Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for WIGHT (Isle of)

WIGHT (Isle of), an island in Hants; bounded, on the N, by the Solent,-on the other sides, by the English channel. Its outline is irregularly rhomboidal, and has been compared to that of a turbot, and to that of a bird with expanded wings. Its length from E to W, from Bembridge Point to the Needles, is nearly 23 miles; its greatest breadth from N to S, from West Cowes to St. Catherine's Point, is 13¾ miles; its circuit is about 56 miles; and its area, inclusive of foreshore, is 99,746 acres. The general surface has a considerable elevation above sea-level. The coast, along the N, is low; around the W angle, is rocky, broken, precipitous, and romantic; and along the SW, the S, and the SE, breaks down in a richly varied series of cliffs, often abrupt or mural, extensively terraced and lofty, including all the magnificent range known as the Undercliff, and everywhere replete with scenic interest. The watershed uniformly follows the trending of the S coast; and is distant from it never more than 2½ miles, generally less than 1 mile. A range of downs extends about 6 miles from St. Catherine's Hill to Dunnose; rises from the shore, with excessive steepness, to a height of nearly 800 feet; and is marked, along its steep sea-front, with the picturesque terraces of the Undercliff. A diversified range of downs extends about 22 miles, from the Needles on the W to Culver cliff on the E; commences in grand cliffs about 600 feet high; runs 9 miles nearly due east, in a single, sharp, steep ridge, to Mottiston; attains there its highest altitude, at 662 feet above sea-level; makes several debouches in its subsequent progress; suffers repeated cleaving and disseverment, in the form of gaps or depressions; assumes, for some distance, in the neighbourhood of Carisbrooke, the character of a double or a triple range; is, in some parts of its course, saddle-shaped and slender,-in other parts, broad-based and moundish; and divides the island into two pretty nearly equal sections. A transverse ridge, about 400 feet high, extends about 3 miles in the contiguous to the river Yar; and another transverse ridge, tame in feature, but sometimes of considerable height, extends between the Medina and the Brading. The rest of the surface is either undulating or gently sloping, and has little or no claim to be called picturesque. The chief streams are the Yar, the Newton, the Medina, the Wooton, and the Main or Brading. The geognostic structure comprises chiefly lower greensand in most of the S, chalk in part of the centre, and upper eocene in most of the N; but includes many details, possesses deep interest, and may advantageously be studied with the aid of Mantell's and Martin's manuals.

Agriculture employs most of the inhabitants; was long in a backward condition; but, since about 1840, has made vast progress. Wheat is the staple produce. Southdown or Dorset sheep are extensively pastured on the hills; and upwards of 4,000 lambs yearly are sent to the London market. The farmhouses are generally good; and not a few of them were formerly mansions. Fisheries are carried on, but are not very productive. Oyster-beds are in the estuaries of the streams; but the oysters, though delicately-flavoured, are not generally popular. An export of silicious sand, sometimes to the amount of about 22,000 tons a year, goes on, chiefly to London and Bristol, from Alum bay. The manufacture of alum was begun at that place in 1579, and was long carried on, but is now extinct. Clay iron-stone is found in considerable quantity on the shore below Hempstead Cliffs; and is sent to Swansea to be there smelted. Bricks, draining-tiles, and coarse pottery are extensively made in several places. Cement-mills are on the Medina below Newport. Ship-building is carried on at West Cowes. Lace, of great celebrity, was once so extensively manufactured as to employ about 650 hands, but now is made only at an establishment in Newport. Roads are plentiful, but sometimes not very good; and one railway goes from West Cowes to Newport,-another from Ryde to Ventnor.

The Island is governed by county magistrates. Petty- sessions and county courts are held at Newport; and criminal offenders are sent to Winchester. Two mem- bers are returned to parliament by Newport; one by the rest of the island; and the electors, exclusive of Newport, were 1,167 in 1833, and 2,218 in 1863. The only towns with upwards of 2,000 inhabitants are Newport, Ryde, West Cowes, and Ventnor. The chief seats include one of the Queen, two of noblemen, and five of baronets; and amount to about thirty. The island is divided into the liberties of East Medina and West Medina; contains 32 parishes; and forms a registration district, sectioned into the sub-districts of Cowes, Newport, Ryde, Godshill, and Calbourne. Poor rates in 1863, £12,127. Marriages in 1863, 469; births, 1,787; of which 111 were illegitimate; deaths, 1,212,-of which 446 were at ages under 5 years, and 32 at ages above 85. Marriages in the ten years 1851-60, 3,828; births, 15,476; deaths, 9,034. The places of worship, in 1851, were 39 of the Church of England, with 15,320 sittings; 15 of Independents, with 4,093 s.; 8 of Baptists, with 1,288 s.: 1 of Quakers, with 50 s.: 1 of Unitarians, with 215 s.; 24 of Wesleyans, with 4,665 s.; 7 of Primitive Methodists, with 867 s.; 26 of Bible Christians, with 2,550 s.; 6 undefined, with 630 s.; 1 of Latter Day Saints, with 50 s.; and 3 of Roman Catholics, with 550 s. The schools were 56 public day-schools, with 5,434 scholars; 225 private day-schools, with 2,278 s.; 101 Sunday schools, with 7,826 s.; and 4 evening schools for adults, with 47 s. Real property in 1860, £282,845; of which £829 were in quarries, and £157 in fisheries. Pop. in 1851, 50,324; in 1861, 55,362. Houses, 10,354.

The Isle of Wight was known to the ancient Britons as Guith or Guiet; to the Romans as Vecta or Vectis; to the Saxons as Wiht, Whit, or Wight. The ancient British name signifies divided or separated; and is supposed to indicate that the island was dissevered from the mainland, by the gradual formation of the Solent. Much discussion has been carried on as to whether Ictis, mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as a depôt of the ancient tin trade to Gaul, was the Isle of Wight or some part of Devon or Cornwall. The Romans took possession of the island in the year 43, and held possession of it for about 400 years. It then was united to the kingdom of Wessex; was devastated, in 661, by the Mercians, and then annexed to Mercia; was reunited, in 686, to Wessex; was overrun, in 787 and in 1001, by the Danes; appears to have, for some time between these two dates, been independent; and, in the time of Edward the Elder, became voluntarily a portion of the realm of England. William the Conqueror made it an independent lordship, in favour of W. Fitz-Osborne; Henry I. transferred the lordship to Richard de Redvers, Earl of Devon; and Edward I. purchased it from that nobleman's descendant, Isabella de-Fortibus, Countess of Albemarle. The lords exercised sovereign rights within it, and resided at Carisbrooke Castle. The title of king of Wight was conferred, by Henry VI., on Henry Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; but was only a sham, and of short duration. Governors of the island were appointed under the Crown, from the time of Edward I.; but their power gradually diminished till the latter end of the 18th century, and became practically extinct in 1841. Nominal governors were subsequently appointed; but they have worn their title merely as an honorary dignity. Ancient British and Saxon remains occur in the forms of tumuli. Roman relics have been found in the form of numerous coins in various places, of a villa at Carisbrooke, of massive foundations at Clatterford, and of fragments of pottery at Barnes and Morton. The only noticeable ancient military strength is Carisbrooke castle. Several monastic houses once flourished; but only two, at Carisbrooke and Quarr, have left any vestiges. Churches with Norman portions are in four places; with transition Norman, at two; with early English, at three; with decorated English, at two or more.

(John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72))

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "an island"   (ADL Feature Type: "islands")
Administrative units: Hampshire AncC
Place names: GUIET     |     GUITH     |     ISLE OF WIGHT     |     VECTA     |     VECTIS     |     WHIT     |     WIGHT     |     WIGHT ISLE OF     |     WIHT
Place: the Isle of Wight

Go to the linked place page for a location map, and for access to other historical writing about the place. Pages for linked administrative units may contain historical statistics and information on boundaries.