Brownsea Island

Brownsea Castle, Dorset
Photo © Jim Linwood, 26 september 2009

Brownsea Island is the largest of the islands in Poole Harbour in the county of Dorset, England. The island is owned by the National Trust. Much of the island is open to the public and includes areas of woodland and heath with a wide variety of wildlife, together with cliff top views across Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck.

The island is most notable as the home of the first camp of the Boy Scout movement in 1907. Access is by public ferry or private boat; in 2002 the island received 105,938 visitors. The island's name comes from Anglo-Saxon Brūnoces īeg = "Brūnoc's island".

I had no idea I had such a delightful spot in my kingdom.

George IV of the United Kingdom, after a trip to Brownsea in 1818.[1]


Brownsea Island lies in Poole Harbour opposite the town of Poole in Dorset, England. It is the largest of eight islands in the harbour. The island can be reached by one of the public ferries or by private boat.

Brownsea Castle, Dorset
Photo © Gerpsych, June 20 2007

There is a wharf and a small dock near the main castle. The island is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide and consists of 500 acres (2 km²) of pinewood, heathland and salt-marsh.[1]

The entire island, except the church, is owned by the National Trust except for a few buildings and parts of the island which are leased or managed by third parties. Most of the buildings are situated near the small landing stage. The northern portion of the island is a Nature Reserve managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust and an important habitat for birds; this part of the island has limited public access. A small portion to the south-east of the island, along with Branksea Castle (also known as Brownsea Castle), is leased to the John Lewis Partnership for use as a holiday home for staff, and is not open to the public.

The island forms part of the Purbeck local government district and is within the South Dorset constituency of the House of Commons and the South West England constituency of the European Parliament.[2]


Brownsea Island has built up on a bare sand and mud bank deposited in the shallow harbour. Ecological succession has taken place on the island to create topsoil able to support ecosystems.

The nature reserve on the island is leased from the National Trust by Dorset Wildlife Trust. This reserve includes a brackish lagoon and area of woodland. Other ecosystems on the island include saltmarsh, reedbed, two freshwater lakes, alder carr, coniferous woodland, deciduous woodland and arboretum. In the past invasive species such as rhododendrons, also non-native, were introduced to the island, but the trusts have cleared many areas. The entire island is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.


The island is one of the few places in southern England where indigenous red squirrels survive, largely because non-native grey squirrels have never been introduced to the island. Brownsea also has a small ornamental population of peacocks. The island has a heronry, in which both Grey Heron and Little Egret nest.

There is a large population of non-native sika deer on the island. In the past the numbers have been higher than the island can sustain and have overgrazed. To try to limit damage to trees and other vegetation by deer, areas of the island have been fenced off to provide areas of undamaged woodland to allow other species such as red squirrels to thrive.

The lagoon is noted for the large population of Common Tern and Sandwich Tern in summer, and a very large flock of Avocets in winter, when over 50% of British birds (over 1500) can be present.

Some imported stonework and statuary on the island serves as a habitat for a Mediterranean land snail, Papillifera bidens.


Early history

The first records of inhabitants on Brownsea Island occurred in the 9th century, when a small chapel and hermitage were built by monks from Cerne Abbey near Dorchester. The chapel was dedicated to St Andrew and the only resident of the island was a hermit, who may have administered to the spiritual welfare of sailors passing through Poole Harbour. In 1015, Canute led a Viking raid to the harbour and used Brownsea as a base to sack Wareham and Cerne Abbey.[3] In the 11th century the owner of the island was Bruno, who was Lord of the Manor of Studland, to which the island belonged.[3]Following his invasion of England, William the Conqueror gave Studland to his half-brother, Robert de Mortain. In 1154, King Henry II granted the Abbot of Cerne the right of wreck for the island and the Abbey continued to control the interests of Brownsea for the next 350 years.[4]

Tudor and Civil war

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, control of Brownsea passed to the Crown. Henry VIII recognised the island's strategic importance of guarding the narrow entrance to the expanding port of Poole. As part of a deterrent to invasion forces from Europe, the island was fortified in 1547 by means of a blockhouse, which became known as Brownsea Castle. In the following centuries, the island passed into the hands of a succession of various owners. In 1576, Queen Elizabeth I made a gift of Brownsea to one of her court favourites and rumoured lover, Sir Christopher Hatton.[5] During the English Civil War, Poole sided with Parliament and garrisoned Brownsea Castle. Colonel Thomas Pride, the instigator of Pride's Purge– the only military coup d’état in English history – was stationed on the island in 1654.[6]Sir Robert Clayton, a Lord Mayor of the City of London and wealthy merchant became owner in the mid-1650s and after his death in 1707 the island was sold to William Benson, a Whig Member of Parliament and architect. He converted the castle into a residence and was responsible for introducing many varieties of trees to the island.[7]

Industrial plans

In 1765 Sir Humphrey Sturt, a local landowner and MP purchased the island, which in turn passed to his sons. Sturt expanded the castle and records suggest that he spent £50,000 on the enhancing the islands gardens.[8]Sir Augustus John Foster, a retired British diplomat, bought the island in 1840. Foster experienced bouts of depression and died in Brownsea Castle in 1848 when he slit his throat.[9]In 1852 Brownsea was again up for sale and was sold for £13,000. It was purchased by William Waugh, a former Colonel in the British Army in the belief he could exploit the white clay deposits on the island to manufacture high quality porcelain.A three-storey pottery was built in south-west corner of the island together with a tramway to transport the clay from clay pits in the north. He hoped the clay would be of the same quality as the nearby Furzebrook clay, but it turned out to be suitable only for sanitary ware. The company employed over 200 people but by 1887 the venture closed due to a lack of demand and the poor quality of the clay.

Traces of these activities remain today, mainly as building foundations and pottery fragments. Waugh was also responsible for expanding the number of buildings on the island – creating the now ruined village of Maryland (named after Waugh's wife), as well as adding a new gatehouse and tower in the Tudor style. Waugh also paid for the construction of a new pier, adorned with castellated watch towers. Another large expenditure was the construction of St Mary's church, built in the Gothic style and also was named for his wife. The foundation stone was laid by Sir Harry Smith in 1853 and construction was completed a year later. Inside the church there is a monument to Waugh as well as the tomb of the late owner Charles van Raalte. Part of the church is dedicated to the Scouting movement and the flags of the Scout and Girl Guide movements line either side of the main altar.

After falling into heavy debt, the Waughs fled to Spain and the island was acquired by creditors and sold in 1873 to George Cavendish-Bentinck who added Jersey cows to Brownsea and expanded the island's agriculture. He filled the island with several Italian renaissance sculptures, some of which still decorate the church and the quay. The 1881 census recorded a total population of 270 people on the island, the majority of residents providing a labour force for the pottery works.[10]After his death, the island was sold to Kenneth Robert Balfour in 1891. Following the introduction of electric lighting, the castle was gutted by fire in 1896. It was later rebuilt and in 1901 Balfour put the island up for sale.

20th century

The island was purchased by Charles van Raalte who used the island as a residential holiday retreat. During this time the castle was renovated and served as host to famous visitors such as Guglielmo Marconi.Robert Baden-Powell, a close friend of the van Raaltes, hosted the first Scout camp on the island in the summer of 1907. Brownsea was largely self-supporting, with a kitchen garden and a dairy herd. Many of the pottery factory workers had stayed on after it closed, farming and working for the owners.Charles died in Calcutta in 1907 and his wife eventually sold the island in 1925. In 1927 the island was purchased at auction by Mary Bonham-Christie for £125,000. A recluse by nature, she ordered a mass eviction of the island's residents to the mainland. Most of the island was abandoned and gradually reverted to natural heath and woodland. In 1934, a wild fire caused devastation after burning for a week. Much of the island was reduced to ashes, and the buildings to the east were only saved by a change of wind direction. Traumatised by the event, Bonham Christie banned all public access to the island for the rest of her life.[11]

During the Second World War large flares were placed on the western end of the island in an attempt to mislead Luftwaffe bombers away from the port of Poole. The decoy saved Poole and Bournemouth from 1,000 tonnes (160,000 st) of German bombs but the deserted village of Maryland was destroyed.[12]In April 1961, Bonham-Christie died at 98 years old and her grandson gave the island to the Treasury to pay for her death duties. The Government handed over ownership of the island to the National Trust in 1962 and work was carried out to prepare the island for visitors.[13]Tracks were cleared through areas over-grown with rhododendrons and firebreaks were created to prevent repetition of the 1934 fire. The castle was renovated and leased to the John Lewis Partnership for use as a staff hotel. The island was opened to the public by Lady Olave Baden-Powell in May 1963 at a ceremony attended by members of the 1907 camp, and soon Brownsea was attracting more than 10,000 visitors a year.[14]Larger boats means that today the island attracts some 110,000 visitors annually.

The island today

Since 1964 the island has been host to the Brownsea Open Air Theatre, annually performing the works of William Shakespeare. The island has a visitor centre and museum, displaying the islands history. The centre also has a shop, a cafe, a display of pottery and local tools. There are several holiday cottages owned by the National Trust spread around the island. The Dorset Wildlife Trust operate on the island from an old villa. The island has a single post box which is emptied every Saturday. In October 2008, the island was featured on BBC One's annual Autumn Watch programme [1]. There is an annual round the island swim of 4.5 miles (7.2 km) run by RLSS Poole Lifeguards.


From 1 August until 8 August 1907, Robert Baden-Powell held the first experimental Scout camp on the island for 22 boys from differing social backgrounds.[15]The boys took part in activities such as camping, observation, woodcraft, chivalry, lifesaving and patriotism. Following the successful camp, Baden-Powell's published his first book on the Scouting movement in 1908, Scouting for Boys, and the international Scouting movement grew rapidly.[15]Boy scouts continued to camp on the island until the 1930s when all public access on the island was forbidden by the island's owner. After ownership of the island transferred to the National Trust, a permanent 20 hectares (49 acres) Scout camp site was opened in 1963 by Olave Baden-Powell. In August 2007, 100 years after the first experimental camp, Brownsea Island was the focus of worldwide celebrations of the centenary of Scouting. Four camps were set up on the island including a replica of the original 1907 camp, and over 300 scouts from 160 countries travelled to the island to take part in the celebrations.



  1. ^ a b Brownsea Island National Trust Guide, 1993
  2. ^ OS Explorer Map OL15 - Purbeck & South Dorset. Ordnance Survey. 2006. ISBN 978-0-319-23865-3. 
  3. ^ a b Sydenham (p.384)
  4. ^ Sydenham (p.385)
  5. ^ Legg (p.28)
  6. ^ Legg (p.33)
  7. ^ Legg (p.37–38)
  8. ^ Legg (p.41)
  9. ^ Legg (p.58)
  10. ^ Legg (p.72) 
  11. ^ Legg (p.108)
  12. ^ Legg (p.118)
  13. ^ Legg (p.130)
  14. ^ Legg (p.30)
  15. ^ a b Woolgar, Brian; La Riviere, Sheila (2002). Why Brownsea? The Beginnings of Scouting. Brownsea Island Scout and Guide Management Committee (re-issue 2007, Wimborne Minster: Minster Press). ISBN 1-899499-16-4. 


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