Friday, 14 June 2013


You find some intriguing details in Victorian accounts of the Isle of Wight:
Undermount, Bonchurch
This beautiful demesne of H. Mitchell, Esq., is situated in one of the most charming parts of the Undercliffe, screened from the north and east by lofty hills and ivy-covered rocks. It is approached from the main road by a unique carriage drive forming a tunnel cut through the solid rock of a lofty crag, the tunnel being decorated with shells and antlers.
- Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening - Volume 31 - Page 419, 1895
The Undermount tunnel
The tunnel still exists as does Undermount, subdivided, and Clare and I had a delightful opportunity to step into its history last Sunday, when the present owners of one of the houses very kindly showed us the grounds. As I've mentioned, Bonchurch is built on tumbled landslip terrain, one of whose features is The Mount, a large slipped mass of rock capped with a crag. The shelter of its southern coastal-facing side appealed to 19th century developers, favouring it as a site for one of Bonchurch's more impressive Victorian mansions.

View from George Brannon's Vectis Scenery, 1848 New Edition
(scan from - Undermount is the left-hand foreground house.
The house's history is altogether interesting, a microcosm of the 19th century gentrification of Bonchurch. According to the British Listed Buildings entry for the western wing of the building (ID 420595) it was originally a farmhouse, converted into a cottage orné around the 1820s, then further modified. This would match the timeline of the first major personality to put a stamp on the location: Joseph Hadfield, a silk merchant of Northern stock, who settled in Bonchurch with his wife Amelia Caroline around 1800. He bought the leasehold on a couple of farms, Marepool and Macket(t)s, and made various changes to Bonchurch; Alan Champion's monograph Notes on the relationships between the families of Worsley, Tollemache, and Hadfield in the Isle of Wight mentions he built another house, Upper Mount (now called Peacock Vane) and drained the withy bed that is now Bonchurch pond. Hadfield is commemorated in one of the names for the summit crag on the Mount, "Hadfield's Lookout".

Detail from print in Brannon's Vectis Scenery, 1840 edition
This view shows both Hadfield's Lookout (left, with flagpole)
and Pulpit Rock (centre, with cross)
Hadfield moved on to Ventnor, selling the lease to James White, vicar-turned-writer and friend of Charles Dickens, adding it to the latter's property portfolio that comprised basically all of Bonchurch. White had married Rosa Hill, heiress to the manor of Bonchurch, and then embarked on a series of legal manoeuvres to overturn a clause in his father-in-law's will forbidding breaking up the estate, thus leading to wholesale development of Bonchurch from the 1830s. This wasn't a universally-liked move: the Isle of Wight populariser George Brannon and the poet John Gwilliam both protested this in print (see previously Brannon on Bonchurch and ... in the Isle of Wight #1).

White's problems with the estate would probably make a long saga, starting with a private local Act of Parliament, passed 21st June 1836, entitled An Act to enable the Reverend James White and the Persons for the Time being entitled to certain Estates situate in the Parish of Bonchurch in the Isle of Wight in the County of Southampton, devised by the will of Charles Fitzmaurice Hill, Esquire, deceased, to grant Building Leases (see The Law Journal), via at least one piece of litigation over rights of way - White vs Leeson - to a second Private Act in 1843, An Act to confirm Two existing Leases ... etc. In modern terms, it appears at first glance a piece of egregious land profiteering, but such private Acts to overturn land settlements were pretty routine in the 19th century; inheritors of long-standing estates were often stuck with large tracts of land that were inherently unprofitable (because of restrictions on profitable land development such as building) and impossible to break up for sale. The situation only ended with the 1882 Settled Land Act, that allowed landowners to sell more or less as they pleased (see Great estates and Private Acts). Anyhow, that's another story.

Compton Undermount
The next major change to the location came from Sir John and Lady Pringle (Sir John Pringle of Stitchill 5th Bt. and his second wife Lady Elizabeth née Elizabeth Maitland Campbell). They bought the house in the early 1850s and made extensive upgrades in 1857: the access tunnel through The Mount, the lodge outside, and a taller, sumptuous, new western wing to the house, Compton Undermount, with a conservatory winter garden (see again the Listed Buildings entry, and also page 90, The Isle of Wight, David Wharton Lloyd, Nikolaus Pevsner, 2006).

Queen Victoria is said to have stayed a night at Compton in 1857, but I haven't yet verified this. I get the impression a deal of doubtful information has accreted to the history of Compton via news articles and estate agents' hype. One website says Lady Elizabeth had been Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria: it seems not; this was a different Lady Elizabeth Campbell née Baillie. Nor was she, as another site says, a bridesmaid of Queen Victoria (their names are well-documented - see this Esoteric Curiosa blog reprint from Lady's Realm, 1899). Another detail that so far doesn't check out is that Sir John Pringle was connected to the "Pringle fashion company": again it seems not, as Sir John was an ex-military man, and the founder of Pringle of Scotland wasn't anything to do with the Pringle aristocrats, but one Robert Pringle, a thoroughly self-made entrepreneur who started out as an apprentice stocking maker. I think more research is needed on the precise VR connection.

Undermount tunnel
Over the 19th century, the location acquired a high reputation for its gardens ...
Early one evening we passed through a gate under an arch, or rather through a tunnel of massive masonry. It looked as if we might be making our way into a dungeon. At the other end, however, we emerged into a wide and lovely expanse of lawn, grove, and garden ; here a large circle inclosed with a wire screen, the screen wreathed with flowering plants ; there a high wall lined with wall-fruit — peaches, apricots, apples, and pears ; here a path disappears in a bower of branches interlacing overhead, and at the other end leading you out on the edge of the cliff above the sea ; and in the midst of all a mansion, with greenhouse full of fine tropical plants, and festoons of delicate vines hanging from the ceiling.
- WP Breed, Aboard and abroad in eighteen hundred and eighty four, 1885, Internet Archive ID aboardabroadinei00bree
.... particularly under the ownership of Henry Michell, who bought the house from the late Pringles' estate in 1883 (ref: The Times, Friday, Jan 01, 1909).


The front commands a splendid view of the  English Channel, as seen through the stately elms and lesser ornamental foliage plants which abound to the water's edge. Passing through ranges of orchid houses, ferneries, stoves, and vineries, stopping only to notice a splendid house of maidenhair ferns in varieties, we reach a vinery containing chrysanthemums reserved for exhibition cut blooms. Mr. Frank Orchard, the gardener, is at home amongst the chrysanthemums. Having previously won honours in other parts of the country, he entered for and secured the Isle of Wight challenge cup last year for thirty-six cut blooms, and is now preparing for the final tussle next week at Ryde. The collection here comprises about 700 plants of all sections. The principal show is in the magnificent conservatory attached to the residence, amidst lofty palms and tree ferns, and overhung with Bougainvilleas, Cobaias, Jasminums, and other creepers which hang suspended from the iron girders that support the dome. The effect is grand, and the approach to the reception rooms is flanked on the right and left by two well-arranged groups on a raised stone balcony, others being dotted amongst the ferns and Pr???s, a group of Pompons around the fountain basin beneath, and well-trained standard chrysanthemums on the balcony steps, the whole being very effective far into the winter months.
Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, Volume 31, age 419, 1895
The Garden at Undermount Bonchurch Isle of Wight with St Boniface in the distance
A Foord Hughes, Wikigallery, permitted non-commercial use
Moving on to the 20th and 21st centuries, the house saw a temporary decline, weathering military use in World War 2 (when the tunnel was sandbagged and used as Bonchurch's air raid shelter), temporary conversion into flats, and storm damage. It has now been extensively renovated and turned into private homes. Compton Undermount's award-winning restoration by Charmian Shenton has been featured in a number of newspapers and magazines (e.g. the Isle of Wight County Press); and Undermount, the eastern wing that we saw, is a sensitive modern adaptation, with beautiful gardens leading down to the communal clifftop lawn with private steps to the sea. Part of it is a superior holiday let: check out Undermount, Bonchurch.

My particular interest in the location sprang from topographical descriptions, and it was very strange to see that the tunnel's peculiar decorations still exist. They're not merely shells and antlers, but also fossils, clusters of flints, and the odd skull.

A cow skull, I think
The owner of the end house at Undermount, Richard Dewhurst, also showed us up the path - distinctly risky in places due to ivy-obscured sheer drops - to the summit of The Mount. While it's quite overgrown, there are still good views across Upper Bonchurch to St Boniface Down above, and steps lead up to Hadfield's crudely-castellated lookout at the summit of the crag (John Albin's 1831 A Companion to the Isle of Wight mentions that Hadfield had "placed a flag-staff on the summit of [this] most picturesque rock, and built a small battery adjoining to it"). By 1849, this was gone:
In the grounds of one of the latter, Undermount, stands an isolated rock, surmounted by its mimic battery and flagstaff, which has formed one of the themes of admiration of nearly every guide-book hitherto published. The little fort is, however, now dismantled, and its tiny artillery, whose iron mouths used to breathe their sulphurous defiance to each petty privateer of the enemy which came in sight during the last war, is now removed from its proud station, and has become the occupant of a saluting battery in the grounds of Mountfield, on the cliff below.
- The 'Undercliff' of the Isle of Wight : its climate, history, and natural productions, George A. Martin, M.D., London : J. Churchill, 1849 (Hathi Trust).
I only just made the connection: Hadfield's Lookout gets a mention in John Neal's 1830 Authorship: A Tale - Internet Archive ID authorshipatale01nealgoog - in which the narrator climbs a rock with a flagstaff in "Bowchurch", and marvels at the landscape. See, previously, A New Englander hates on the Sandrock.
The view was delightful, and rich, and various, and like nothing I had ever seen before. I remember thus much, and I remember too that whatever there was to see, I saw, and that before the day was well over, I (But for my life I cannot say now whether it was while I stood on that rock or after I had peeped over and crawled away) among a multitude of things, the memory of which had escaped me before my head was on the pillow that very night, I saw — a huge high wall— so huge as to appear like a part of the foundations of our earth, and so high that I mistook a white cloud sailing over the top, for smoke. It was like the vapor that follows the discharge of cannon that are too far off to be heard ; a wall stretching over leagues and leagues of territory ; cottages underneath my very feet (I could have jumped through the roofs) grouped here and there among the trees and the rocks and the gushing water and the wild shrubbery, as if they were copied from old pictures ; on every side of me the bulwarks of an empire, great square blocks which appeared as if they had been wrought by the hands, or piled up where they lay by the power of giants ; here a cottage or two garnered up in the holes of the rocks, and there half a dozen more literally folded among the ruins of what appeared like the overthrown barrier of a huge citadel — a barrier overthrown by flood, or by earthquake, or by fire from above — not by the wrath of mortal man ; here a heap of the greenest foliage I ever saw, overhanging a roof, the loveliest I ever saw (not seven feet high), and a little bit of smooth rich turf, yet greener than the foliage of the young trees, and as lively as the plumage of a parrot — ' Green to the very door ' — and hedged about with flowering shrubs and great rocks, much higher than the roof, and scattered clumps of blackberry — bushes, with never a bit of a pathway to be seen, so that you could not conceive how the people got there alive, nor how they got the children there that you saw laughing and rolling about, or hiding in the shadow of the rocks, or creeping half sideways over the smooth turf.

All this I did see, and I saw it either while I was on the top of that rock, holding by the flag-staff, afraid to move lest the rock should tip over among the houses, and afraid to let go, lest I should be blown away ; or I saw it, after I had escaped ... 
I've featured this image before ...

Bonchurch: Undermount Rock aka Flagstaff Rock aka Hadfield's Lookout
from Rambles in the Isle of Wight, John Gwilliams, 1844
... but here's the real thing:

Hadfield's Lookout aka Flagstaff Rock, Bonchurch
at the summit

View across Upper Bonchurch

View over lodge: the railings mark the edge of a major drop to the driveway
The afternoon - we'd previously taken in The Devil's Chimney and The Chink -was a delightful piece of closure on one of my long-standing Isle of Wight topographic obsessions.

I'd like to thank again Richard and Maxine Dewhurst for very generously showing us around, and giving permission for photography and writing up the visit.

Compton Undermount, the tunnel and Hadfield's lookout are private property and not open to the general public.

See for details of accommodation.

Addendum, May 2014: I just found this nice image from Charles Tomkins' 1796 A Tour to the Isle of Wight, which actually shows Hadfield's Lookout.

- Ray

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