed. The development calls for demanding remedial work and flood protection. Any unforeseen problems arising during the development on phase 1 could have implications for the viability of subsequent phases. It is thought the developer, Harrison Trust, intends to retain management control of the site once it is completed.
  In a notable departure from previous publicity, the planned museum covering boat building and shipbuilding has been moved from phase 1 to phase 2. The developer has supported the Classic Boat Museum's urgent need for new premises by providing them with a large shed just outside phase 1, for which they have initially been given a five year lease. The museum facility might develop around this site, irrespective of whether phase 2 ever comes to fruition. Unlike the proposed museum, it is large enough to accommodate their entire collection. These arrangements initially only provide for boat building presentation. It is unclear where this leaves the timing of museum coverage for J S White and shipbuilding history.
   A refurbished hammerhead crane will form the centrepiece of the phase 1 development, fronting leisure facilities and residential properties. The crane is planned as a static monument. There is some controversy as to whether it should be operational. Technically, it was Grade II listed as an operating crane and should therefore be returned to that status. It is not yet known whether Historic England will press for an operating crane, but even if they do, it doesn't follow the developer will agree to it. The increased tourist appeal is a factor but the Harrison Trust are clearly unconvinced there would be sufficient financial rewards to justify the additional costs in capital and health and safety controls.
  Councillors were present at a meeting where the tourist benefits of an operating crane were put to the developer but it apparently had little effect. Whatever the intention of the meeting, it appears to have resulted in councillors arriving at a policy that leaves the decision at the discretion of the developer. In truth, an operating crane can probably only be secured if planners are prepared to make it a condition of planning permission.