Historical references to the area now referred to as Bembridge Harbour go back to before Roman times. The Harbour was previously known as Brading Haven and, as the names suggest, extended as far west as Brading before the Embankment was constructed in 1880. Throughout its history, the area has offered sheltered waters to all types of mariner. In its heyday, during the reign of Charles 1, Brading was the principal port of the Island (according to Sir John Oglander).
Some of the earliest relevant references concern ‘St Helens Roads’, being the area to the seaward of the harbour. This has always been a sheltered anchorage and is still used as such, as it is protected from westerly winds. It has often been a departure point for fleets sailing west down the English Channel, perhaps most famously being the departure point for Nelson’s fleet in 1805 en route to Trafalgar.
The original entrance of Brading Haven was by St Helens Old Church with the spit, known as the Duver, originally extending from the Bembridge side, although this changed, as a result of natural causes, by the early 1600s to the current layout, with the entrance on the Bembridge end of the Duver. The Old Church itself was built in the reign of Henry lll (1215-1272). The Church began to fall into the sea about 1550 and from then on gradually disintegrated until only the portion of the Tower seen today remained. In 1703 it was bricked up on the seaward side for use as a Seamark. Allegedly sailors used to remove the stones of the Old Church for scouring the decks of wooden ships and the term ‘holystoning the decks’ is said to have originated here.
The Evolution of the Harbour
Several important construction operations have contributed to the development of the harbour into its current location and form. In 1338 the Yarbridge connection to the Isle of Binbridge (Bembridge) was constructed, blocking off the water to Sandham (Sandown). The next reclamation was in 1562 when the area alongside Carpenters Road at the Brading End was cut off. In 1594 land at the bottom of Quay Lane in Brading was reclaimed. Up until this point, small commercial vessels could sail nearly up to Brading High Street. The first attempt to cut off a major portion of the harbour was between 1620 – 1622 when a barrier was constructed from what is now Bembridge Lodge to Woodnutts but it only lasted eight years before being breached.
The major closure of Brading Haven to form what is now known as Bembridge Harbour was started in 1874 and finally finished, after several abortive attempts, in 1880. After this work was completed the ownership of the Harbour passed into the hands of the local railway company. It passed to the Southern Railway after the First World War and then British Railways following nationalisation. It eventually passed back into private hands in 1968.
In 661 AD, Wulfere, son of Penda of Mercia, landed here on the Isle of Wight, taking it from the Kingdom of Wessex and ceding it to the King of Sussex. The lost village of Woolverton, near Bembridge, had been named ‘Wulfere’s town’ after he started a settlement here. It was re-taken by the Kingdom of Wessex very soon afterwards. Bembridge itself is said to have its name derived from ‘Beam-bridge’, as until the Brading Haven was reclaimed in 1878, Bembridge was almost separated from the rest of the Island.
The village apparently started off as 5 hamlets that eventually joined together. One of which was called Hardley.
Throughout Medieval times, Bembridge was known for exporting stone, and this, as well as fishing, farming and smuggling, was the main trade. The local fishermen, as well as catching fish, also caught shrimps, prawns and even rabbits! Bembridge limestone is a hard, white/cream coloured, freshwater limestone, and was used for building many medieval buildings, including Quarr Abbey, where a lot of the stone was quarried (Quarr Abbey derives its name from ‘Quarry Abbey’) and Southampton’s town walls.
The French Invasion of 1545
On the 19th July 1545 Bembridge was invaded by the French under the command of Seigneur de Taix and the village set on fire. This was in order to provoke the English fleet in Portsmouth, who were able to see the flames, to come out and fight the French, but they did not, except the Mary Rose, which promptly sank. The French did not stay in Bembridge long, though. They managed to take Bembridge, Whitecliff and St. Helens, getting as far as Yarbridge in Brading and building temporary earthworks just outside Centurions Copse. The English fleet, though, refused to leave the safety of Portsmouth. Also, the local militia, having repelled another invasion at Yaverland, were approaching and were using the Brading Parish cannon, called the ‘Fire Engine’ to bombard the French positions over Brading Haven. The French admiral had also calculated that it would take 6,000 men to keep the island over the winter when ships were unable to sail regularly from France, and could not spare that many, and so the French forces soon left.
Bembridge Harbour was originally just part of Brading Haven, and the sea extended down as far as Yaverland and Sandown. The whole peninsula was almost an island. Brading was used as a port in Roman times. In 1388 Sir William Russell had drained the southern half of Brading Haven, and in 1562 North Marsh was walled by George Oglander, with further walls built in 1594 and 1620. During this time, St. Helens was used as a port. However, after the flood of March 1630, Brading Haven was not reclaimed until 1878 at a cost of £420,000.
Bembridge was always too difficult to access as the only route to it was via marshes in Yaverland which flooded in winter. Even at the start of the 19th Century access to Bembridge was difficult, and as there were strong currents across the mouth of the harbour, the only safe time to get to Bembridge was via a ‘horse boat’, which only operated in low tide and in fair weather.
Fashionable Victorian Times
In the Victorian era, Bembridge grew from a tiny fishing village to become a fashionable resort. In 1853, a small steamer, the Dart, started to make two return passenger trips a day to Bembridge from Portsmouth, also calling at Ryde and Seaview. Duck-hunting was very popular with visitors. In 1879, the steam launch Blanche ran a passenger service between Seaview, Bembridge and Portsmouth, and the Brading Harbour Company started its service with the paddle steamer Tynemouth.
In 1864, the Bembridge Railway, Tramway and Pier Act was passed by Parliament, authorising the construction of land-reclamation works and the building of a pier. By 1878 over 800 acres of land were reclaimed, and a pier built. Bembridge Harbour Pier was only 250ft long, and quite narrow too. Despite this, it was used by ships such as the 46 tonnes Tynemouth, and after the harbour had been dredged to allow larger ships, such as the 125ft. Island Queen in 1878 and in 1892 the 104 tonnes, 137ft paddle steamer Princess of Wales, which was re-named the Bembridge. This was run by the Southsea and Ventnor Steamship Company. This later merged with the Southsea, Ventnor, Shanklin and Sandown Steamship Company to become the Bembridge and Seaview Steamship Company in 1912. Ships which called at Bembridge regularly on a passenger service included the Sandringham, Prince, Duke of York, Carrier and the 130ft Lord Kitchener. The largest ferry was the Alexandra in 1913, which was a 235-tonne ship and 171ft long.
Between 1862 and 1867, Bembridge Fort, on Bembridge Down just south of the village was built, at a cost of £49,000 – a lot of money in those days. It was built to counter the possible French Invasion by Napoleon III, but in the end, no invasion came.
Bembridge at this time still did not have a water supply other than the pump in Pump Lane. This became quite a problem as the steamers calling at Bembridge Pier needed to refill with water. The problem was solved when water was pumped through the hollow tubes of the existing hand-railing along the embankment’s promenade.
Seaview, a village near Bembridge, had constructed its own pier in 1881. In 1914, the Seaview Steam Packet Company started another ferry service between Bembridge, Seaview, Southsea and Portsmouth. They bought the 130ft Alleyn, but the Great War started and all ferry services were suspended. During the war, Bembridge was used as a seaplane base.
The Advent of the Railway
On entering Bembridge Harbour by boat it is difficult to realise that you are entering a man-made harbour constructed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Before 1880, boats would have sailed a further two and a half miles upstream along the meandering channel of the Eastern Yar, with its wide expanse of mudflats and creeks, to the town of Brading, the major part of the area. At high water the mudflats would be covered in water, the whole area being known as Brading Haven, the name now adopted by the Yacht Club adjacent to Bembridge Marina.
All this was to change and it was all tied up with the building of a railway line from Brading to Bembridge and the industrial and tourism development of this quiet rural backwater. A grandiose scheme was put forward by Jabez Balfour, MP, an entrepreneur who, through an Act of Parliament in April 1874, set up the Brading Harbour Improvement and Railway Company. The company was authorised to construct an embankment from St. Helens to Bembridge and to reclaim all the land upstream towards Brading, to construct a port at St. Helens and to build a railway from the Isle of Wight Railway at Brading via St. Helens to Bembridge. The scheme, along with the construction of the Royal Spithead Hotel, the purchase of a steamer fleet, including a train ferry, was financed by the Liberator Building Society at a cost of £420,000. The line opened with due ceremony on Saturday 27th May 1882. The new railway would have made a considerable difference to the lives of people in St. Helens and Bembridge, Bembridge growing into a major tourist village and St. Helens into a major port.
The small branch line then operated for many years under a number of owners. The Isle of Wight Railway bought the line in July 1898 for £16,500 – a bargain! In January 1923 the Isle of Wight Railway was amalgamated into the Southern Railway who made immediate improvements to the branch. St. Helens Quay, the present location of Bembridge Marina, became the main port at the Eastern end of the Island for the movement of goods and freight. North and South Quays were reconstructed, evidence of which can still be seen if you look closely. Today it is hard to think that the area around the marina was, until the 1960s, an industrial landscape, with railway sidings, a crane, warehouses, a gas works and an engine shed.
On 1st January 1948, the railways of the British Isles were nationalised. It is perhaps sad to say that from that day the Bembridge branch was under financial scrutiny for closure. In the early 1950s car ownership was becoming more widespread and bus services more flexible and competitive. The railway closed on Monday 21st September 1953. Large numbers of villagers turned out to ride on the last train including Mr Herbert Occomore who was, for many years, the Harbour Master and Pilot at Bembridge. He had travelled on the first train ever to run from Brading to St. Helens in 1881.
After closure many changes took place. Up until the late 1950s carriages were stored and broken up on St. Helens Quay. The quay gradually closed to commercial shipping. The harbour was sold to the newly formed Bembridge Harbour Improvements Company in July 1963. The toll road along the embankment, owned and controlled by the British Railways Board, was taken over and abolished by the Isle of Wight County Council in October 1971. The Bembridge Station was demolished in the early 1970s, as was the Royal Spithead Hotel in 1989. However, there is still much to see of the original trackbed that once crossed the seabed.
Bembridge became even busier when one of Britain ‘s first golf courses, as the St Helen’s Duver was for many Years the Royal Golf Links. The Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club was founded in 1882 and was responsible for the much of the development of the modern game of Golf, at one point challenging the pre-eminence of St Andrews as the source of the authoritative rules of the game and even forcing changes in some of the St Andrews rules. Members ranged from members of Queen Victoria’s family, including Edward VII and several European princes and monarchs, to celebrities such as David Niven in more modern times. Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, who was Governor of the Isle of Wight for many years was a President of the Club until her death in 1940. At its height, the club boasted 11 Internationals. One of the club’s members, Horace Rawlins, was the first winner of the US Open in 1895. The club closed in 1961 since when it has been managed by the National Trust as open space.
Post First World War Bembridge
After the war, steamer services resumed, but to a lesser than before the war. Fewer people wished to travel to Bembridge, and another problem was that the harbour was beginning to silt up again. Steamers could only reach the pier at High Tide, and it was easier to travel to the Island from Portsmouth by ferry to Ryde Pier, which could be reached no matter what the tide level, and take the train from there, changing at Brading. The ferry service ended in 1924, and the pier was demolished by 1928.
Bembridge still relied on the tourist trade, and after World War II it enjoyed a revival of the tourist industry. ‘Bucket and spade’ holidays were becoming popular nationwide. This, though, suffered seriously when the railway line closed in 1953. Small ferries still ran across the harbour to St Helen’s until 1993. Overall, though, Bembridge has returned to being a peaceful village – if a much bigger one. The beaches nearby are still beautiful, but now are unspoilt as they are rarely seen by tourists.
There is, though, a very small airport on the outskirts. Despite this, the Britten-Norman Islander, Britain ‘s most successful aircraft since the Second World War, has been built here since 1963. Over 1,200 have so far been built.
Links to The National Trust’s excellent accounts of St Helen’s history: