Wight Life

The Blakes

A Well Remembered Island Name

by Joy Mason

IN THE YEAR 1884 there came to live in the Island a man of immense skill and reputation as a veterinary surgeon. His name, John Vickers Blake. Taking up residence at the 'Homestead' in Monckton Street, Ryde, a house of character, with its two stone dogs appropriately standing guard at its gate, it was not long before he bought a nearby property called 'The Dell' in Rink Road, Ryde, where he established a well equipped hospital for animals.

It was known as 'Blakes Veterinary Infirmary', and in fact these words were painted in large letters on the side of the building; and at odd times when weather and sea air have taken their toll of any covering surface, the old name can still be dimly seen, almost as though the old associations are destined never to be entirely forgotten.

Mr Blake's skill at diagnosing animal complaints became widely known throughout the Island, and farmers used to say he had only to sniff the breath of an ailing cow to spot the trouble immediately and supply the right treatment.

As there were certainly no injections and few drugs available in those days, he had to depend on a more natural method of healing; and a great deal of natural common sense.

There is no doubt that the 'Infirmary' was to see many unusual happenings in its time, and Miss N Blake (known as 'Bobbie'), the youngest daughter of the family, tells me how she vividly remembers one of these occasions, although such a small girl at that time.

It was quite the accepted thing in the Royal Navy of those days for the officers and men of the Fleet to bring back to their home ports, not only the proverbial parrots and cockatoos, but more exotic creatures; some as pets, and some perhaps destined for the sadder life of zoos or entertainments. Amongst these captives were occasionally small bears, friendly and lovable when young, but dangerous when fully grown.

As a precaution against their ferocity the bears had to have their molar teeth extracted at a certain age; and if this coincided with the time the ship put in at Portsmouth Dockyard, the bears were destined for yet another sea trip; this time over to the Island where they could be delivered into the capable hands of Mr Blake.

They were always accompanied by an officer and one rating, leading the animal on collar and chain. One wonders if they were ferried across by naval launch or brought on the steamer to delight and amaze the passengers. The stables at the 'Dell' were fitted up for every emergency, and Mr Blake had devised a special contraption for dealing with bears. The animal was secured to a cage in such a way that only its jaws protruded from the bars, and so its huge teeth were drawn.

It was after one of these operations that Miss Blake was allowed to visit the patient, and told to take with her a raw egg.

She would have to wait until the bear extended his paw through the bars of his cage; and being used to humans this he would very soon do, then she would carefully break the egg into its upturned palm. Delicately the paw would be retracted, and the welcome titbit popped into the tender muzzle. The bear, finding such soothing comfort would hold its head in both paws and rock gently to and fro in an ecstasy of relief.

Not all Miss Blokes memories have quite such a satisfactory ending. Admiring a photograph of herself and several of her brothers and sisters sitting in a small carriage drawn by a stocky little donkey, I asked if it had lived for many years.

Picture of Blakes Vetinary Infirmary

"No, I'm afraid it had a sad ending', she replied. 'It ate the contents of a whole pot of paint, and not even father's expertise could save it."

Mr Blake was very soon appointed veterinary surgeon to Osborne House, and attended Queen Victoria's numerous household pets and farm animals, meeting on many occasions the famous John Brown, Her Majesty's Scottish ghillie. At the 'Bell', a stalwart and loyal family of blacksmiths were employed, and the walls of the old house and stables must have resounded to the ring of their hammers as many a carriage horse, riding pony and hunting mount clattered into the yard for shoeing. As demands on his services increased, and his travels throughout the Island became more extensive, he kept a change of horses at the old Clarendon hostelry at Chale.

Deeply involved with animals from a very early age, it is not surprising that his family shared his interests, and it must have been gratifying that his son, James Cowper Blake followed in his father's footsteps and became, not only a famous 'vet' but a well loved MFH to the Island hunt. He practised his profession for over sixty years, becoming a most active all-round sportsman. He furthered interest in the Pony Club, acted as judge at point-to-point meetings and for ring events at the Royal IOW Agricultural Shows.

He was a superb shot, but hand in hand with these pursuits went an immense love for the gentler art of horticulture, and his gardens at Cypress Road, Newport were well known for their beauty.

When, at eighty-five years of age, his useful and remarkable life came to its end, it was learnt that his last wish was to have his ashes scattered in Westridge Copse between Shorwell and Chillerton where he had enjoyed so many happy hours hunting and shooting.

Photograph of the donkey that ate the paint

His Huntsman Mr B Bennett (a name still well known in hunting circles) attended the ceremony, immaculate in pink coat, his boots polished like mirrors, his breeches and stock as white as snow. As the last prayers were spoken, and the ashes drifted to their resting place, the clear notes of the hunting horn echoed through the quiet valley. Mr Kennet had sounded the 'Find' and 'Gone Away'.

There is still an echo of the name Blake very much concerned with country life. Mr Eric Cowper Blake, son of James, grandson of John, has for many years lived in the West country. He collects with an artist's eye suitable branches and roots of various species of trees that have the natural curves he needs, and fashions them into walking sticks. Many of them have found their way to all parts of the world, where their craftsmanship and the natural beauty of the wood have made them objects of great value and interest.