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St Helens Duver’s maritime history

A rusted boat with 'CS233' painted on it in white lettering lies wrecked on a patch of sand and grass at St Helens Duver, Isle of Wight.
A boat wreck at St Helens Duver | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Although hard to imagine today, at the east end of today’s St Helens Duver on the Isle of Wight, the port of St Helens played an important part in defending the island and mainland. From the end of the 13th century until the 1700s, and beyond, there has been a strong maritime history associated with the area.

St Helens Roads

Naval and merchant fleets would often anchor in the sheltered waters of St Helen's Roads, just offshore, to take supplies on board. Press gangs would come ashore and try to boost crew numbers – hence the name of the Gaggen or Gaggun Edge path at the edge of the Common.

The water of St Helens had excellent keeping qualities and would remain fresh for a voyage to the West Indies and back. Legend has it that Admiral Lord Nelson’s last view of England was of the Old Church at St Helens when his ship, HMS Victory, stopped to take on supplies before setting sail for the Battle of Trafalgar.

Strategic defence

St Helens was vulnerable to attack, particularly by the French navy who came ashore in 1340. On this occasion they were driven back, and again in 1545 during the campaign in which the Mary Rose capsized and sank off Portsmouth.

A watchtower with a beacon was then erected at Nodes Point beacuse although the waters round St Helens were sheltered, shipwrecks were not uncommon and many sailors who were drowned are buried locally.

By the time of the Second World War, Woodnutt’s boatyard at the west end of the Duver employed 200 workers, building mainly Fairmile-class patrol boats for the admiralty and airborne lifeboats for rescuing RAF crew who had ditched into the sea.

St Helens Fort

St Helens Fort is the smallest of a chain of round forts built in the Solent that are now known as ‘Palmerston's Follies’, which lies just offshore. St Helens Fort was built between 1867 and 1871 specifically to protect the St Helens anchorage. The forts were built to protect Portsmouth and Spithead from Napoleon III and the French following to an invasion scare. This threat eventually came to nothing, and they were never used for their original purpose.

First World War

In the First World War the fort was used as a gun battery to provide cover for an area where suspicious vessels could be examined, and as a searchlight base for the guns of Nodes Point battery and Culver Battery. In the Second World War it was used once again as a searchlight and anti-aircraft gun platform.

6d to see the whale

The steamer 'Bembridge' struck a whale off the Fort in 1887 when sailing to Seaview, and for some time the whale was exhibited in a tent on the beach at Seaview at a charge of 6d (2½p) per head.

The Fort as a lighthouse

The Fort has been used as a navigational lighthouse during peace times. Daughter of lighthouse keepers, 15-year-old Ethel Langton and her dog Badger were once stranded there for three days and nights after her parents had rowed ashore to the shops. The weather was very rough, and they could not return. Every four hours she had to climb a steep ladder to check on the lighthouse lamps.

On the third day Frederick and George Attrill along with George Smith managed to reach the Fort and found Ethel asleep. She was awarded the Lloyds bronze medal for meritorious services.

The fort walk

The Fort is now privately owned and does have its own artesian well for water supply in case of future siege or being cut off by storms. At one of the lowest tides of the year, usually in August, there is often a mass unofficial walk from St Helens beach to the Fort and back along the exposed causeway.

More recent activity on the water

There used to be a ferry from the Duver across the harbour entrance to Bembridge, but it finally stopped running in 1993. This area has been used for commercial maritime activities from the end of the 19th century. In that period, wooden hulls have been replaced by fibreglass, inboard motors have become outboard and new vessels have appeared such as catamarans.

A view across the landscape at St Helens Duver to the beach

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