Sunday, 1 December 2013

Nooks and crannies - an ill-fated housing boom

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This is the cover of a pleasant booklet, Isle of Wight: Forty-one camera studies of the nooks & crannies, bays & chines of the garden isle, produced by the Photochrom Company of London and Tunbridge Wells. It's undated, but circa 1910. The cover has a cut-out revealing the first image, a location that's one of my obsessions, Blackgang Chine, a now-destroyed coastal ravine near the southern tip of the Island.

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The image, taken from the headland called Blackgang Bluff, looks across the chine to various clifftop villas in the near distance, part of the mid-Victorian development of Blackgang, and off into the distance over the 'Back of the Wight'. The row of houses at the right is called Cliff Terrace, which is presumably the "terrace of lodging-houses" described in Edmund Venables' 1867 A guide to the Undercliff of the Isle of Wight, Shanklin and Blackgang (page 67). There were further villas at Lowcliff, hidden by the cliffs at the right of the photo - compare the view I posted a while back:

Low-resolution image reproduced in accordance with dissemination statement: McInnes, R. 2008. Art as a tool in support of the understanding of coastal change. The Crown Estate, 106 pages, ISBN: 978-1-906410-08-7 First published 2008. Click to enlarge
click to enlarge
All of the cliffscape in the foreground has been destroyed by coastal erosion over the 20th century. Cliff Terrace itself has been truncated, and is one of the few remnants of a fairly ill-fated Victorian development boom.

Apart from finding the picture interesting, I returned to the topic because I hadn't fully realised the extent of the speculative developments and land dealings going on in the Isle of Wight in the 1830s-40s. I already mentioned the land turnover at Bonchurch in that period, associated with the breakup of the manorial estate - see Brannon on Bonchurch and ... in the Isle of Wight #1. Similar moves happened with the breakup of the "Buddle estate" near Niton; an advertisement in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle for September 11, 1847 offers the individual sale of a portfolio of plots "with an extensive frontage to the Coast, affording a grand sea view, and admirably adated for the erection of Marine Villas".

The Newport agent managing the sale, Mr Francis Pittis (later Sir Francis Pittis, mayor of Newport), must have done extremely well out of such deals, because the same issue shows him handling the sale of recently-built properties at or near Blackgang: the "Italian style" South View House (previously mentioned here); the "Gothic villa residence" Lowcliff Lodge (the large house at bottom right of the colour image above) and Lowcliff Cottage at its drive entrance. Around the same time (Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, October 16, 1847) he handled the sale of the estate of James Barlow Hoy, whose 38 lots included pasture land and houses in the area of Blackgang and Chale; and in the Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian of May 19, 1849 he has further ads for the recently-built Southlands (with "15 acres of pasture land, part of which is composed in terrace walks, pleasure grounds, and gardens, and includes the most valuable and desirable building sites") as well as the Blackgang Hotel itself (now part of the offices of the Blackgang Chine amusement park), Blackgang Farm, and various nearby properties.

The whole development, looking in hindsight, seems wildly shortsighted. Even then, the land was known to be unstable, with a particular major slip in 1799 taking out 100 acres and Pitlands Farm at Blackgang. Only a few years before the boom, the author Robert Mudie, in his The Isle of Wight: its past and present condition, and future prospects (c. 1840) commented extensively on the 1799 slip, and the high probability of future ones - see page 100 onward - saying that
the fate of this [farm] however ought to give some warning to those who are erecting villas between the land-slip and the chine; for, though these may be founded immediately on the rock, and that rock may have the appearance of stability. appearances in such a place are not to be depended upon; and it is very possible that the leveling of a flat area for a villa and its patch of lawn, may tend to admit the water in the vertical fissures and cutters of the rock, and thus hasten some such catastrophe as that to which we are alluding.
Mudie was right, but it all took longer than he feared. As it happened, none of the affluent buyers ever fell off a cliff while in occupancy; the larger villas outlived the era of the gentleman mansion owner, and generally succumbed quietly to property blight and dereliction / demolition long before the cliff reached them. Southview, for instance, suffered minor damage from the 1978 landslip, and was destroyed by fire (how it started appears unknown) shortly after. There don't seem to be any easily findable records of what happened to Southlands or Lowcliff. But one notable villa from this era, Five Rocks, is still extant, and houses the goblin-haunted "Rumpus Mansion", one of the theme park features.

The Carisbrooke Castle HistoricImages site has some very impressive views of Blackgang in the early 1900s (you can see higher resolution if you select an image, right-click, and view it in Windows Photo Viewer; from the terms of use, this seems to be OK as long as you don't use them for anything). This one in particular - #1766 - also shows Cliff Terrace and Lowecliffe, with other buildings in positively scary locations at the foot of the chine.

Update, 1 Nov 2014
I've found a deal more about Lowcliffe and Southlands: see Lowcliffe and Southlands: from cradle to grave.

- Ray

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