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History of St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm

Visitors looking over St Catherine's Lighthouse (not National Trust) and the view out to sea on the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight, St Catherine's Point, at St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm, Isle of Wight
Visitors looking over St Catherine's Lighthouse, St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Within the land we care for at St Catherine’s Down and Knowles Farm lies a colourful history of technological innovation, local legend, shipwreck and even links to a Russian Tsar. Find out more about the lighthouse, Hoy monument and Guglielmo Marconi’s breakthrough in the field of communications.

The history of St Catherine’s lighthouse

Built in the 14th century, high on a hill overlooking Chale Bay, St Catherine’s Oratory is the stuff of colourful legend involving the Lord of the Manor.

Plunder and punishment

In 1313, a ship (the St Mary of Bayonne) was blown off-course and ran aground on the treacherous Atherfield Ledge in Chale Bay. Its cargo of white wine, destined for a French monastery, was sold illegally by the sailors to local people. Many barrels found their way into the cellars of Walter de Godeton, Lord of the Manor of Chale.

The ship came from Gascony, part of King Edward II’s kingdom. The incident was brought to his notice and Walter de Godeton appeared before an ecclesiastical court, where he was heavily fined.

Penitent and priest

Unfortunately for de Godeton, the Pope also heard of the incident and, to avoid excommunication, de Godeton was ordered to build an oratory and beacon on Chale Down (now St Catherine’s Hill) as penance.

A priest would tend the light to guide ships and say prayers for the souls of the drowned – at de Godeton’s expense.

Bell tower or beacon?

St Catherine’s Oratory is often referred to as the finest surviving example of a medieval lighthouse in Britain. In reality, it's more likely to have been a bell tower with a beacon alongside.

It fell into disrepair in the 16th century following the dissolution of the monasteries and was abandoned. The octagonal tower survived because of its importance as a seamark.

In 1785, a lighthouse was started but never completed because the hill is so often shrouded in mist. Known as the ‘Salt Pot’, its round stone base can be seen by the large aerials near the Oratory.


On 11 October 1836, the Clarendon - a sailing ship from the Caribbean - struck rocks at the foot of Blackgang Chine in gale-force winds. She was carrying an exotic cargo of rum, coconuts and turtles.

Despite the valiant efforts of local people, the ship broke up in heavy seas with the loss of 23 lives. The bodies were washed ashore, except one. Uncannily, the body of Miss Gourlay was carried on to Southsea, to the foot of her father’s garden.

The new lighthouse

In 1838, work began on a new lighthouse on St Catherine’s Point and it was operational by 1840. When the cows on the downs first saw its light, they're said to have stampeded in fear.

In 1875, the height of the elegant three-tier octagonal tower was reduced substantially as - like its predecessors - its light was often shrouded in mist.

It was one of the first lighthouses in the world to be powered by electricity when arc lamps were installed in 1888. They could be seen for an incredible 18 miles.

The original fog signal house was on a cliff nearer the sea but was at risk of collapse due to erosion. In 1932, it was replaced by a shorter tower next to the main lighthouse. Being similar in style, they're known locally as the Cow and Calf.

Second World War to present day

During the war, the lighthouse was an important landmark for shipping and aircraft. Sadly, on 1 June 1943 the engine house close to the lighthouse was bombed and three lighthouse keepers sheltering inside were killed.

In 1997 the lighthouse was automated and remains the third most powerful light operated by Trinity House. For more details about the lighthouse itself, visit Trinity's website.

A bright spring day with blue skies behind the pillar of the Hoy Monument and bracken just starting to appear
The Hoy Monument on St Catherine’s Down | © National Trust / Chuck Eccleston ARPS

History of the Hoy Monument

Visible for miles, the Hoy Monument on St Catherine’s Down has a fascinating link to Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

A successful businessman

Michael Hoy (1758-1828) was an entrepreneur, with shops in St Petersburg and a thriving import and export trade with Britain. He was made Sheriff of London in 1812 and, with the fortune he amassed, bought more than 1,700 acres of land and property on the Isle of Wight.

For several years he lived at Medina Hermitage in the lee of St Catherine’s Down. His house burned down in the late 19th century and was rebuilt around 1895. It's now simply called the Hermitage.

In praise of the Tsar

Hoy had the monument erected to commemorate the visit to Britain in 1814 of ‘His Imperial Majesty Alexander the 1st, Emperor of all the Russias’.

Tsar Alexander I was held in high esteem by the British because he had dealt a serious blow to Napoleon I’s ambitions to dominate Europe, by repelling the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

Although he visited Portsmouth, the Tsar didn't make the short crossing to the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless, Michael Hoy wished to mark the event ‘In Remembrance of many happy Years Residence in his Dominions’, as the inscription on the pillar proclaims.

Following the Crimean War

After Michael Hoy’s death, the Hermitage was let to William Dawes - a commissioned officer who, naturally during the Crimean War, didn't share Michael Hoy’s Russian sympathies.

Dawes had inscribed on the south side of the monument a tribute ‘in Honor of those brave men of the Allied Armies who fell on the Alma at Inkermann and at the siege of Sevastopol AD1857’.

Marconi's wireless success at Knowles Farm

The estate has been owned by various eminent families but the most famous person to live at Knowles is Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), the Italian credited as the inventor of radio and who set up his own wireless telegraphy company.

Failing to gain recognition in Italy for his experimental work, he came to London in 1896, aged 21. In 1909, he was joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Marconi's work on the Isle of Wight

Marconi set up an experimental radio station at Alum Bay in December 1897 and transmitted from the Needles to Bournemouth. However, he wanted somewhere with better range, reception and a stronger signal.

He decided Knowles Farm would be ideal. In 1900, he dismantled and moved his equipment. George Marvin, a yacht builder from Cowes, built him a new communication mast (they had to knock down a few walls to get it along the narrow road to the farm).

In the 1920s, a farmer chopped up the now redundant mast to make ladders but its concrete base remains in the field to the south of the farmhouse. Marconi lived in the farmhouse and used the cottage next door for his pioneering radio experiments - and to design the first selectively tuned transmitting equipment.

The Marconi Memorial at Poldhu, Lizard, Cornwall
The Marconi Memorial at Poldhu, Lizard | © National Trust Images/David Sellman

The first transmission

Knowles Farm proved to be an inspired choice - the following year he succeeded in making contact with his new radio station at Lizard Point, Cornwall – 196 miles away.

This was the furthest distance radio waves had ever travelled. The first private ship-to-shore radio message was also received at Knowles Farm from the Solent.

Two people looking over grassy fields towards St Catherine's Lighthouse, at St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm, Isle of Wight

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