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

October - December 2008

October 2008
The Big Dig has been one of the most publicised archaeological events of recent times. There can be no doubt it has been a considerable success in raising awareness of archaeology in general and Roman Wight in particular. Hopefully it has also helped fund the Island's premier heritage site. Much has been written about day to day activities on the dig but there seems to be little comment on overall archaeological conclusions.
Big Dig
  The dig was a re-examination of the Victorian excavation of the villa's north range. The original villa excavation is generally considered to have been well executed by the standards of the day but their work on this particular section was mostly limited to following the walls down, leaving much of the interior to be revealed.
  The Victorians interpreted the north aisle as barn/farmhouse adjunct to the villa. This view stood until a few years ago when Island archaeologists reassessed it as being a principle dwelling erected sometime in the second century, predating the main villa. This discovery was important in understanding how occupation developed (some people taking the guided tour in the latter stages of the dig seem to have been left with the impression this reassessment arose as a result of the current excavation).
  It was probably never anticipated the dig would produce startling revelations and, as it turned out, there appear to have been few finds within critical contexts. Nevertheless the work was apparently able to determine information about the fabric of the walls and floor. It remains to be seen whether analysis of the foundations will add anything to previous assumptions about the nature of the structure. Assessment of the general manner in which the floor plan was occupied seems to have remained broadly as previously envisaged, although more should be revealed about the various phases of development. The excavations were taken below floor level to check for earlier activity but apparently produced nothing to relieve uncertainties surrounding Iron Age occupation.
  It was confirmed that the well in the south east corner of the range was sealed before erection of the building. This well contained Roman artefacts so it must have served another Roman dwelling that predates the second century structure. As yet there is no certainty where this might be, although there is some evidence for a first century stone building elsewhere on the site.
  Brading Roman Villa still has many complexities that remain a challenge for experts. There is also a tantalising hint of Saxon occupation. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect surrounds its early development, and the villa's archaeology seems to be edging closer to the point of Roman Conquest. Talk of the villa overlaying an Iron Age farm seems to have waned in recent years, but there's still the possibility of future archaeology bringing some understanding to the Iron Age/Roman transition that has proved so difficult to interpret elsewhere on the Island.

November 2008
After shipbuilders J. S. White were taken over in the late 1960s, employees and maritime enthusiasts were shocked to discover most of the company's archives were being destroyed. Some locals took matters into their own hands in an attempt to salvage whatever they could. A few of these saved documents have recently re-emerged.
  A Southampton widow was going through her husband's belongings when she came across a number of blueprints and plans for J.S. White's vessels. Fortunately she realised the importance of these and they have been passed to the IW Industrial Archaeology Society. Her husband had doubtless been aware of the significance of such records and may have been among those retrieving documents from bins or skips when they were being thrown out.
  The documents cover plans, blueprints and specifications for a range of vessels made by the company in the 1920s, including private yachts, lifeboats, gunboats, cargo coasters and a paddle steamer (above). The Island's pre-eminent shipbuilders were renowned for their continual innovation and some of these plans may provide maritime historians with important detail.
  The remains of White's archives are held at Cowes Maritime Museum. These are management records and many plans that were also rescued by individuals. It might seem strange that no authority intervened in the destruction of documents covering decades of local shipbuilding, but industrial records were not seen as having much significance until later in the century.
  Following analysis by the Industrial Archaeology Society, the retrieved documents will be deposited with the County Archivist for permanent archiving. Some J.S. White records salvaged at the time may still be in private hands. If anybody else holds examples, it would be advisable to hand them to the Industrial Archaeology Society so they can be formally recorded and archived, or at least allow them to be copied.

December 2008
Newport Power Station has become vacant and open to recent vandalism, prompting a few to ask what the future might hold for this fine example of utility architecture. There are planning guidelines for the front to be retained within development but they amount to little if no developer is interested. It looks as if it's destined to become increasingly dilapidated and overgrown. But do we care? Can a rural outpost like ours have the same interest in industrial architecture as an urban centre, or are we best confined to the 'parks and houses' culture?
  There appears to have been no attempt to have the building listed and it falls outside the conservation area. To date it hasn't been included in the Local List. It is currently earmarked for reuse via conversion within Supplementary Planning Guidance, as part of Newport Harbour regeneration, although it remains to be seen whether this will ultimately be reinstituted under the Island Plan. The only planning application so far received proposed its demolition, which was refused. In time its derelict appearance may become more prominent within surrounding regeneration, making it easier for a developer to justify pulling it down, particularly if taken to appeal.
  Newport Power Station was established at the beginning of the 20th century and closed around 1927. It was designed to show a majestic face to Newport, obscuring its industry at the rear. The generating area is dominated by two large sections which housed the boiler plant and turbines. The rooms on east side took the switchgear and other control facilities. The most detailed design was reserved for offices at the front. It remains as originally constructed, although the turbine hall may have had an underfloor section since filled in. The travelling crane used for turbine maintenance is still in place. The long turbine hall is a powers station's most prominent feature, designed to be isolated from the dust and grime of the coal furnace. They frequently had their own style of industrial elegance and Newport is no exception. The station is of modest size compared with urban examples but it probably fired more coal and produced more steam power than anything else the Island has seen. The building is considered to be of sound structure.
  If the nation's idea of heritage was limited to preserving lathe and plaster, the Isle of Wight would indeed be at the cutting edge of conservation. Elsewhere times have moved on, with counties developing a more eclectic view of preservation, embracing such things as local industry. Here, over a number of years, we have allowed buildings like the distinctive Knighton Water Works to come down without resistance, suggesting a public indifference towards industrial structures.
  The situation may be aggravated by the general approach of our Conservation Department. They seem to lack the confidence for an independent overview of Island priorities and compensate with an overkill interpretation of national guidelines. Increasingly pedantic controls doubtless ensure the listed hinge has authentic screws, while our only surviving brick kiln remains unprotected and we will soon be one of the few counties without a single extant limekiln. Under previous regimes, some of the most serious neglect of our industrial past has occurred on council land, and nobody was more vehemently opposed to saving the hammerhead crane than the county's own Conservation Officer. However, the council are in a position to gauge public opinion and they may be doing no more than reflecting it. Perhaps an Island schooled in the myth of an historic idyll will never see this type of preservation as being particularly important.
  Nevertheless, if the proposed new Isle of Wight Heritage Centre ever comes to fruition, the authority could do worse than consider Newport Power Station as the prime candidate for its location. The argument that it cannot be converted to meet today's advanced archive requirements can only come from those who have never visited the stunning Tate Modern, housed in London's Bankside Power Station.