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

April - June 2009

April 2009
The County Archaeology Service has acquired its own geophysical survey equipment. It is the first time this increasingly essential archaeological tool has been available for local use. It is planned to extend training on the equipment to the community for use in both surveys directed by the Archaeology Service and those of interest to local organisations or individuals.
  Until now geophysical surveys on the Island have been limited to work carried out by mainland contractors as part of projects generated by planning requirements. Locally owned equipment will allow surveys to be directed at more general priorities. Most significantly, the equipment will form part of a community project which will allow interested parties to train in its use and carry out surveys, both in conjunction with the Archaeology Service and on sites of their own choosing.
  There are two pieces of equipment involved, covering Magnetometery and Resistivity. Magnetometery detects magnetically enhanced soil by recording slight variations in the Earth's magnetic field. It is typically useful in locating ditches, large pits, gullies and kilns. Resistivity relies on detecting the electrical resistance of the soil via a series of probes, recording moisture content. Both high and low moisture content can point to archaeological features. Each system has its limitations and can be confused by natural anomalies but, by using both in conjunction, these limitations can be partially offset. Regular viewers of Channel 4's Time Team will have seen almost every dig preceded by a geophysical survey. The programme frequently highlights some of the problems arising in interpretation of the results, and therein lies much of the skill associated with the equipment.
  The community project will involve the training of an initial group of volunteers by Wessex Archaeology. Local operators will then be able to train further volunteers. The IW Archaeology Service has already conducted an analysis of crop marks throughout the Island and identified ten initial priorities for geophysical survey. The priorities are sites that suggest prehistoric enclosures or settlements, particularly those thought to be at risk from continued disturbance. Trained volunteers will be involved in these surveys, in addition to using the equipment on sites of interest to themselves or as requested by the wider community.
  Organisations and individuals who would like to be involved in the project should contact the IW Natural History and Archaeology Society. Geophysical surveys are essentially a stand-alone operation, so previous experience in practical archaeology is not a requirement. Anybody wishing to develop an involvement in local archaeology may find the project a useful entry point.

May 2009
LIFU bus
Research by East Cowes Heritage Centre has uncovered the story of the town's 'Liquid Fuel Engineering Company' which, at the end of the 19th century, was producing road vehicles powered by their own patented engine.
  When Henry House arrived in Britain from America he was already a renowned inventor with a string of patents to his name, in everything from buttonhole machines to paper plates. He had even been involved in developing a flying machine. He had had now developed a revolutionary steam engine fuelled by kerosene oil, providing a more compact system than the traditional coal fired method. He patented the invention as 'Liquid Fuel Engineering' (LIFU). His initial market was for marine engines and, following development on the Thames, he established the Liquid Fuel Engineering Company at East Cowes in 1894. The works were on the site of the Columbine Shed, ultimately employing over 200 craftsmen.
  It wasn't long before House realised that his compact engine also lent itself to road transport. The internal combustion engine was still in its infancy: the first British manufacturing plant would be established at Coventry in 1896. Steam had the advantage of being familiar technology, enhanced by LIFU. By 1896 the East Cowes company had already begun producing buses and vans. The business rapidly developed, supplying vehicles for the Post Office and London traders, with LIFU trams running in Portsmouth and Edinburgh. The photo above is of a LIFU bus. Four double decker versions were operated in Paris.
  Henry House continued to develop his engine to increase performance and tested his vehicles on local roads. The unfavourable reaction of residents to this activity ultimately resulted in his disenchantment with the Island. At a time when there were probably little more than a dozen motor vehicles here, residents doubtless saw anything running faster than a horse drawn carriage as rather alarming. In January 1899, as a result of local complaints, the police set up a speed trap for House at York Avenue, with stop watches at the top and bottom of the road. They calculated his speed at 18mph, which was described as "driving furiously." He was convicted of speeding in the Island's first ever motoring offence. The event prompted letters to the press supporting residents' complaints. House responded by saying that he had to road test his vehicles and, if this couldn't be accommodated on the Island, he would have to move production to the mainland.
  Local attitudes, perhaps coupled with the cost of transporting vehicles to the mainland, highlighted the difficulty of retaining production at East Cowes. However it was the death of one of the company's backers in 1900 that finally prompted the company to move to the mainland. This spell of motor vehicle production on the Island may have been short lived but it's yet another example of the wide variety of skills and technologies that have populated the Medina over time. Details of the manufacturing plant and technical data on the LIFU engine are available at East Cowes Heritage Centre.

June 2009
Back in 2001 Whippingham community attended a meeting to discuss a conservation area proposed by the council's Conservation Department. The meeting turned out to be an irritable affair and ultimately resulted in the village being left with the Island's least effective conservation area. Such troubles might have been long forgotten but for the recent discovery of a relevant English Heritage report, raised around the time of these events but never made public.
  The proposed conservation area under discussion at the 2001 community meeting didn't have the cover of some villages but it embraced Whippingham Primary School and farmland adjacent to the school. The meeting degenerated into a clash of personalities but there was some surprise when a school governor announced that the school objected to the conservation area. He was one of two school governors who were farmers with an enthusiasm for housing development, one of whom owned the farmland adjacent to the school, which he had previously attempted to have re-designated for development. There is nothing new in the conflict between conservation and development but the residents were largely unaware of such interests. These influences had a disproportionate effect on the meeting and were supported by the local councillor. Following the meeting, the councillor had the proposed conservation area permanently withdrawn. The school was subsequently revealed as Whippingham School Development Inc. when it attempted to build a car park on the farmland in the shape of road infrastructure.
   In 2004 the Conservation Department were obliged to revisit the subject and established a tiny conservation area around the church. Whatever the views of Whippingham residents, they ultimately accepted that any future enlargement was unlikely. This saga might have remained as water under the bridge but for a Whippingham resident uncovering the existence of a report that had been raised by English Heritage, independent of local events. As part of their stewardship of Osborne House, English Heritage commissioned a survey of the original Royal Osborne Estate, which embraces much of Whippingham. The result was a 200 page report that probably constitutes one of the most authoritative reviews of any area on the Island. It is thought to propose that the entire land of the original estate should be established as a conservation area. This would be a larger area than any previous proposal. The question is, what happened to this report?
  The only way English Heritage could institute the proposal would be to send it to the council's Conservation Department as a recommendation. In response to recent enquiries, the council initially said it had never received the report. The Conservation Department now say they may have received it but cannot trace it. It seems likely the council did receive the report but decided to repress it rather than aggravate what appeared to be a contentious issue. If so, this was a dubious decision, as it assumes a community has no right to expertise on the subject of its historic environment. Presumably the report can no longer be ignored. It remains to be seen whether the whole issue of Whippingham's conservation area will be resurrected.