Wight Life

William Arnold of Cowes

by Colin Arnold

Drawing of William Arnold by Colin Arnold

WILLIAM ARNOLD has left his mark in history through his son Thomas, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, and through his grandson Matthew Arnold, the well known poet. But William, who lived at Cowes for twenty-four years, was a man of note in his own right.

William's bachelor uncle was the first of the Suffolk Amolds to move to the Isle of Wight. He became the Collector of Excise for the Island. And William's father was a Supervisor of Excise for Poole. So in accepting the job of Collector of Customs at Cowes in 1777, William was really following in the family footsteps. His duties were many and varied, for, besides seizing smuggling vessels, he was responsible for the registration of new vessels and for giving clearance to local ships, as well as to all sea-going merchant vessels in the area. He had a marked talent in dealing with people, and was a tolerant and understanding man as well as a champion of his men's rights.

When he first took up his duties, smugglers would flaunt the Customs openly and often landed their cargoes during daylight, under the very eyes of the Customs men, who could do little to stop them. The smuggling vessels were usually heavily armed, whereas the local Customs' cutter was too frail to carry much armament. And, until Arnold improved matters, compensation for injury to Customs men in the course of their duty, was non-existent.

Arnold was determined to put a stop to the blatant practices of these smugglers and persuaded his superiors to allow him to find a large cutter for his own use in combating them. He fitted out a vessel at great expense to himself and called it the 'Swan'. A month after the launching, the 'Swan's' commander, George Sarmon of Cowes, was making a search, for a notorious smuggler called Streeter, who was operating near Hurst Castle. In risking the rough weather around the Needles, the 'Swan' was thrown onto the shingle and lost. This was a grave blow to Arnold's finances, especially as the vessel was uninsured.

However, the Crown footed the bill for a second 'Swan' of 90 tons, which was also under the command of George Sarmon. After three years, his brother Francis Sarmon took over the ship and later commanded 'Swan III' and 'Swan IV'. During the war with France, 'Swan III' was captured and Sarmon and his crew were imprisoned in France for several months. After many skirmishes with the smugglers, Sarmon's career ended abruptly in 1797 in 'Swan IV'. He was killed by a musket-shot from a French privateer. This was a shock to Arnold, who had known the Sarmons for fourteen years. Typically, he made sure that Sarmon's widow was helped financially.

The control of inland smuggling was also under Arnold's jurisdiction. His Riding Officers patrolled between Cowes and Newtown harbour and skirted the whole coast via the Needles, Atherfield, Niton, Shanklin and over Culver Downs to Brading Harbour; thence from Ryde to East Cowes to make a complete circuit.

Picture of Slatwood Lodge

In 1778 William was also given the secondary job of deputy postmaster of the Island, which was to some extent a nominal position. But in 1785 he was promoted, in as much as the returns of the Cowes Collector were separated from Portsmouth. He became the first Principal Collector for Trinity House at Cowes. Arnold earned himself a high reputation and his judgment was valued. His advice on how to deal with discipline in the Merchant Service was sought by Pitt's Board of Trade in 1789.

He was interested in what was going on in the world, and because of his direct contact with ships from abroad, plus the information he gleaned from his job as deputy postmaster, he was often the first to learn of rumours of war and political intrigue. For many years the Arnold family lived at 'Brummagem House', which is situated opposite what is now the Cowes police station. A red plaque on the red-brick building tells us that this was the birth-place of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School between 1827 and 1841. But in William's day, the surroundings were very different. Fields lay around the area and William and his wife Martha took a hand at farming. They kept cattle, sheep and pigs and grew hay for winter feed.

At St Mary's Church, Northwood — known in Arnold's day as 'The Chapel on the hill' — a plate commemorates the acceptance into the Church of his seventh and youngest child, Thomas, in 1795. It was here also that William's mother Mary was buried. In 1795 William bought seventeen acres of land at East Cowes. Having a house on the east side of the river Medina saved him the daily journey from West Cowes on the ferry.

Picture of Arnold memorial tablet

On this land he built a large family house, which he called 'Slatwoods'. It was built on an oak-covered hill which overlooked the river and the sea. St Mary's Church and Bellevue House could be seen on the opposite hill, on the other side of the river. On his 'Slatwoods' estate, William continued his farming and rearing of heifers and sheep.

The big house, which stood for a hundred years, is now gone, though the South lodge, which is known today as 'Slatwood Lodge' is in excellent condition and can still be seen. It is situated at the bottom of 'Old Road' in East Cowes, not far from the British Hovercraft factory.

William died suddenly in 1801 and was buried at Whippingham Church, where his memorial tablet reads:

'Sacred to the memory of Wm Arnold, Esq, late Collector of HM Customs in the Port of Cowes, Isle of Wight.
'A man who by his amiable as well as faithful discharge, justly entitled him to the warmest esteem and affection of all who were permanently or occasionally associated with him in business, society or domestic ties.
The public, his friends and his family feel and deplore the loss sustained by his death on March 5, 1801, aged 55.'

The Governor of the Island, Lord Bolton. in keeping with Arnold's benevolent philosophy, wrote to the General Post Office suggesting that Arnold's widow be given the postal appointment that her husband held. So Mrs Martha Arnold became the first 'deputy postmistress of the Isle of Wight.'