History of the Isle of Wight

Today, the Isle of Wight is rich in historical and archaeological sites dating from prehistoric periods from an extraordinary wealth of fossil discoveries including dinosaur bones through to remains from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods onwards.

The origins of the island can be traced to the end of the last Ice age when post-glacial rebound caused the land level in southern Britain to drop. This, along with global sea level rise due to melting glaciers, caused the sea to flood the valley of the former River Solent creating a channel between the land mass and mainland Britain. The date at which the West of the Solent became flooded is contentious, as once sea water broke through and created an island, the Solent channel would have been scoured out by strong tides. However in all historical records, the area has been referred to as an Island.

Celtic, Roman and Saxon

The Isle of Wight was part of Celtic Britain and known to the Romans as Vectis; from which the word "Wight" may be a distant corruption. Suetonius in his dramatic biography The Lives of the First Twelve Caesars records some news on the first century Roman invasion of Vectis by The Second Legion Augusta, commanded by the legate Vespasian who was later to become emperor: "Vespasian proceeded to Britain where he fought thirty battles, subjugated two warlike tribes, and captured more than twenty towns, besides the entire Isle of Vectis".

Following the demise of the Roman Empire Bede tells us that The Isle of Wight, along with parts of Hampshire and most of Kent, was settled in the fifth century onwards by the Jutes, a Germanic tribe from Northern Europe. Some believe they became victims of a policy of ethnic cleansing by the West Saxons in England.


After the Norman Conquest, the title of Lord of the Isle of Wight was created and William Fitz-Osborne who subsequently founded Carisbrooke Priory and the fortifications on what was to become Carisbrooke Castle became the first to hold the title. (It is possible that the site of Carisbrooke Castle had previously been fortified originally by Romans and subsequently by Jutes or Saxons.} The Island did not come under the full control of the crown until the Countess Isabella De Fortibus sold it to Edward I in 1293 for six thousand marks.

The Lordship thereafter became a Royal appointment with a brief interruption when Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick, was crowned King of the Isle of Wight, King Henry VI assisting in person at the ceremony, placing the crown on his head. He died in 1445, aged 22. With no male heir, his regal title expired with him. The title of Lord of the Isle of Wight expired in the reign of Henry VII with the title of Governor or Captain being used for sometime thereafter. During the English Civil War King Charles fled to the Isle of Wight believing he would receive sympathy from the governor Robert Hammond. Hammond was appalled, and incarcerated the king in Carisbrooke Castle. Charles was later tried and executed in London. The first Governor to hold the crown representative title used now of Lord-Lieutenant was Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma until his murder in 1979. Lord Mottistone was the last Lord Lieutenant to also hold the title Governor (from 1992 to 1995). Since 1995 there has been no Governor appointed and Mr Christopher Bland has been the Lord Lieutenant.

Henry VIII who developed the Royal Navy and its permanent base at Portsmouth, fortifications at Yarmouth, East & West Cowes and Sandown, sometimes re-using stone from dissolved monasteries as building material. Sir Richard Worsley, Captain of the Island at this time, successfully commanded the resistance to the last of the French attacks in 1545. Much later on after the Spanish Armada in 1588 the threat of Spanish attacks remained, and the outer fortifications of Carisbrooke Castle were built between 1597 and 1602.

Early Modern and Modern

Queen Victoria made the Isle of Wight her home for many years, and as a result it become a major holiday resort for members of European royalty, whose many houses could later claim descent from her through the widely flung marriages of her offspring. During her reign in 1897 the World's first radio station was set up by Marconi at the Needles battery at the western tip of the Island.

The famous boatbuilding firm of J. Samuel White was established on the Island in 1802. Other noteworthy marine manufacturers followed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries including Saunders-Roe a key manufacturer of the Flying-boats and the world's first hovercraft. The tradition of maritime industry continues on the Island today.

Caulkheads, Overners and Vectians

Historically, inhabitants of the Isle of Wight have been known as Vectians (pronounced Vec-tee-ans) from the Latin name for the Island, Vectis. Although the term is still sometimes used; as with many other small island communities the term Islander is more common. Vectian can also be an adjective pertaining to the Island or its inhabitants, and also refers to certain geological features which are typical of the Island. The term Overner is used for inhabitants originating from Mainland Great Britain. This is an abbreviated form of Overlander; an old English term for outsider still found in a few other places such as parts of Australia.

People born on the island are colloquially known as Caulkheads (comparable with the term Cockneys for those born in the East End of London). However, many argue that the term should only apply those who can also claim they are of established Isle of Wight stock either by proven historical roots or, for example, being third generation inhabitants from both parents' lineage.

One theory as to the origin of this name is that the term is derived from the once prevalent local industry of caulking boats; a process of sealing the seams of wooden boats with oakum. Another more fanciful story is that a group of armoured Island horsemen were chased into the sea by the marauding French, and took refuge on a sandbank when the tide came in, thus appearing to float in the sea despite their heavy armour, hence the name Cork- i.e. Caulk-, -heads. In local folklore it is said that a test can be conducted on a baby by throwing it into the sea from the end of Ryde pier whereupon a true caulkhead baby will float unharmed. Thankfully there is no record of the test ever being carried out.

Political History

The island's most ancient borough was Newtown on the large natural harbour on the island's north-western coast. A French raid in 1377, that destroyed much of the town as well as other Island settlements, sealed its permanent decline. By the middle of the sixteenth century it was a small settlement long eclipsed by the more easily defended town of Newport. Elizabeth I breathed some life into the town by awarding two paliamentary seats but this ultimately made it one of the most notorious of the Rotten Boroughs. By the time of the Great Reform Act that abolished the seats, it had just fourteen houses and twenty-three voters. The Act also disenfranchised the boroughs of Newport and Yarmouth and replaced the six lost seats with the first MP for the whole Isle of Wight.

Often thought of as part of Hampshire, the Isle of Wight was briefly included in that county when the first county councils were created in 1888. However, a "Home Rule" campaign led to a separate county council being established for the Isle of Wight in 1890, and it has remained separate ever since. Like inhabitants of many islands, Islanders are fiercely jealous of their real (or perceived) independence, and confusion over the Island's separate status is a perennial source of friction.

It was planned to merge the county back into Hampshire as a district in the 1974 local government reform, but a last minute change led to it retaining its county council. However, since there was no provision made in the Local Government Act 1972 for unitary authorities, the Island had to retain a two-tier structure, with a county council and two boroughs, Medina and South Wight.

The borough councils were merged with the county council on April 1, 1995, to form a single unitary authority, the Isle of Wight Council. The only significant present-day administrative link with Hampshire is the police service, the Hampshire Constabulary, which is joint between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

From the closing decades of the Twentieth century onwards, there has been considerable debate on the Island over whether or not a bridge or tunnel should connect the island with mainland England. The Isle of Wight Party campaigned from a positive position, although extensive public debate on the subject revealed a strong body of opinion amongst islanders against such a proposal. In 2002 the Isle of Wight Council debated the issue and made a policy statement against the proposal.

Autonomy and Political Recognition

A number of discussions about the status of the island have taken place over many years, with standpoints from the extreme of wanting full sovereignty for the Isle of Wight, to perhaps the opposite extreme of merging with Hampshire. The pro-independence lobby had a formal voice in the early 1970s with the Vectis National Party. Their main claim was that the sale of the island to the crown in 1293 was unconstitutional. However, this movement now has little serious support. Since the 1990s the debate has largely taken the form of a campaign to have the Isle of Wight recognized as a distinct region by organizations such as the EU, due to its relative poverty within the south-east of England. One argument in favour of special treatment is that this poverty is not acknowledged by such organizations as it is distorted statistically by retired and wealthy (but less economically active) immigrants from the mainland.

Isle of Wight Disease

In 1904 a mysterious illness began to kill honeybee colonies on the island, and had nearly wiped out all hives by 1907 when the disease jumped to the mainland, and decimated beekeeping in the British Isles. Called the Isle of Wight Disease, the cause of the mystery ailment was not identified until 1921 when a tiny parasitic mite, Acarapis woodi was first described by J. Rennie. The mite inhabited the tracheae of individual bees, and greatly shortened their lifespan, causing eventual death of the colony. The disease (now called Acarine Disease) frightened many other nations because of the importance of bees in pollination. Laws against importation of honeybees were passed, but this merely delayed the eventual spread of the parasite to the rest of the world.

The Isle of Wight Festival

A large rock festival took place near Tennyson Down, West Wight in 1970, following two smaller concerts in 1968 and 1969. The 1970 show was notable for being the last public performance by Jimi Hendrix before his death. The festival was revived in 2002 and is now an annual event - with other, smaller musical events of many different genres across the Island becoming associated with it.

The first of the modern festivals was an abject failure with only half the tickets being sold. It was badly organised with the security not knowing which parts of the festival they should be guarding and the event having still been set up as if it was sold out. As a result the event had a 'hollow' feel.

Since this rocky start the event has gone from strength to strength attract big name bands and expanding from a one to a three day event. It now sells out months in advance and with the possible exception of the difficulty of getting in and out and having even water confiscated the festival is now up there with the likes of Reading and Leeds festivals.

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