The date of the photograph below is Monday 29th June 1863. It is the annual coronation holiday. However the flags and the archway of decorative greenery are not just in celebration of Queen Victoria’s crowning in June 1838, but also the opening of the first one hundred yard section of the western breakwater that was to form part of Ventnor’s new refuge harbour. The form of its construction is plainly apparent from the picture: two parallel sets of timber piles driven into the seabed, timber shuttering secured behind them to make a kind of coffer dam, and the centre then filled with compacted rock and soil.
On this fine June day, both beach and breakwater are crowded with visitors, some having been brought ashore in small boats from the steamboat anchored out in the Bay. This was the twin-funnelled iron paddle steamer Chancellor, built in 1853 by Denny Bros of Dumbarton. At 161 gross registered tons and 164 feet in length, with engines of 80 hp, she had originally been owned by the Dumbarton Steamship Company, running trips between Glasgow and Arrochar. In October 1862, she was sold for use as a blockade runner in the American Civil War but this never came to fruition and by spring 1863 she was on the Solent, operating services between Stokes Bay and Ryde and running occasional excursions. This is what brought her to Ventnor on 29th June 1863.
One of the most startling features of the picture is the sight of ladies in their crinolines perched precariously on some of the timber baulks that have been temporarily placed between roadway and breakwater wall. Today, no ordinary member of the public would be allowed near such a site, but the Victorians did not display anything like the attitudes to risk with which we have become familiar a century and more later.
Two days on in time, on the 1st of July, the same paddle steamer re-visited and, on this occasion, its captain was pressed to bring the vessel alongside the breakwater, even though the tide was falling. He was reluctant to do so, but was over-ruled by one of the owners who was aboard. An hour or so later, as the steamer slipped her moorings to go astern, it was discovered that her bow had grounded on rock. Every effort to move her failed. At the next high tide, it was found that she was making water in the fore compartment. Then, that night, a heavy swell came up and flooding advanced to the engine room. With her stern well afloat and in a strong south-westerly, she ended up slewed round broadside to the beach the next day and, finally, broke in two. It was an ignominious end to the celebration, even if it proved possible to salvage the steamer’s engines, along with many other fittings.
Michael Freeman, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Source: this piece has been compiled mainly from the late Fay Brown’s index files now held in the Ventnor Heritage Centre. This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in July 2015.