Wight Life

Victorian Ventnor

by D Wheeler

Drawing of Victorian ventnor

AT THE BEGINNING of the nineteenth century, the Isle of Wight was still a rural backwater and a generation or so behind the mainland. Its economy was based on corn and wool and — in times of war with the French — on the military; Newport was the only centre which could remotely be described as a town. Communications were atrocious; few Islanders braved the crossing to Southampton or Portsmouth without first making their wills, and it was quicker and safer to go to Newport from Yarmouth via Lymington and the mainland than along the toll path with its innumerable gates, ruts and other hazards. Bonchurch, now part of Ventnor, was already a village in its own right while the path through St Lawrence to Niton ran past a number of properties whose names at least are still in existence; Steephill, Wolverton, Mirables, The Orchard, Beauchamp, to name only a few. Some wealthy dandies and men of letters came here to live in the summer months but otherwise there were few visitors; the age of mass travel had not yet arrived. Ventnor itself could not even have been described as a hamlet, consisting only of a farm, a mill, a few fishermens' cottages and an inn, where passing travellers, after watching the mill stream falling in a cascade to the shore would comment aptly on the unspoiled beauties of nature before they passed on.

It was not long, however, before a number of events combined to bring the Ventnor area into the public eye. In 1828 the extensive Steephill Estate was brought by Mr Hamborough who elected to replace the rather attractive thatched cottage of the former owner. The mason, who was to be in charge of the works, first built a number of cottages in the Ventnor area for his staff and, in fact, lived in Cove Cottage which can still be seen on the road leading out of Ventnor. At almost the same time, two eminent doctors wrote books which drew attention to the district. The first was Sir James Clark who in his book 'The Sanative Influence of Climate' wrote 'I have certainly seen nothing along the South Coast of England that will bear comparison with it (the Ventnor area); it is a matter of surprise that the advantages it possesses to so eminent degree should be overlooked in a country whose inhabitants have been traversing half the globe in search of climate. Its most important qualities are as a winter residence for delicate invalids.' Dr Martin, whose `History of the Undercliff' appeared in 1849, was equally enthusiastic and both works seem to have produced an immediate reaction on their readers. This must have given great pleasure to the local landowner, who, being in some financial difficulties, was only too ready to dispose of his property in small lots and to the highest bidder. In the next twenty years or so most of the land was bought up by speculative builders and the main outline of the modern town took shape. Later critics have made some play over the lack of co-ordination and with the 'haphazard' and 'outrageous' style of the houses then built; they have compared Ventnor — to its disadvantage — with towns like Ryde and Bournemouth in which the original property owners retained a strict and, on the whole, healthy control over the way in which they were developed. It must, however, be said in defence of Ventnor's founding fathers, that they inherited not a number of elegant estates or a rolling foreshore but a rugged series of rocky outcrops which would have taxed the ingenuity of any modern town planner. Nothing is perfect in this world and at least a number of the Victorian houses and streets in Ventnor are still pleasing to the eye. This must have been a period of great activity, for Ventnor's population increased from 350 in 1838 to 2,500 in 1851 and to 5,000 twenty years later. The Island had been put firmly on the social map in 1846 when the young Queen Victoria purchased Osborne House as a royal holiday residence, and the first railways appeared shortly afterwards. In the early days, travel from London to Ventnor was not without its trials and tribulations; even after the first Island railway had been built in the '60s neither end connected with the harbour piers, and passengers had to be transhipped into horse-drawn trams and charabancs to bridge the gaps. Ventnor station was 240 feet above sea level which made a last-minute dash to catch the train a feat of endurance!

Although there were from the first a number of hotels in the town, most of the visitors' accommodation was in the form of family houses. The Victorians had large families and the more wealthy of these could afford long summer holidays; after the winter invalids left, the town must have filled up with well-to-do people who had rented a villa for the summer season and who, if it pleased them, came again and again. Typical of these was the American Mr Richards, to whom we shall refer again later and who first visited Ventnor in 1872; between then and the turn of the century when he purchased Steephill Castle, he came regularly to the town for extended holidays and must have stayed in his time in most of the better hotels and villas. Ventnor appealed to lovers of rugged scenery (much in vogue during that period) and they were not sparing in their praise — 'Imagine, I say', wrote one, 'a spot so marked by material advantages. The myrtle blooms in this favoured spot and an Italian atmosphere seems to breath its balm around. Leafiness makes a very bower of each sequestered knoll; even to the marg of the town cliff slopes the luxuriant verdure while the glorious ocean sweeps around in all magnificence until it seems to near the heaven.' To portray it in this fulsome way as a second Madeira or Capri was to do Ventnor a dis-service. However mild its winters — and it achieved a short-lived international reputation as a winter resort — it remained a part of England and to infer that the sun always shone and that the wind never blew was both unfair and untrue. Ventnor's other attraction was the beach, used at first chiefly as a promenade, for in those days people were chary of the sun and were careful not to expose their delicate complexions more than was absolutely necessary. A sea-wall along the esplanade was completed in 1848 and shortly afterwards there was the first unsuccessful attempt to construct a pier — or rather a jetty — at the eastern end. The first casualty of the new works was the old straw thatched mill which was demolished to give better access to the site; then a promontory just to the east (Collins' Point) was blown up to provide ballast for the jetty. This proved to be a great mistake and it was realised, too late, that the point has acted as a natural breakwater for the beach. To quote a German businessman, William Spindler, who had retired to a cottage near the beach for health reasons, 'in 1896 both bays were filled with beautiful bright shingle but in less than five years both were denuded of beach.' It was only after a hurried visit by a government inspector and subsequent construction of a number of groynes that this 'scouring' was controlled and the western bay was returned to its former sandy state; the eastern bay was lost forever.

Spindler, himself a man of drive and energy, was fiercely critical of the local council on a number of issues and at one stage suggested that the town should do away with self-government and be ruled by a dictator. As his advice and offers of help were not heeded, he eventually withdrew to Old Oak Park in St. Lawrence with the intention of encouraging its development as a rival resort to Ventnor. He died before he was able to carry out his plans and the only permanent monument which he has left behind is Spindler's Folly, the ruins of a concrete breakwater which he had built in Binnell Bay near Old Park.

One of Spindler's closest friends was Richards, the American mentioned earlier, who eventually bought Steephill Castle. His daughter was the well-known Victorian novelist writing under the name of John Oliver Hobbes who spent the last few years of her life at Craigie Lodge near Steephill. Richards identified himself with Ventnor and, like Spindler, was liberal in his suggestions for its improvement. One of the most ambitious of these (never, of course adopted as the Council was always short of cash) was the construction of an observation tower at the top of St Boniface Downs with an aerial railway to connect it with the railway station and town. As a regular visitor to Ventnor for thirty years and an eventual resident, Mr Richards must rate as a well- informed observer. His book, despite its sugary title, 'Almost Fairyland' gives an interesting picture of the town in the second half of the nineteenth century. From it one gains the impression of a rather contented little place, happy to entertain a generous quota of seasonal visitors but definitely reluctant to consider costly development projects. For the truth is, that by 1870, Ventnor, a relatively early starter as a convalescent and holiday resort, was beginning to run out of steam and to be challenged in size by places like Shanklin and Sandown with longer beaches and a more easily developed hinterland. Ventnor itself was circumscribed by natural boundaries beyond which it was difficult to grow. To the north were the Downs, to the east the difficult terrain of the Landslip and to the west the Undercliff and large private estates of Steephill and St Lawrence. In the last hundred years, Ventnor's population has increased only marginally and as a resort it now takes only one sixth of the Island's long stay visitors as compared with the half-share of Shanklin and Sandown. To say this is not necessarily to the town's discredit; many people, including the writer, like small places and few South Coast resorts can boast, as can Ventnor, that the country or sea are only a few minutes walk from any part of the town. Of Ventnor's suburbs, St Lawrence remains delightful and almost completely unspoiled and Bonchurch has retained an air of quiet elegance. Ventnor, itself, remains extremely popular in the summer months and has many good points; the beach, the cliff walks and the solid Victorian houses perched on every pinnacle, to name only a few.