Saturday, 25 April 2015

Blackgang: Five Rocks

"Here once was a fine house
Spacious, warm and bright.
Where the island’s lords and ladies
Danced all thro’ the night.
But then the boggarts and the brownies
And elves, in they came.
Took over the mansion
Now things aren’t the same.
It’s dark and it’s gloomy.
The humans have fled.
It’s a fine house no longer.
It’s Rumpus instead!"
- cited from transcript at

One of the highlights of the Blackgang Chine amusement park (see Blackgang Chine, March 2015) is "Rumpus Mansion", a walk-through 'haunted house' based on the premise that a mansion has been taken over by supernatural creatures. Dating from 1993, it isn't a naff  'ghost train' setup with gory things jumping out at you; introduced by doggerel, most of the denizens of the house are more quaint than malign, and its tableaux are witty and creative, with clever use of occasional animation and Pepper's Ghost transformations.

Here sit two wonders of nature,
The trow and the elf are their names,
Now observe, if you will, the cruel little joke
That fate has played on their brains.
For the elf, though tiny and dainty,
Has a keen mind that fills up his skull.
Whilst the trow, who is big bad and stupid.
Has a head which is empty and dull.
- cited from transcript at
“Oh what’s all this commotion?
What rollicking rogues are these?
There’s boggarts, glow-worms,
caterpillar babies, dragonflies and bees!
Oh ho ho ho! It seems these jolly pranksters
are a circus troop of elves!
So hold onto your valuables,
or they might smash those as well!”
- cited from transcript at

Someone knows their Isle of Wight history - this reclining knight's tomb appears to be
strongly inspired by that of Sir John Oglander in St Mary's Church, Brading (see Flickr).

To show the truth within your heart
Is what I’ve sworn to do.
So you’d better prepare
For a mighty big scare.
When you see the real you.
- cited from transcript at

(A neat Pepper's Ghost transformation of a seeming mirror).
“Hush! Hush! Shsssh! Hold still, pray silence if you please. Now doff your caps, and kneel
before the seely king and queen. ‘Tis these sweet two throughout our land, who bless
the fields and flowers, command the sun to shine, and bring us cool, refreshing showers.”
- cited from transcript at

At this point, it's worth looking at the National Library of Scotland's excellent side-by-side georeferenced map viewer, which lets you compare the modern geography with the 1888-1913 Ordnance Survey map. Currently, you can walk from the Blackgang Chine car park down past the old coastguard cottages and a little down the southward road to where it's now securely fenced-off. A bridge over the road joins the main theme park to the upper sections that include Rumpus Mansion. Click here to explore.

National Library of Scotland Map Images
Low-resolution screenshot for non-commercial illustration purposes
From a historical viewpoint, Rumpus Mansion is of interest as the house formerly called Five Rocks; it's the last survivor of the marine villas built under Gore Cliff in the 19th century. The name most likely comes from the segmented crags of the cliff above, which are marked as "The Five Rocks" on the current Ordnance Survey map. You can get a close-up look at these - composed of Upper Greensand Chert Beds - from Cowboy Town, the highest themed section of the park (it's on a flat 'bench' of former pasture below the cliff - what would be called a 'plat' in East Devon - and it's a landscape that's ubiquitous in the landslip terrains of southern England (see Weston Plats revisited: part 2).

If you ignore the whole issue of it being on an active landslip zone, Five Rocks has an extremely pleasant location in sheltered woods below the cliff: one well-chosen in hindsight, for it to have outlasted the other villas below Gore Cliff (notably Southview and Southlands). It was also, historically, handily situated just off the main road between Niton and Chale (the now-inaccessible broken section that has been called 'the lost road').

I haven't found a precise date for its building, but it's recognisably in the style of the many villas built in the 1830s-40s as part of the speculative housing boom on the south coast of the Island (see Nooks and crannies - an ill-fated housing boom). The earliest reference I can readily find is for 1840 ...
Charles Peterson, esquire of Harpsfield Hall, Herts but now residing at Five Rock Cottage p. Chale I.W.
- National Archives, ELD87/38/5/32
... which makes it more or less contemporaneous with the Blackgang Chine Hotel, built in 1837 (ref: advert, Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, March 18, 1837) and pre-dating Alexander Dabell's development of Blackgang Chine as an attraction from 1842 onward. There's a nice description of it in an 1856 property ad:
To be SOLD by AUCTION, by MR. FRANCIS PITTIS, at the Blackgang Hotel, at Chale, on Monday, the 25th of August, 1856, at Three o’clock in the Afternoon, the pretty Villa RESIDENCE known as “Five Rocks Cottage” situate at Chale, a short distance from the sea, and surrounded by the most beautiful and romantic scenery of the Undercliff.
    The House is substantially built of Stone, and comprises on the basement, drawing and dining rooms, kitchen, glass closet, scullery, pantry, and offices. On the first floor, three bed rooms and dressing room. On the top floor, three bed rooms. A court yard with 2-stall stable, carriage house, wood and coal house, &c. Delightful pleasure grounds, kitchen garden, and paddock, walled in.
    The Property is a short distance from the Blackgang Hotel, and is bounded by the high road.
    There are Coaches passing several times in the day during the summer months.
    Any Gentleman requiring a Marine Residence, of moderate pretensions, and to kept up at a small outlay, should View this Property. It is held under a Lease for Three Lives, now aged 56, 30 and 21 years or thereabouts, at a rent of 15l. Per annum, and renewable on the dropping of each life, on payment of a fine of 30l. To View, apply to Mr. DABELL, Chale.
    Particulars may be obtained of the Auctioneer, Newport, Isle of Wight, or of MESSRS. WING & DU CANE, Gray’s Inn, London.
- Advertisements & Notices, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc (Portsmouth, England), Saturday, August 16, 1856; Issue 2967, 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.
A quick skim of 19th century newspapers finds the occupancy history to be quite a lengthy saga that I'm not terribly inclined to pursue, but it sums up as a mix of the rich and the entrepreneurial types who tended to gravitate to the area. The abovementioned Charles Peterson, for instance, who had recovered from being declared an insolvent debtor in 1848 (ref: The Jurist, Volume 11, Part 2, 1848, page 336), and who by 1855 had moved to a similar villa, Low Cliff, took out an 1854 patent for ...
2500. Charles Peterson, of Low Cliff, Chale, in the Isle of Wight, esquire, for an invention for "The application of a new vegetable substance to the manufacture of textile fabrics, and pulp for paper, card-board, papier-mache', and similar purposes." Letters Patent sealed.
- page 151, Chronological index of patents applied for and patents granted [afterw.] of patentees and applicants for patents of invention, Patent Office, 1855
... this plant material being the inner lining of the bark of the "seatree mallow" (Lavatera arborea) - see page 123, Patents for Inventions. Abridgments of Specifications, 1858. This is not as weird as it sounds: see page 253, On the Manufacture of Hemp and Paper from the Lavatera arborea. By Mr. Robert Plunkett. The Journal of the Royal Dublin Society, Volume II, No.14, July 1859. Then as now, correlation of patent applications doesn't seem wildly efficient; Plunkett patented what seems to be exactly the same idea Peterson came up with three years previously.

Peterson, incidentally, is named as Captain Peterson in the 1855 Post Office Directory of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Dorsetshire; (according to his memorial inscription, he had been a captain of the 11th Hussars). His "cottage" Low Cliff is at centre left of this Brannon print (origin unknown, but reproduced in the paper Geotechnical Study Area G8: Blackgang Landslide, Ventnor Undercliff, Isle of Wight, UK from

A slight complication to researching Five Rocks is the variation in its listed names: Five Rocks, Five Rock Cottage, Five Rocks Cottage - and at one point in its career Rockside or Rockside Cottage.  Assuming I'm reading the map correctly, and it isn't some adjacent wing or extension, it's clearly marked as such on the 1863 Ordnance Survey map (right). The identification is backed up by the similarity of description in an 1885 sales ad for Rockside ...
Freehold Marine Residence, on the South West Coast, with possession.
    MESSRS. FRANCIS PITTIS AND SON are instructed by the Trustees of the will of the late J.F. Campbell, Esq., to sell by Auction, at the Blackgang Hotel, on Thursday, July 16th, 185, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the attractive Freehold Villa RESIDENCE, known as “Rockside,” delightfully situate at Blackgang, a short distance from the celebrated Chine, commanding extensive sea and coast views, and in the midst of the most beautiful scenery of the Undercliff. The house is substantially built, and contains two reception and seven bedrooms and offices, a 2-stall stable and coach-house. The surroundings of about 4a. 13r. 38p. Are tastefully disposed in pleasure grounds, gardens and paddock.
    Possession will be given on completion of the purchase.
    For cards to view apply to the Auctioneers.
    Particulars and conditions of sale may be obtained at the Auction Mart, London; the place of sale; of Mr. Creeth, builder, Niton; the Auctioners, Newport, Sandown, Shanklin, and Ventnor; or of Messrs. Wing and Ducane, Solicitors, Grays Inn, London, W.C.
- IWCP, Saturday, June 20, 1885, page 4 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
... and no source I can find mentions "Five Rocks" and "Rockside". Under the latter name it appears in The Fashionable List (a weekly directory of who of significance was living where) in the Isle of Wight Observer in 1872-74, but by the end of the 19th century it had stabilised to Five Rocks.

The villa maintained its manorial style of occupancy well into the 20th century. One distinctive resident was Dr Armstrong, Medical Officer of the St. Catherine's Lighthouse Establishment (ref: page 27, Niesbet's Medical Directory, 1908):
Our Doctor at this time was Doctor Armstrong, a Scottish doctor with a slight stammer. He lived at a house called 'Five Rocks', quite secluded, behind a screen of dark fir trees next to what used to be Blackgang Coastguard Station. He had a very fine collection of Island prints, all in neat black frames on the walls of the hall at 'Five Rocks'. I can see him now, not a very big man, with what used to be called a Norfolk jacket and hat to match, with sturdy leather leggings to protect him from the splashes when he got off the beaten track push-starting his Douglas motorcycle.
      On the carrier of the motorbike firmly strapped on, was his little Gladstone leather bag. The road past Windy corner had not slipped away at this time, so he could get through to Niton pretty easily. He later changed to a -Bull-nosed Morris, which was much better for him. He was never known to ail. On being asked why this was, he expressed the opinion that the bugs ate one another so leaving him unscathed! I feel that his modest bills were not always promptly paid as money was short in those days with some of his patients.
- It Used to be Like this: Reminiscences of Life at Castlehaven, Niton, Isle of Wight, in the Early 1900's, George R Haynes, Isle of Wight Teachers’ Centre, 1984 (quoted in Some facets of Isle of Wight Medical History by Alan Champion,
And there was Wing-Commander Herbert George Edward Greville, a 1914-18 war veteran whose life at Five Rocks was archetypal Establishment, as described in his obituary:
From London the family came to reside at Five Rocks, Blackgang, in 1939, and remained for a period of 20 years. During this time Mr. Greville took a keen interest in the life of the village and was a member of St. Andrew’s Parish Church congregation and for some time a church warden. A member of the British Legion and a Parish Councillor, Mr. Greville was also an active member of the Conservative Association and was on its panel of speakers. At the outbreak of the 1939-1945 war he joined the Home Guard, and his home at Five Rocks was used for storing the unit’s armoury.
- IWCP, Saturday, February 7, 1970, page 12 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
Finally, there's a possible small literary connection for Five Rocks. A number of accounts mention that the American author Wolcott Balestier stayed at Blackgang with his family shortly before his death from typhoid in Dresden This was the visit when the invalid Mary Tuttiett (Maxwell Gray), on one of her few excursions, went to visit him.
Two or three visits each year to Freshwater, and rarer visits to other seaside places — of which one was paid to Mr. Wolcott Balestier and his family at Black Gang, shortly before Balestier's untimely death and the marriage of his sister to Rudyard Kipling — are the limits of her wanderings.
- Book News, No. 134, Oct. 1893, p.44 (reprint from Great Thoughts).
The Balestiers stayed at Rock Cottage (a.k.a. the Royal Sandrock Hotel) ...
He was well known in this locality, having from some time resided at Rock Cottage with his mother and sister, and it was intention to have spent Christmas here.
- Miscellanea, IWCP, Thursday, Dec 24, 1891 , page 7 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
... and this is confirmed by the 1891 census. But The Centre for Henry James Studies has in its collection a letter to W Morton Fullerton, dated 28th August 1891, from "Calcott [sic] Balestier" and headed "The Five Rocks, Chale, Isle of Wight" (ref: XLS spreadsheet). I wonder what he was doing writing from there?

- Ray


  1. Very interesting to read! I love Rumpus Mansion and it's fascinating to read about the history of the building. Also, I'm glad to see that you've put my pdf of all the poems in the attraction to good use? by any chance?! - my old blackgang site I made years ago! Some of the videos etc were used by the park for a time. I must get round to updating it... Many thanks for an interesting read! All the best! James

    1. Thanks, James! No - I found them on an unattributed text file I've had around for ages. I've added a citation for your transcript.