Isle of Wight Hidden Heroes

Joe Carstairs

Joe Carstairs with Joe Harris

Once dubbed ‘the fastest woman on the water’, Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs was an openly gay, female powerboat racer who lived on the Isle of Wight in the 1920s.

Her love of the water (and of speed) led Joe Carstairs to the Isle of Wight when she commissioned powerboats from the celebrated boatbuilder, Sammy Saunders (find out more about Saunders at the Classic Boat Museum).

The millionaire heiress led an unconventional and eccentric life, but she had an enormous passion and drive to succeed at any challenge she set herself, inspiring and touching the lives of others as she went.

The need for speed
Powerboat racing in the 1920s was not for the faint-hearted. It was a hugely dangerous sport and one that many did not expect to see a woman taking part in.

However, speed was a massive motivation for Joe – she wanted to be fastest and the best, so invested considerable amounts of money (thanks to her inheritance) into building several powerboats which she raced here in the UK, as well as in North America.

The two Joes
Her right-hand-man was a Isle of Wight marine mechanic named Joe Harris. It was said they were devoted to each other – working together for five years – with the mechanic sitting alongside Joe in every race, ready to be flung from the boat when it hit a crashing wave.

So fond of Joe Harris was she, that Joe provided him with an income for his entire life and, when in old age he lost both legs, she travelled to be at his bedside, continuing to support his family when he passed away.

Gwen flips to Newg
The first powerboat – or hydroplane as they were then known as – built for Joe on the Island was designed by a brilliant young designer called Fred Cooper (he later went on to design for H Attrill & Sons).

Built at the Saunders Yard in East Cowes (the same building the Boat Museum is now situated within), Gwen – named after Joe’s Variety star lover, Gwen Farrar – was painted gloss black with a sleek white stripe running along her length.

This was a revolutionary time for boatbuilding and the wood used for Gwen was so thin and pliant that it bulged in the water when it hit every wave. When the boat capsized during early sea trials, Joe renamed her Newg.

Working girl
Although Joe inherited a fortune from her family (her grandfather owned Standard Oil – now Esso), she worked hard for a living prior to powerboat racing.

She’d served in the First World War with the American Red Cross driving ambulances in France and did the same later in Dublin with the Women’s Legion.

In 1920 she set up a car-hire and chauffeuring service with other female service drivers and named the company ‘X Garage’. It was strictly a women-only affair with female drivers and mechanics, who would drive clients all around Europe.

Ooh Betty
Although born Marion Barbara, and using the nickname “Joe” (thought to possibly be a reference to her father, Albert Joseph Carstairs), during her time as a powerboat racer, Joe was often referred to as ‘Betty’.

This was something she apparently hated and accused the press of doing “just to spite her”. Although she received a great deal of attention when she first started powerboat racing, the press did seem to turn against her after a while.

Perhaps her eccentric lifestyle was hard for some to understand. She lived a wild and crazy life, with lovers such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

‘Boss’ of the Bahamas
After packing up powerboat racing and leaving the Isle of Wight, Joe went on to buy an Island called Whale Cay (pronounced Quay) in the Bahamas (then known as the British West Indies).

She set about creating an empire, bringing the island back from the brink of ruin, building houses, roads and regenerating the economy through food production and more. It was there that she was known as ‘The Boss’.

Joe bought many other West Indian islands over the years, but sold Whale Cay in 1975 and moved to Florida where she lived until aged 93.

Down Memory Lane
Do you have relatives that worked with Joe Carstairs on the Isle of Wight?

Did they pass down stories to you about Joe’s time on the Isle of Wight, either from when she commissioned boats from Sammy Saunders, or when she set up her own boatbuilding yard, the Sylvia Yard on the Medina in East Cowes.

Other Islanders who worked with Joe include her chief engineer, Joe Harris; foreman, Arthur ‘Gubby’ Gubbins; boat painter, Jimmy Dexter and Bert Hawker, who designed the boats.

Image: © Classic Boat Centre Trust

Julia Margaret Cameron

julia margaret cameron

Receiving her first camera at the age of 48 – a present from her daughter to amuse herself with after moving to the Isle of Wight from London – who could have known that this mother of five would have such an impact on photography and still be revered a hundred and fifty years later?

In a scene once dominated by men, Julia Margaret Cameron was responsible for turning photography into an art form, experimenting with soft focus and pioneering the first photographic close-up portraits.

She went on to inspire generations of photographers, and to this day, exhibitions of her work attract photography disciples from around the world.

What made Julia’s work so special?
There really was something very special about her work – which is probably why it can still be found in many international major archives.

Julia had a clear vision of what she wanted to create. In a letter to Sir Henry Cole – the founding director of the Victoria & Albert Museum – she wrote in 1866 that she wanted her work to “electrify you with delight and startle the world”.

It took many hours, many sittings and many different models, but the end result was a style that is to this day still admired and appreciated. In fact, a hundred years and ten years after Julia’s first exhibition – the iconic American photographer, Imogen Cunningham, said,

“I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.”

Long before the introduction of Instagram filters to add effects to photos, Julia would include imperfections such as fingerprints and streaks.

Those who chose to criticise her work claimed this was due to her technical inadequacies or the damp climate, but many artists – particularly the Pre-Raphaelites – saw her work for what it was … pure beauty.

Indeed, Julia herself wrote,

“I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”

Risky business
Getting into photography in the 1860s was a risky business. The equipment was heavy and cumbersome. Photographs were developed from glass plates using hazardous chemicals such as silver nitrate – which indelibly stained countless tablecloths as Julia rushed into the dining room with wet pictures to excitedly show her husband.

Within just one year of opening that very special present from her daughter, Julia was a member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland.

Matt or glossy?
Remember when the assistant in the local camera shop asked whether you wanted your holiday snaps printed in matt or glossy finish? Well, as far back as the 1860s Julia had very clear views on what was acceptable.

In a letter to the V&A’s Sir Henry Coles in 1868, Julia said,

“For anything so delicate as a portrait, the shining glazed surface destroys the pleasure by giving a sticking plaster look and I think that even in oil paintings any thick coating of Varnish is a great injury to the effect.

“It is the dull quiet surface of a photograph, however rich in tone and tint it may be, that constitutes, I think, the harmony of the work.”

Why the Isle of Wight?
This pioneering and inspirational artist created most of her photography right here on the Isle of Wight at Dimbola Lodge. She moved to Freshwater after visiting friend and poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, in 1860 (If you didn’t already know, Tennyson lived a little further along the lane at Farringford – recently restored and open to the public).

Julia was so taken with the Island she made Dimbola Lodge her family home – naming it after the beloved Dimbula plantation in Ceylon (pronounced Dim-boola or Dim-bolla depending on who you speak to).

The property now houses the Dimbola Museum and Galleries, with permanent displays and visiting exhibitions from the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Wayne Levin.

In 1875, Julia and her husband moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and she passed away just a few years later. She’s thought to have died having nursed her son through an illness and some people have speculated that her health had been affected by the chemicals used in her photography. Her husband, Charles, passed away a year later.

Isabella de Fortibus

Isabella de Fortibus

Not many people can claim to have owned an island and lived in a castle. But in the 13th Century a feisty, young, single noblewoman suddenly found herself with wealth and power thrust upon her after she inherited the Isle of Wight and moved into her new home at Carisbrooke Castle. Her name was Isabella de Fortibus and she was known as the ‘Lady of the Isle’.

Isabella de Fortibus had always loved the Isle of Wight, visiting many times when she was a child, but she didn’t become Lord of the Isle of Wight, her official title, until after the death of her brother, Baldwin de Redvers, the 7th Earl of Devon, who owned lands in Devon and Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight. You could say it was recompense for losing her wealthy husband, William de Fortibus, only two years before, which left her a widow of six children.

Dragon’s Den
So there she was, a woman of only 26, who suddenly found herself the richest independent lady in England, one of the wealthiest widows who ever lived, and owner of a sunny diamond in the Solent. And she was very rich. In fact, in 1260s her net wealth jumped from £1,500 to £2,500. To understand what those figures mean today, one just has to add another three noughts – some serious cash!

Isabella was the Business Dragon of her day, a strong-minded leader who, together with her team of influential legal and financial advisers, managed the towns, forests and manor houses on the Island, including land and houses from Southampton to Northern England. Money was collected from her portfolio of estates from all over the country and transported, often as gold coins under armed guard, back to Carisbrooke to then be distributed.

Castle Makeover
Although she was a religious woman, having her own chapel, she had several arguments with the monks at Quarr Abbey. One incident involved her demanding a road to be built from Carisbrooke Priory into Parkhurst forest, as the crow flies, just so she could more easily have wood delivered to provide building materials for her numerous Carisbrooke Castle makeovers, which included a new kitchen and a great chamber with a window framing the wonderful Island views.

She is responsible for many alterations and additions to the castle over her reign, many of which remain today such as her window seat, made for her countess’s chamber.

Young and Single
Though she was a powerful widow she was a vulnerable heiress at a time when there were many tales of widows being kidnapped and forced into marriages with unscrupulous men who only wanted their wealth and land.

Isabella must have been aware of this and, although she was courted and promised to various powerful men over the years, she refused to marry any of them, even hiding from one of the men, Simon de Montford, in Hampshire, and then in Wales!

The Seat of Power
The Isle of Wight was a strategically important place at the time, when any invader, such as France, might have easily landed before mounting a full-scale invasion of England. Isabella knew what power she had and was determined to keep the Island independent from royal interference.

This greatly irked the king of the time, Henry III. His son, Edward I was promised to marry Isabella, but she refused his advances, never wanting to relinquish control of her beloved Island. Edward went on to marry her daughter, Aveline, aged only 10, a custom that was normal at the time. However, like all of Isabella’s other five children, Aveline died before she reached adulthood, leaving Isabella without an heir to her fortune.

The Fight for the Island
When Edward I later became king he spent his reign acquiring lands and wealth, but his eye was always on taking control of the Island from Isabella. The Isle of Wight was a strategic position in England due to the risk of invasion from the French and the lands produced much wealth.

Though Isabella commanded an army to defend the Island, Edward still persisted in demanding she sell it to him, but she fought to keep control, even when Edward challenged her in court.

Deathbed Sale
In 1293, fate caught up with Isabella, because while she was on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to London, she fell gravely ill and took refuge in one of her many London manor houses. When Edward I heard word of her imminent death he sent his minions to her bed chamber, with a charter for her to sign that granted him her lands, wealth and the Isle of Wight. But she was too ill to properly sign it, and could only mark a cross on the contract. With all her children deceased, and only a very distant cousin, she had no direct family to leave her wealth and Island too.

Sadly, Isabella, Lady of the Isle, had no choice but to sell the Island to Edward I for a sum worth £4,000, a paltry amount at the time.

Isabella’s reign was over and her beloved Island was back in royal control. But she will always be remembered as an amazing example of a powerful and passionate woman who truly loved the Isle of Wight and held onto it until the very end.

Today, Isabella’s independent spirit lives on.

Why is she a hero?
Isabella was a powerful woman who was the last independent person to hold the title of ‘Lord of the Isle of Wight’ and who held onto a strategically important place at a time when England was worried about French invasion.

Isabella represents the fierce independent Island spirit, doing things her own way, which still holds true today.

King Arwald

Caedwalla invades the IOW by Ernest Prager

The Isle of Wight is known for being fiercely independent and has developed a strong sense of identity that often sets it apart from mainland thinking.

It’s probably not a surprise to find out that in the Early Middle Ages, while the rest of England’s inhabitants had been converted to Christianity at sword-point, the Wightwarians, as they were known at the time, were still independently pagan and ruled by a king called Arwald.

The Pagan King
England during Arwald’s reign was divided into kingdoms controlled by tribal lords forever fighting each other. While much of England was being converted from paganism to Roman Christianity, the Island was peacefully unaware of the slaughter to come.

The Roman’s had abandoned the Island long ago, and from around 530AD, the Jutes, a people who had migrated from Northern Denmark, lived and ruled on the Isle of Wight. King after king was toppled until a man called Arwald found himself in control around the late 600s.

King Arwald presided over 300 families, which may have been only around 1200 people.

The Quiet Before the Storm
The pagan Jutes on the Island lived in clearings surrounded by forest, in small hamlets of several families in thatched and wooden-tiled homes. They ground corn by hand and wove their own clothing.

They made everyday items from wood, clay and iron, and crafted sophisticated and beautiful jewellery. They were connected to nature and worshipped pagan gods like Woden and Thor.

While the rest of England was brutally being converted to Roman Christianity, King Arwald was determined to preserve the Island’s pagan way of life.

Meanwhile on the mainland, Rome’s evangelising pope was taking advantage of any Anglo-Saxon barbarian with a desire to conquer new land and convert the people ‘ignorant of the name and faith of God’ to the ways of the Lord.

Merciless Slaughter
One such powerful bishop was called Wilfred who befriended a man called Caedwalla, a barbarian king of Wessex, a warmonger with revenge on his mind mainly because, as a youth, he had been exiled from Wessex. Caedwalla had later returned to kill the South Saxons and their king called Aethelwealh in what is now Sussex. It was written that he went through the English counties ‘by merciless slaughter’. And slaughter he did. But as Caedwalla looked across the Solent he set eyes on the last remaining pagan outpost, the Isle of Wight. With blood still dripping from his sword, he amassed his army and set sail.

Arwald must have put up a brave fight because his quarry, Caedwalla, was badly injured in the battle for the Island, but, alas, it wasn’t enough. It has been written that Caedwalla destroyed all the inhabitants of the Island, killing Arwald and forcing the remaining Islanders to renounce their beliefs and convert to Christianity. After the battle, the injured Caedwalla made a pilgrimage to Rome to be baptised – was this to absolve his guilt for all the slaughter? – only to die ten days later.

Fruits of the Massacre
Vestiges of Arwald’s family, his two brothers, their names still unknown, fled the Island across the Solent to the New Forest, but were eventually betrayed and captured by Caedwalla. He forced them at sword-point to convert to Christianity, before being murdered.

They were described as ‘the first fruits’ of the massacre of the population of the Island, and later canonised collectively as St Arwald, in memory of King Arwald. The day is now remembered, although not by many, annually on the 22nd April.

Rev William Fox

Reverend William Fox

The Isle of Wight has always been recognised as one of the best places in Europe to find dinosaur bones because of its diverse geology and abundance of fossils. In fact, several new fossils of dinosaurs, around 120 millions years old, were first found here and some are unique to the Island. Not many people know the man who found most of those dinosaur fossils and had several named after him, lived and worked on the Island during the 19th century.

His name was Reverend William D Fox and when he wasn’t helping the local vicar he spent much of his days hunting for what he referred to as ‘old dragons’ on the beaches of the Isle of Wight.

Fox arrived on the Island in 1862 aged 43 to assist the local vicar of St Mary the Virgin church in Brighstone (known as Brixton at the time). The Reverend Fox soon became notorious in the area, although not for his religious work. His real passion was fossils, which he looked for on his regular walks along Brighstone Bay. Tales even told of him going out on his donkey to look for them!

Finding New Dragons on the Beach
Fox wasn’t a professional scientist, but probably history’s best example of a very knowledgeable amateur fossil collector. Over the years, his daily excursions along the cliff paths and beaches of West Wight, including Barnes Chine and Cowleaze Chine, yielded many significant new fossil finds including Polacanthus foxii (a spiky-backed, armoured herbivore), Aristosuchus (meaning ‘superior crocodile’, a small bipedal carnivore) and Hypsilophodon foxii (a fast, bipedal herbivore with a sharp beak).

Fox was not the first to find a Hypsilophodon fossil, as it was later identified. The first specimen fossil was discovered along Cowleaze Chine and passed onto another professional palaeontologist called Gideon Mantell. He incorrectly thought it was a juvenile iguanodon.

However, the keen-eyed Fox found another similar fossil and, after studying it carefully, wrote to his friend, the scientist and palaeontologist, Richard Owen, suggesting that he believed the specimen showed significant differences to iguanodon. When Owen later investigated the find he realised Fox was indeed correct – it was a new species of dinosaur.

The fossil was later described and named in honour of Fox’s contribution, Hypsilophodon foxii.

Bones First, Parish Next
There was no doubt about Fox’s passion for palaeontology during the first golden age of fossil collecting. The vicar’s wife said of him, ‘It was always the bones first and the parish next’ so it must have been deeply disappointing when the church asked Fox to move on from the parish of Brighstone.

He even wrote several letters to Richard Owen asking for his help in seeking a permanent position, writing ‘I cannot leave this place while I have any money left to live on,’ and concluded that he took deep pleasure in ‘hunting for old dragons.’ Sadly, in spite of Owen writing to Gladstone, the prime minister of the time, asking if he could influence the church, Fox eventually had to leave the parish of Brighstone, but he continued to collect fossils, even after moving to nearby Shorwell.

Fossilised Legacy
Fox died on the Island and is buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s Church, Brighstone. In 1882, his incredible collection of fossilised specimens was donated to what would become known as The Natural History Museum, and is still studied by paleontologists today.

But Fox’s most lasting legacy is surely in showing the world how amateur fossil collecting is so important to our knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs. I’m sure Fox would delight in knowing that new ‘old dragons’ continue to be discovered every day, by ordinary people on the Isle of Wight, just as Fox had done in his day.

Why is he a hero?
Rev William D Fox’s amateur contribution to palaeontology is unrivaled. He discovered more species of dinosaur than anybody else in the UK and has more dinosaurs named after him than any other Englishman.

His legacy of fossil collecting, over 500 fossils, were donated to the Natural History Museum and are still used today for study and reference.

Most importantly, Fox showed the importance of amateur fossil hunting and collecting which is still important now and accessible to all — amazing new fossil discoveries are being found every day on the Isle of Wight.