BROWNSEA ISLAND has evolved as the largest of the islands in Poole Harbour, probably as a small hill when the country was still in the throws of the last Ice Age. The recession of the ice meant a rise in sea levels and flooding from new rivers and streams which locally gave us Poole Harbour, although in the 'earlier' days it would have been a tract of land with a stream/river on each side, before it became totally isolated in the harbour some 2-5,000 years ago. Such rivers would probably have reached east to become the Solent, which was a river until what we know as the Purbeck Hills extending to the Isle of Wight and beyond were broken down.
In terms of size it is just over 1½ miles west to east and nearly 1 mile north to south.
With the sands, gravel and clay was also alum which is used as a colour fixer and important in the dying industry, also in the manufacture of ink. This substance, as many will realise courtesy of the name, makes another appearance further round the coast at the well-known Alum Chine.
The main clay field was to the north of the island and many shafts were sunk to extract the clay. There were lesser quantities to the south.
It seems reasonable that many folk would have put the resources of the island to good use over many millennia, the island of course being something of a staging post in their travels around the harbour as a whole. Any proper occupation would probably been at the end of the Roman occupation and when the Anglo-Saxons started moving in and establishing themselves. Nearby Wareham was of course a Saxon town, and a small part of the then all encompassing Wessex. Excavations have confirmed there was certainly a community in the 12-14th century.
In the early 11th century we are told the island was owned by somebody called 'Bruno'. However, when William the Conqueror started to get to grips with the country he 'gave' all of Studland, which included Brownsea, to Robert de Mortain who was his half-brother. The crown however, later claimed it was theirs, but there is no mention in Doomsday. Since it is part of Studland, perhaps there was some confusion all around Poole and it's islands as to what was what.
Nothing significant seemed to happen until Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and seizing of their properties. The crown actually commanded that a fortification be built on the island which was part of its endeavours to fortify all of the south coast of England. That fortification is what we now know as Brownsea Castle, albeit it several times improved since building, especially rebuilding after the fire. The merits of these efforts were demonstrated in the face of the Spanish Armada.
Queen Elizabeth I subsequently granted Brownsea Island to Christopher Hatton, along with Corfe Castle. Nothing much went on and it changed hands several times until Robert Clayton in the mid-17th century during the Restoration. Charles II reputedly sailed around but never landed during his flight from London during the ravages of the plague. For the monarchy, James II, William & Mary, and Anne came and went.
Interest in, and activity on the island diminished, much of the building was derelict, and it was purchased for a pittance in 1726 by a William Benson. He put up some new building and being something of a botanist made it something of a private reserve with plots of rare plants. Long after the death of Benson, the island was purchased by Humphrey Stuart who made even more improvements in building and vegetation, and his son Charles took it on at his father's death in 1786. During this time the two small lakes had been cut out of the island.
Improvements were made to the fortifications and in 1817, they together with buildings and plant life were yet again improved by the next owner, Charles Chad. The fortifications were now necessary in the increasing fight against piracy and smuggling. Chad stayed until 1845 when Augustus Foster took it on. He was a diplomat and having seen this place for his retirement, became so seriously ill that he took the extreme course of action in 1848 and cut his own throat.
The clay presence attracted the attention of a certain William Waugh in the mid-nineteenth century and in 1852 he brought the island in the misguided belief he could manufacture high quality porcelain, and took on workers from the adjoining Studland and Poole mainland's and built a pottery in the south-west corner together with a track to transport the clay from the north. Some of his workers did commute by boat, but some he kept on the island by building a small-scale village called Maryland after his wife Mary.
Waugh also went to the trouble of building a sea wall around what was St. Andrew's Bay and partly drain the marshy meadows to form what is now the Lagoon.
As far as the quality porcelain was concerned, he subsequently realised his mistake, continued making low grade tiles and bricks, but had got into such serious financial difficulties that he disappeared to Spain in 1857 - nothing changes !.
The island was taken on by the next owner some 20 years on after much legal and financial wrangling. He was George Cavendish-Bentinck, but even producing lower quality tiles and bricks was not as productive as he had hoped. He also took on the keeping of cattle and growing of barley and the like, whilst filling Brownsea Castle with sculpture. He died in 1891 and the island was purchased by Kenneth Balfour, who like Bentinck was an MP. The Cavendish-Bentincks have a tomb in the church.
He made small changes and improvements, including the installation of electricity, which led in 1896 to almost destroying the Castle by fire courtesy of an electrical fault. Balfour perhaps had more money than sense and rebuilt, only to resell in 1901.
The new owner was Charles van Raalte, who delighted in entertaining his many friends, playing golf on the newly founded course close to the castle, and shooting the wildlife.
Up to this time the island had been known as Branksea, but, according to a popular story, because it was getting confused with Branksome just along the coast, it was re-named Brownsea.
One of van Raalte many friends/guests was a Robert Baden-Powell, who, being very fond of children, and seeing what such an idyllic and secluded place Brownsea was, suggested he could use it as a campsite where he could entertain and educate young boys in the ways of the world. He had drawn great experience from his adventures in Africa and success at Mafeking where he had used boys as scouts/messengers, and with the success of the first camp on Brownsea in 1907, gave birth to the once well established but waning Boy Scout movement. For his first camp on the island he had drawn on sons of friends and the local Boy's Brigade.
Not surprisingly it has long been popular belief that the Girl Guides shortly evolved from the scouts, with Robert Baden-Powell's wife, Olave, as the 'leader'. The truth is more like his younger sister, Agnes, took this up at the same time as his Brownsea camp because there were girls around who wanted to get involved imitating their brothers. Her brother was probably somewhat anti Guides thinking they would just be tomboys, especially since they first called themselves Girl Scouts. Agnes reworked Scouting for Boys into The Handbook for the Girl Guides in 1911-12, and The Girl Guide Movement was acknowledged by 1915.
Robert Baden-Powell was voyaging to New York in early 1912 on a Boy Scouts world tour and met Olave St Clair Soames. They were engaged in September, and quickly married 30 October at Parkstone, albeit in secret. He was age 56, and she a mere 24.
She had been keen to help him in his endeavours, and despite his initial resistance, became more involved over the years, sharing her time with the bringing up of their three children.
While all of that was taking off, in 1908, van Raalte had died but his wife Florence kept the island going until 1925 when she died and the island was sold by auction in 1927 to a Mrs Mary Bonham-Christie, a recluse who banned hunting and fishing and let the island revert to nature.
From natures point of view this was very good news, but not for most of the few workers employed on the island. In the summer of 1934 a very serious fire broke out, reducing much of the island to ashes over several days working from west to east, the buildings to the east only to be saved by a change of wind direction.
The cause of the fire is unknown, some would say a freak event, some would say arson by a disgruntled worker, in truth we do not know.
As WWII overtook the country, Brownsea, like other sites in Purbeck was used to light fires deliberately to distract German bombers from their intended targets like Poole. Maryland village was so severely damaged that it was eventually levelled.
Mrs Bonham-Christie led a long and lonely life and died in 1961 aged 98, leaving the island to her grandson who would have to sell to pay the death duties. It was envisaged that potential purchasers would be developers keen to go the same way as Sandbanks, but fortunately avoided by Studland. Because of the local fear of that eventuality many organisations became involved and much money collected. The taxman took the island in lieu of the duties, with the National Trust taking responsibility for the property on the strength of an endowment being raised, which occurred in 1962. All was saved. The Dorset Wildlife Trust ran the nature reserve from 1962, the island is still celebrated and memorialised for the start of the Scout Movement, and the cherry on the cake is that it is one of the few places in the country with our native red squirrel surviving.
Access to the island can only be by boat and the most regular service is from Sandbanks/North Haven and is a very short journey. There is less frequently a service from Poole Quay. Local resorts, Swanage for instance do run 'day-trips' which can be useful if don't have to drive to get to a boat, but do limit how long you are able to stay on the island. This is naturally restricting if you fancy a leisurely stroll round all of the island, and/or a slow observational walk on the nature trail in the reserve.
Details such as opening times, cost of admission, functions
and facilities may be obtained from the National Trust Brownsea Island site
The boat to the island will normally be a separate charge. Details from Brownsea Island Ferries who run a number of services and days out beside serving Brownsea Island.
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