Chronicles: Mark Norman – Geologist, Diarist, Politician, Fishmonger, Parent . . .

Mark William Norman was one of Ventnor’s most remarkable residents.  Completely self educated, he taught himself geology and wrote A Popular Geology of the Isle of Wight,  still in print today.  He established a museum in Ventnor, kept a fishmongers’ shop, married and raised seven children, and kept diaries in which he looked back over his life.  His diaries are now in the Society Collection, and the quotations here are taken from them.

Born in London, when he was twelve he was sent by his father, his mother having died, to walk alone from London to his grandparents on the Isle of Wight.  He describes the journey in detail, and how he finally found his grandparents’  house in Langbridge in Newchurch, and knocked on the door : It was opened by a stout old lady,  This was my grandmother.  She stood looking at a little urchin, in scant costume and worn out shoes, asking “who be ee?” and “where do ee come from?”.  When I replied she burst into tears.

He remained on the Island, doing various jobs, including helping fishermen, and in his late 20s settled in Ventnor, making a living selling crabs and lobsters around the town. In 1837, when Ventnor was little more than a hamlet, he set up a fish stall  . . .  close to the high road in front of some old cottages above on the rising ground . . . my future child wife [Mary Ann Day] lived close by with her mother and used to attend my stall for me when I was away purchasing my stock or taking crabs and lobsters to the houses of the visitors.  A first rate little saleswoman she made.

Mark Norman and Mary Ann Day were married in 1844 when she was just 16.  Mark was twice her age, and this caused some raised eyebrows, but theirs seems to have been a good marriage – he later commented that:  Like most unfashionable marriages it was the most important event in our lives. They moved into a small house on the High Street and  took out the wall facing the street to make a permanent fish shop with an open front.  Ventnor was now expanding rapidly, and the business flourished, though Norman complained that it was an uphill fight for several years.  However as the place [Ventnor] increased we got on better.  But still we met with scanty support from the resident gentry who dealt with Ryde or elsewhere. By Christmas 1851 things were going well and the Mark and Mary Ann had four young children: Emma (aged 5), Marian (aged 3), William (aged 2) and baby Maria.

Then in 1852 tragedy struck the family when three of the children died of Scarlet Fever – only Marian survived.  A headstone can still be seen in the corner of the Central Car park where the old Congregational Church once stood; it just gives the initials of the three children and the date 1852. Their father was bitter about the death of the children; he felt that the doctor’s advice not to move the sick children had been given more to prevent the spread of the disease among wealthy visitors than for the welfare of the children.  Mark and Mary Ann went on to have six more children, three girls and three boys, but no more died in childhood. Sadly, a second tragedy hit the Norman family nearly a hundred years after the first, when Mark’s granddaughter Hilda and her mother Florence were killed by enemy action during a bombing raid on Ventnor High Street  in 1943.

The photograph here may show Mark Norman’s shop in the High Street in the 1860s, when it was roughly where Knights Court now stands.  He later moved the shop to 27 Ventnor High Street, where, as shown in the advert below,  his eldest son Frank joined him, taking over the business when his father died.   It was still a fish shop (MacFisheries) in the 1930s,  but it is now  Red Chilli restaurant.

During his long life, as well as pursuing his interest in geology, Mark was active in local politics, and a member of Ventnor Town Board.  He died in 1899 aged 87; Mary Ann died in 1902.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor and District Local History Society. Information here is taken from census records and the diaries of Mark Norman.  The painting of Mark Norman is by Charles J Ryan, and is held by the Isle of Wight Council Heritage Service; other photographs and images are from our Collection.  For more information about Mark Norman and his diaries see Old Men Remember, published by the Society.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle in 2015