swuklink: History of Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset  
of BROWNSEA ISLAND in Poole Harbour, Dorset, England
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Map from Lycos @ 1:200,000
Map from Lycos @ 1:200,000

Brownsea Island which takes up some 500 acres of Poole Harbour is now a tranquil oasis of heathland, pinewood and saltmarsh owned by the National Trust - a place of retreat from the bustle of the large conurbation which comprises Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch. Now it is managed largely as a nature reserve disturbed only by the many thausands of visitors which take the short voyage here from the mainland each summer. The island has, however, had a very varied history.

The name in the 13th century was Brunkeseye which derives from the personal name Burn or Brown and the Old English eig for island.

Until 1903, the island was known as Branksea. In that year, however, a number of guests of the Van Raaltes travelling from London mistakenly alighted the train at Branksome Station instead of continuing on to Poole. This led Charles van Raalte to change the island's name from Branksea to the present Brownsea to avoid future confusion.


The end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago caused a general rise in sea-level as the land-locked ice melted and found its way into the world's oceans. The rising of the sea drowned the estuary and created Poole Harbour itself leaving the desposits of gravels, sands and clays carried eastwards from the West Country by the Great Solent River piled into what is now Brownsea Island.

The beginning of th 5th century BC brings us the first signs of human settlement in the area with the establishment of agriculture, trade and the production of pottery. That the harbour was used as a highway early on is evidenced by the discovery of two sections of a 33-foot long log boat by a dredger in the marine silts just to the north of the island in 1964. Carbon-dated to about 800 BC, the remains of the boat have now been preserved by Poole Museum.


The Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 saw the establishment of a supply base for the conquering legions on the mainland site of an Iron Age settlement to the north of Brownsea, although it is not until the 3rd century AD that we see signs of the settlement of the island itself. The Roman legions withdrew from Britain in [] leaving it open to the invading Anglo-Saxons who established their villages along the shores of the harbour. By 800 AD, Wareham had become prominent as a Saxon town which, like Brownsea Island, was part of the powerful kingdom of Wessex.

The period from 830 AD saw the area attracting the ever-increasing attention of the Norsemen whose raiding parties visited the harbour and pillaged the Saxon settlements. In 876 AD, Wareham was not only attacked but occupied by the Vikings although Alfred the Great's fleet drove the Danish ships to flee into the English Channel. By the time of Alfred's victory, a chapel dedicated to St Andrew and belonging to the Abbey at Cerne had been established on Brownsea with a hermit ministering to the local seamen. In 1015, the Danish Cnut or Canute, yet to become King of England brought his fleet into the harbour to over-winter and the Vikings laid waste to the whole area.


Before the Norman invasion of 1066, Brownsea Island was in the possession of one Bruno. William I, the Conqueror, gave Studland to his half-brother Robert de Mortain but ownership reverted to the crown. The island itself could have been of little value in 1086 when William assessed his realm for taxation by ordering the compilation of the Domesday Book as it is not mentioned within its pages.

The Abbey of cerne retained its rights over Brownsea and these included the right to wreakage - to keep any cargo which might be washed up on its shores. this caused a fierce dispute in 1275 after the Constable of Corfe Castle removed casks of wine from the island's shore. The Abbot of cerne took his complaint to the monarch, Edward I, and the errant Constable was ordered to surrender over the casks. In 1318 the monks of Cerne were granted the sole rights to hunt rabbit, deer, hare and other wild-life on the island - they were also empowered to severely punish any poachers.

The existence of a small medieval fishing village and salt-producing community on the island was revealed by excavations in 1974 as were skeletons buried in the Christian fashion (with the heads buried to the west) which carbon-dating suggests were buried between 1030 and 1310.


Following Henry VIII's split with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530's, it was not only the monastic houses and their surrounding property which was consficated by the crown but also their estates.

Contemporary documents from henry VIII's reign show that the townsfolk of Poole were required to maintin a permanent garrison at the fort on the island.

Thus it was that control of Brownsea Island passed from Cerne Abbey to the crown. Mindful of the risk of invasion from the continent, Henry sought to build a chain of fortifications along the length of the south coast. Recognising the strategic value of the island's commanding position at the mouth of the
harbour and the approach to the thriving port of Poole, the monarch encouraged the Port's merchants to establish and maintain a small fort with gun platforms on the island. The fortifications on the island had fallen into disrepair by 1562 and the mayor of Poole petitioned the Privy Council for funds to restore it as an effective fort.

Hatton promoted Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world.

Queen Elizabeth I granted Brownsea Castle to one of her favourites, Sir Christopher Hatton, in 1576 (the Queen also sold Hatton Corfe castle on the Isle of Purbeck). Hatton later became Lord Chancellor (1587-91) and was also one of many members of Parliament who controlled the island.

Piracy was rife during this period in history and the captains of brownsea castle are reputed to have provided protection for some of the leading English pirates - in return for a share of their gains.

It was about the time of Hatton that 'copperas' working commenced on this island; the pyritous nodules which were found in the Brownsea clay were collected to manufacture the hydrated ferrous sulphate which was used in dyeing, tanning and in the making of ink.

The long-awaited onslaught on England eventually arrived in the shape of the Spanish Armada in August 1588 and the effectiveness of the defences on the island were very nearly to put to the test. The Armada was engaged in the English Channel just off the Dorset coast between Portland Bill and the Isle of Wight. In the event, the Spaniards made their way eastwards beyond the Isle of Wight where the Armada was destroyed by a storm. With the Armada defeated, the immediate threat of invasion was over and the importance of coastal defences diminished until Napoleon made new plans for invasion at the end of the 18th century.


Onwership of Brownsea island changed, comparatively uneventfully, several times until the srtife between King and Parliament erupted into Civil War (1642-51). The townsfolk of Poole threw in their lot with Parliament and Brownsea castle was strongly fortified and garrisoned throughout the war.

Sir Robert Clayton owned the island at the time of the Restoration in 1660. He later became a member of parliament and a Lord Mayor of London. Five years later, Charles II and his court fled the ravages of the plague in London and thus it was that the monarch sailed around the island on September 15th 1665 without landing. Instead the monarch graced the town of Poole to dine with his illigitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth - a plaque in the town commemorates the site of the meal.

In 1688, a delegation (which included Sir Robert Clayton) invited william of Orange to take the throne from James II. The Stuarts sought the support of the French and, until peace was negotiated, invasion again threatened waking the castle on the island to a state of vigil and readiness.


With lack of attention, Brownsea castle declined. In 1726 the island was bought by William Benson for �300. Eccentric and controversial, the sometimes styled 'Mad' Beson after a serious mental illness in 1741, he reputed to have dabbled in black magic. His plans to raize the derelict fortifications on the island and rebuild it as a residence brought him into a protracted conflict with Poole and his plans only came to fruition after the matter was referred to the Attorney General. Knowledgable in botany, Benson planted many different trees on the island and preserved hundreds of specimens of rare plants there.

Benson entertained Frederick, Prince of Wales as a guest at Brownsea Castle in the summer of 1741.

The next owner of Brownsea Island, Sir Humphrey Sturt who bought it 1765, continued its improvement as a gentleman's estate. The castle was raised to four storeys and new wings added. He laid out gardens complete with hot-houses. Sturt imported barge-loads of manure and soap-ash from Portsmouth and London and pioneered new methods of cultivating plants - it was he who had the flanks of the island planted with thausands of fir trees. Two freshwater lakes were created by peat-cutting and Sturt also created a walled garden and pheasantry on the island. On his death in 1786, the island passed to his son Charles.

Charles Sturt was the member of parliament for Bridport and an enthusiastic yachtsman. As war with revolutionary France became more inevitable, the island guarding the harbour again became strategically important and Sturt became the Captain of the Brownsea Island Artillery Volunteers who manned three new gun batteries on Brownsea.

Brownsea was sold to Sir Charles Chad for �8,000 in 1817. Chad made further extensions to the castle and laid out several acres of pheasant preserve which became known as 'Venetia Park' later. The island's defences were strenghtened to protect it from privateers and, to combat the smuggling which was rife in the area at the time, a coastguard station with a ten-gun battery and a row of cottages were completed on the island in 1842. The coastguard station, later known as 'Villano', now serves as the National Trust cafe.

In 1845 the island was sold to the former member of parliament and diplomat (the British Minister Plenipotentiary in Washington at the outbreak of war with the US in 1812 over impressment), Sir Augustus Foster for £14,000. His retirement on the island was not a happy one for, following a severe illness, he committed suicide at the castle by cutting his own throat.


Mary Waugh discovered the existence of high quality china clay on Brownsea Island and, thinking they would make their fortune from porcelain manufacture, her husband , Colonel William Petrie Waugh bought the island for only £13,000 in 1852. Colonel Waugh was a director of the London and Eastern Banking Corporation and easily raised over £200,000 to finance the couple's plans to drastically change Brownsea.

The five years which followed saw huge changes on the island with the erection of a three-storey pottery complete with engines on the south shore, brickworks and a horse-drawn tramway to haul the clay from the north of the island. In its hayday, The Branksea Clay & Pottery Company employed over 200 people, many of commuting to the island from nearby Studland by rowboat every day. On the island itself, Colonel Waugh built a model village for the workers which he named 'Maryland ' after his wife.

It was during this optomistic period of investment by Colonel Waugh that the church of St. Mary the Virgin was built on the island in the neo-Gothic style at a cost of £10,000 - a considerable cost at the time. Changes were also wrought on the castle by Waugh; the south-east front was built in the Tudor style, a gatehouse with clocktower was added, as was the family pier with its castellated watch-towers.

Waugh also attempted to enlarge the island by reclaiming St Andrew's Bay. A brick sea wall was first built and a windmill erected to pump out the water behind the wall and drain the 100 acres of newly-created marshy meadows which are now the lagoon.

The Brownsea clay proved unsuitable for the manufacture of fine china which the Waughs had envisaged and they were forced to turn their efforts to the production of terra cotta chimney pots and sanitary pipes. These wares were insufficiently profitable to finance the vast expenditure which had been lavished on the island by the Waughs and disaster was inevitable.

The fall of the Waugh's and their plans for the island came about in a most unusual manner when a group of businessmen arived on the island to ask Colonel Waugh to stand for parliament. Mary Waugh was rather deaf and wrongly surmised that the visitors had about unpaid bills and she pleaded with them for more time to settle them. Thus prompted, the creditors of the enterprise compared their notes and the enterpise collapsed about the Waughs, forcing the couple to take flight to Spain. In 1857, only five years after Clone Waugh purchased the island, it fell under the auctioneer's hammer as part of the bankruptcy proceedings which followed.

1857 - 1901:

Lengthy legal arguments amongst their creditors followed the bankruptcy of the Waughs in 1857 and it was not until 1873 (the Admiralty had considered buying Brownsea Island in the 1860's to replace Dartmouth as a base for training naval cadets) that the island was sold to the Hon. George Cavendish-Bentinck MP. Although he kept the pottery works founded by Waughs going until 1887, his main efforts were concentrated on improving agriculture on the island; he brought pedigree Guernsey and Jersey cows to the island and planted maize, barley, and oats. His passion for art collecting filled Brownsea Castle with Italian Renaissance sculpture some of which still decorates the church and quay buildings. Cavendish-Bentinck died in 1891 and the island was sold to yet another member of parliament, Major Kenneth Balfour.

On Sunday 26th January 1896, only five years after Major Kenneth Balfour had purchased the Island, Brownsea Castle was almost completely destroyed by a fire which rumour attributed to the newly installed electricity. With no fire engine on the island, the islanders formed a human bucket-chain to save the castle from the flames but could not prevent the building from being gutted.

The undaunted balfour rebuilt the castle, complete with modern fire hydrants, but put the island up for sale again in 1901.

1901 - 1925: THE VAN RAALTES

Charles and Florence Van Raalte came to Brownsea Island in 1901, their arrival heralding a period of Edwardian splendour. The Blunderbuss, thier steam launch, ferried titled guests from various European royal families to the Van Raaalte's elegant summer house-parties on the island. They played golf on the course which was built to the west of the castle or shoot the game in the island's woods.

Until 1903, the island was known as Branksea. In that year, however, a number of guests of the Van Raaltes travelling from London mistakenly alighted the train at Branksome Station instead of continuing on to Poole. This led Charles van Raalte to change the island's name from Branksea to the present Brownsea to avoid future confusion.

The island was a paradise for the Van Raalte children, Margot and Babs, who could run wild in the woods, sailed in Poole Harbour and would often swim the 1.25 miles to the mainland. Guglielmo Marconi, the pioneer of wireless telegraphy who conducted experiments at the Haven Hotel on Sandbanks opposite Brownsea Island, was one of the more unusual guests of the Van Raaltes. He was a particular favourite of the Van Raalte children to whom he gave one of his early wireless sets.


Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, at the invitation of Charles Van Raalte, chose Brownsea Island as the location of his first Scout camp which took place on the south coast of the island in August 1907. While some of the 22 boys were the public school children of baden-Powell's acqaintances, others were working-class boys drawn from the Boys' Brigades of Bournemouth and Poole.

The success of this first camp encouraged Baden-Powell to publish his Scouting for Boys in the following year and from these modest begginings the international Scouting movement mushroomed.

Charles van Raalte died in 1908 and was buried in Brownsea Church. Florence Van Raalte continued the same high standards at Brownsea for another seventeen years before she sold it in 1925.


Mrs. Mary Bonham-Christie bought Brownsea Island at auction in 1927 for £125,000. Like many of the island's previous owners, she was a touch eccentric and moved into what had previously been the agent's house on the quay to live a very reclusive life.

She was very opposed to the blood sports which had played such an important part of the Edwardian splendour of the Van Raaltes' tenure. Indeed, the lady was opposed to any exploitation of animals and banned fishing on the island and allowed the farm animals to roam wild. The farm, dairy, orchards and daffodil fields were abandoned to nature and brownsea reverted gradually to heathland. For the majority of the now redundant estate workers, the new regime brought a sad exodus back to the mainland but for the island's wildlife it was an immense boon - Brownsea became an increasingly important sanctuary for wildlife amidst the rapid urbanisation of the mainland and the consequent shrinking of natural habitats.

In July 1934 the island sanctuary was violated by fire, the same enemy which had claimed the castle nearly four decades before. The island burned under a pall of smoke for three days and threatened the all the main buildings at the eastern end of the island before the wind changed to save them.


In May 1940 the peace of Brownsea was invaded by the War which had started to rage in Europe when it provided a haven for Belgian and Dutch refugees who had escaped before the Nazi onslaught on their homeland in small boats and had been shepherded by the Royal Navy along the south coast to sanctuary in Poole Harbour.

To mislead the German bombers which sought as their would-be targets the harbour installations of Poole and Bournemouth, flares were lit at the western end of the island. As a result, the estate cottages of the village of Maryland which had been built by Colonel Waugh in the 1850's and had been mostly empty since 1927 were so severely damaged by the bombers that they had to be demolished later in the interests of safety.


Aged 98, Mrs. Mary Bonham-Christie died in april 1961 leaving her grandson no option other than to put the island up for sale in order to meet the deat duties due to the Treasury.

Rumours that this wildlife sanctuary would go the way of its mainland neighbour with plans for luxury housing and a marina were rife and this led to the formation of the Brownsea Island Appeal Committee by a group of concerned locals to protect the island from such development. Leslie Miller was the Committee's chairman and Helen Brotherton its Honorary Secretary.

The Treasury agreed to accept the island lin lieu of death duty and the National Trust agreed to take the responsibility for it provided that an endowment of £100,000 could be raised.
 Map of Brownsea Island
There followed a nationwide campaign to save the island and donations large and small arrived from individuals, businesses, charitable trusts and Scouts organisations mindful of the island's part in the
history of the Scout movement. In these efforts, the John Lewis Partnership was a particularly generous donor - it also repaired the Castle and rented it from the National Trust as a hotel for its employees.

The money for the endowment was raised and the island saved by May of 1962 and the new Head Warden, Alan Bromby, and his assistant, Jack Battrick, worked with large numbers of volunteers throughout the particularly severe winter of 1962/3 to prepare the island for the arrival of visitors in the summer. Not only were tracks cut for the visitors through the dense growths of rhododendron which had established themselves, but firebreaks were cut to prevent a disaster by fire like that of 1934. Amongst the audience at the formal opening of the island were two members of Baden-Powell's historic Scout camp here near the turn of the century.

 Map of Brownsea Island
The Dorset Wildlife Trust, then known as the Dorset Naturalists' Trust, took over the running of its first nature reserve in 1962 when it leased the northern part of Brownsea Island from the National Trust.

The island is probably best known for its connection with the Scouting Movement as it was here that Colonel Baden-Powell sited his first experimental camp in 1907.

Once the property of Cerne Abbey in Dorset, the island possessed a hermit's cell. It was in private hands with no access to the public until it passed to the National Trust which manage it as a nature reserve. It is the last refuge of our native red squirrel, ousted from England and Wales by its larger grey American cousin, to be found this side of the border with Scotland.

 Map of Brownsea Island, Dorset

The island's position commanding the mouth of the harbour and the navigable channel led to the building of Brownsea Castle at its southern extremity by Henry VIII and its strengthening during the reign of Charles I.

Brownsea Island and all upon it came into the possession of Lieutenant-Colonel Waugh in 1848 and he spent a great deal of money developing it by building cottages and a church. The austere castle itself did not escape his attentions either - given a Tudor-Gothic frontage it was remodelled as a splendid mansion. It burnt down in 1896 and was rebuilt to leave the castle we see today.

The northern part of the island is leased to the Dorset Wildlife Trust which runs it as a nature reserve. The Wildlife Trust's first reserve, it was acquired by them in 1962.

The island is accessible to visitors by means of a foot passenger ferry from Sandbanks.

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1275Bitter dispute between the Constable of Corfe Castle and the Abbot of Cerne about casks of wine washed up on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour
1318Monks of Cerne Abbey given exclusive hunting rights on Brownsea Island
1562Mayor of Poole petitions Privy Council for funds to restore the delapidated fortifications of Brownsea Island
1576Queen Elizabeth I grants Sir Christopher Hatton Brownsea Castle in Poole Harbour
1587Sir Christopher Hatton becomes Lord Chancellor
1765Brownsea Island purchased by Sir Humphrey Sturt
1848Brownsea Island comes into the possession of Lieutenant-Colonel Waugh
1962Dorset Wildlife Trust acquires its first nature reserve on Brownsea Island
196433-foot long log boat dated to about 800 BC dredged up from just north of Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour
1974Excavations reveal the existence of a small fishing village and burial ground on Brownsea Island

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