Saturday, August 04, 2007

Brownsea Island - some interesting facts

Every Scout I suppose knows this about the 500 acre Brownsea Island : that in August 1907 a famous soldier named Robert Smythe Stephenson Baden-Powell held a camp there for boys, what was in fact to be considered afterwards as the first Scout camp ever. But I thought you might like to know a little more about this strange island that is now so well know all over the world.

Unfortunately of its past we know less than we should like to do. We know that at various times it was called Bronnecksey, Brunksea, or Branksea, and we know, too, that as far back as 1154, the King, Henry II, gave the monks of Cerne Abbey the right to worship on the island and they built a small chapel there dedicated to St. Andrew.

Leaping forward to Henry VIII's day, that well-known monarch gave the island to the then Earl of Oxford who built a castle and a barbican - that is an outer fortification - with walls nine feet thick. In her turn the first Elizabeth gave Brownsea to one of her favourite courtiers and statesmen, Sir Christopher Hatten. A certain amount of mining - of sulphate of iron - caused the population to grow and before the Civil War there were probably about a hundred people living on the island.

We know rather more about later owners. For example, in 1722 it was bought by William Benson, who was successor to the great architect Sir Christopher Wren as Clerk of Works to the Government. He was called "Mad" Benson and he was undoubtedly rather eccentric, at one time burning all his books on the shores of Brownsea in front of the castle, which , incidently he enlarged. He is said, too, to have planted about 10 000 saplings and to have employed a botanist to survey and collect the island's plants.

In 1848 another owner cut his throat in the library of the castle and it was thus that the island came to Colonel William Waugh who bought it from the widow. He was a retired army officer. He restored the castle, built the church, and a school and a long sea wall and established a pottery and a brickyard, employing a hundred or so men and even building a railway to carry the clay to the jetty. But alas! there was no white clay to make fine porcelain and the Colonel by now owed over half a million pounds and so had to go bankrupt.

In 1869 the Castle was largely destroyed by fire. Now came what were perhaps Brownsea's best days. In 1901 Charles van Raalte bought the island, restored the castle and spent generously to make it a happy and prosperous estate. There was an island band in uniforms of grey and red; nearly 200 islanders worked in the pottery and on the estate - there were, for example, ten gardeners, 52 children attended the island school and Mr van Raalte had a fine motor car, and yachts and dined every evening in splendour, the beloved squire of a lovely island. It was he who welcomed BP to his island for an experimental camp in the famous year 1907. Mr van Raalte, unfortunately, did not live to see Scouting march forward on its splendid way, for he died in 1908 on a visit to Calcutta. But his body, brought home in HMS Golconda was buried on the island and you can see his marble effigy in the church.

With his death, the island's glory declined. Mrs Mary Bonham Christie bought it in 1927 and lived as a recluse: she used only a few of the castle's roms, abandoned the farms and the pottery and allowed the discouraged islanders to leave. Cottages fell to ruins, and the island became, what Mrs Christie preferred it to be, a sanctuary for wild birds and the wild animals of the island. During her lifetime hardly anyone was allowed on to Brownsea and certainly no Scouts were. When she died in 1961, her ahses were scatted over the island she loved in her own way.

Now Scouts (and others) may visit the island again but it will remain a nature reserve where blackcaps and sedge-warblers and curlews and stonechats and oyster-cathers and terns and heron and even peacocks can be seen and heard. It belongs to the National Trust and funds have been generously given by various trusts and interested people to maintain the island as the beautiful place it ought always to be.

Scouting had its birth there: Scouts may visit and some may even be allowed to camp there. BP's spirit cannot be far away.

Written by : The Editor - The Scout Annual 1966

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