1902 Encyclopedia > Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight

WIGHT, ISLE OF, a small island in the English Channel, situated off the coast of Hampshire, between 50° 35' and 50° 46' N. lat. and 1° 34' and 1° 5' W. long. (see vol. xi. P1. VII.). It forms a portion of the county of Hampshire, and is separated from the mainland by a narrow strait, the Solent and Spithead. The island is, roughly speaking, diamond-shaped, the shorter diameter, from north to south, measuring 13 miles, and the longer, from east to west., 23 miles. The area is 92,931 acres, or about 145 square miles. The most prominent feature in its physical geography is a range of high chalk downs running from east to west across the centre of the island, and terminating in the Culver and Freshwater cliffs respectively. This range is broken through in the centre by the valley of the Medina, which flows clue north and is the only river of consequence in the island ; it is navigable up to Newport. A second smaller range of chalk downs,occurs in the south near Ventnor. Along the south coast, extending from St Catherine Point to Ventnor, there is the remarkable district known as the Undercliff, celebrated for its wild and romantic beauty and for its mild climate. It is sheltered from the north by a line of high cliffs. North of the central chalk range the country is for the most part flat and well-wooded. Parkhurst Forest, where, timber is grown for the use of the British navy, is 3000 acres in extent. The geology of the island affords within a small area abundant opportunities for studying many different formations. The uppermost of the strata represented in the island is the Eocene, and the lowest the Wealden. All the strata between these two may be studied in good sections, and very numerous and interesting fossils may be collected. The various Eocene beds are exhibited along the north coast, and may also be studied to great advantage in White Cliff and Alum Bays. In the neighbourhood of Gurnet Bay there is a very remarkable bed, containing beautifully-preserved remains of insects and spiders. In Alum Bay, in the extreme west, the strata are vertically disposed, and consist of a very curious series of coloured sands and clays. Here also the junction between the Eocene and the underlying Chalk is admirably shown. The central range of chalk downs is part of the northern slope, and the downs behind the Undercliff are part of the southern slope of a lesser anticlinal axis, the upper portion of the Chalk strata having been denuded in such a way as to expose the underlying Greensand, of which the greater portion of the southern half of the island is composed. The Greensand formation may best be studied in the cliff section from Atherfield Point to Rocken End. Beneath the Greensand the Wealden is exposed in the section from Brook to Atherfield, and also, to a much less extent, in Sandown Bay. The Wealden strata have yielded abundant fossil remains of extinct reptiles (Iguanodon), especially in the neighbourhood of Brook and Cowleaze Chines ; and at Brook Point an extensive fossil forest exists, being the remains of a great raft of timber floated down and deposited in estuarine mud at the mouth of a great river. At Brook also the characteristic Wealden mollusk, Unio valdensis, occurs abundantly.

The climate is mild and relaxing, and enjoys the reputation of being peculiarly salubrious. In winter and spring, however, the cast winds are very trying, and in summer the heat is at times very great. The climate of the Undercliff is especially mild, and a large consumption hospital (the Royal National Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest), arranged on rile cottage principle, has been established here. Partly owing to the mildness of the climate, and partly to the beauty of the scenery, the island has long been a favourite resort of tourists, and within recent years several fashionable watering-places have sprung up. Of these the principal are Cowes, at the mouth of the Medina, the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron, Ryde (11,461 inhabitants in 1881), Bembridge, Sandown, Ventnor (5739), Shanklin (1780), Freshwater (2809), and Yarmouth (787). Newport (9357), on the Medina, is the capital of the island, but is comparatively little frequented by visiters. Hitherto many parts of the island have been more or less inaccessible owing to the deficiency of railways ; but it is being rapidly opened up, and a railway is now in course of construction between Newport, Carisbrooke, Yarmouth, and Freshwater. There are few industries in the island. The population is chiefly agricultural, a large proportion of the land being devoted to sheep-grazing. Fishing is also carried on to a considerable extent on the south coast, - lobsters, crabs, and prawns being plentiful. Oyster o cultivation has been attempted in the Medina, in Beading Harbour, and in the Newtown river. At Cowes shipbuilding is carried on, and on the Medina there are cement-works. In the towns, however, the chief occupation of the inhabitants consists in providing for the wants of the summer visiters ; in winter very little business is done. The island is divided into two liberties, East and West Medina, excluding the two boroughs of Newport and Hyde ; and it forms one petty and special sessional division of the county. Until 1885 there was one member of parliament for the island and one for the borough of Newport ; now, however, there is only one member for the whole island. Episcopally the island has for many centuries belonged to the see of Winchester. In 1881 the population was 73,633, as against 66,219 in 1871.

History. - The Isle of Wight (Roman Fecti,5) was originally inhabited by Celts, and was conquered for the emperor Claudius by Vespasian in 43. The Romans remained in possession for four centuries. In 530 it was conquered by Cerdic and Cymric and added to the kingdom of Wessex. Later on it again became free from the control of Wessex and remained independent until the inhabitants of their own accord submitted to Edward, the son of Alfred. William the Conqueror gave the island as an independent lordship to William Fitz-Osborne, but it was again forfeited to the crown on the rebellion of his son, the earl of Hereford. Henry I. gave the lordship to Richard de Redvers, in whose family it remained until 1293, when Isabella de Fortibus, the lady of the island, sold it to Edward I. Richard II. again appointed a lord of the island, and the office continued until the reign.of Henry VII., when it was finally abolished. From that date onwards the government has been vested in a captain or governor, whose office is now honorary. Charles I. was confined in Carisbrooke Castle for seine time in 1649. The antiquities include the British pit villages near Rowborough, the Celtic tumuli on several of the chalk downs, the long stone at Mottistone, the Roman villas near Brading and Canisbrooke, the ruins of Quarr Abbey, and numerous ancient churches. Carisbrooke Castle, almost in the centre of the island, is a fine old ruin built upon the site of an ancient British stronghold. The British fortifications were probably occupied as a camp by the Romans under Vespasian, and they were subsequently held by the Saxons, who made the high mound known as the keep. The inner walls of the castle were erected in the 11th century, and the outer defences were constructed in the reign of Elizabeth. The Roman villa near Brading contains some beautiful and well-preserved examples of tesselated pavements; that at Carisbrooke is smaller and not so interesting.

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