Sunday, 26 January 2014

Wonders of the Isle of Wight: growth of a meme

Another image from the pleasant booklet, c.1910, 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 (see previously, Nooks and crannies - an ill-fated housing boom).

This is one of the many incarnations of the 'Wonders of the Isle of Wight' - "Cowes you cannot milk, Lake you can walk through, Freshwater you cannot drink, Needles you cannot thread, and Newport you cannot bottle" - though the number and choice of locations has been variable.

The earliest precursors I can find appear in the 1850s-60s, where a number of comic journals contain variants on this pun:
A Truism.—There is one remarkable feature in the Isle of Wight, not generally known, which is, that any person who visits there may obtain mutton from Cowes.
- True Briton: A Weekly Magazine of Amusement and Instruction, Issue 6, Sep 8, 1853

What extraordinary kind of meat is to be bought in the Isle of Wight? 
Mutton from Cowes!
Puniana: or, Thoughts wise and other-wise, Hugh Rowley, 1867
By 1899, there were three items, as in:
Why is the Isle of Wight a fraud? — Because there's Cow(e)s you cannot milk, Needles you cannot thread, and Freshwater you cannot drink.
-  Children's Corner, Aberdeen Weekly Journal, March 1, 1899
A similar joke was widely syndicated in various newspapers worldwide in 1901, expanded to four items:
Why is the Isle of Wight a fraud? Because it has Needles you can't thread, Freshwater you cannot drink, Cowes you cannot milk, and Newport you cannot bottle.
- Fun and Fancy, The Star [Christchurch, NZ], Issue 7273, 7 December 1901
In 1908, the concept made the jump to pictorial form in a card by William James Nigh, a Ventnor postcard maker, who produced a "The Five Novelties of the Isle of Wight" card:
Needles without Eyes
Saltwater you get from Freshwater
Ryde you can have and not move
Lake without any water
Mutton you get from Cowes
The copyright registration is in the National Archives:
"Photograph for postcard of an arrangement of views with ornamental design entitled 'The Five Novelties of the Isle of Wight'."
Item is a colour postcard and not a photograph. Copyright owner of Work: William James Nigh, 7 Ocean View Terrace, Newport Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Copyright author of Work: William Dederich, Imperial Buildings, Ludgate Circus, London. Form completed 9 July 1908. Registration stamp: 21 July 1908.
- COPY 1/523/345, National Archives
(William Dederich was a fine-art publisher; WJ Nigh & Sons is still extant, now in Shanklin).

The Wonders of the Isle of Wight page at has a nice collection documenting the various incarnations of the idea on postcards since: "Novelties" became "Wonders" (and occasionally "Contradictions" or "Peculiarities"), and increased to as many as eight.

Peculiar Properties of the Isle of Wight: J Welch & Sons, Portsmouth
In the 1930s, the idea was co-opted into use for a Shell Oil advertisement:

As seven, the wonders are featured in the somewhat naff murals, created as a community project in 2008, at the Ryde Esplanade bus and rail terminus.

1st wonder - Thread the Needles

2nd wonder - Newport bottled

3rd wonder - Drink Freshwater

4th wonder - Old Newtown

5th wonder - Milk Cowes

6th wonder - walk in Ryde

7th wonder - Stay dry in Lake
The meme acquired a modern spin in 2012 when it was featured in Ed Petrie's All Over the Place slot on the BBC children's section CBBC.
- Ray

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