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The history of St Helens Duver

A dead tree lies to the left of a grassy area which was once part of the Royal Isle of Wight Golf Club
Autumn falls over the old links at St Helens Duver | © National Trust / Chuck Eccleston ARPS

The human history of St Helens Duver area stretches back thousands of years and it’s clear from archaeological discoveries that it’s been inhabited since at least the Old Stone Age. Religious worship has been ongoing here since at least the Saxon period, while the Old Church of St Helens shows this continued at the same site right through to the 17th century. The area was also an ideal spot for smugglers to operate in secret.

The earliest beginnings

Palaeolithic discovery

Priory Woods is a site of national importance due to the occurrence of palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) tools within the gravel from which the cliffs are formed. Hand tools used by people of the Palaeolithic era were found on the beach at Priory Bay, but the source of these was eventually traced to the gravel from which they had fallen.

These were found to be the most prolific source of Palaeolithic tools on the Isle of Wight. They date from the Pleistocene Period which stretched from hundreds of thousands of years ago to roughly 12,000 years ago.

Archaeological finds

The quay area may have been the focus of any medieval settlement. However, more recent changes to the coastline and harbour have obscured the location of the medieval quay and destroyed all traces of the tradesmen’s workshops, storehouses, shipmasters' and merchants' houses that would once have stood here.

St Helen's Old Church

St Helen's church tower stands just off National Trust land, perched where the sea meets the land. It's the last remaining part of the ancient church that once stood here, and now serves as a marker for those at sea.

The wooden church

The first church at St Helens – or 'Etharin' as we think it was then known – was built on the Duver during the Saxon period by Hildila, who was Chaplain to Wilfred, Bishop of Chichester.

Wilfred had been granted land on the Isle of Wight by Caedwalla, the Saxon king, who took the Island by force in AD 686.

The simple wooden church with its views over to Chichester was built following Wilfred’s visit to the Island in AD 704 and is believed to have survived until it was burnt down by marauding Danes in AD 998.

Founding the priory

A priory at St Helens was founded after the Norman Conquest by French Benedictine monks. The church was rebuilt in Norman style to serve both parish and priory.

It was dedicated to St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, from whom the village took its name. The tower was added in the 13th century during the reign of Henry III.

The Old Church in decline

The Benedictine community in St Helens survived for over 300 years until financial problems led to it disbanding in 1414. The property was given to Eton College who owned it until 1799 but failed to maintain it and so the church gradually fell into disrepair.

Its exposed position became even more acute in the 1620s when Sir Hugh Myddleton built an embankment across the harbour from the duver (dunes). Limestone rocks making up the foreshore had protected the church but were now used in the construction of the new embankment, which only lasted eight years.

Dismantling the church

In the 1630s, the sea defences were further undermined by the tenant of the priory, who sold off the church stones. A dispute arose with his parishioners, but it's likely that they too were removing stones for their own purposes.

Blocks of soft sandstone from which the church was built, known as 'Holy Stones', were used by sailors of vessels anchored off St Helens to ‘holystone the decks’ – meaning to scour and whiten them.

As a result, the church was left jutting out on a peninsula, washed on three sides by the sea. Eventually only the tower remained, and this was subsequently bricked up and painted white as a seamark for Navy ships in 1719.

It fulfils this purpose today and is associated with the high-level seamark on Ashey Down erected 16 years later. A new church for St Helens was built further inland in the 18th century.

A view across the landscape at St Helens Duver to the beach
The beach at St Helens Duver | © National Trust Images/Rebecca Bevan

A rich history of smuggling

In days gone by, smuggling was rife along the coast of the Isle of Wight and St Helens Duver was no exception. One family name particularly stands out in the history of smuggling in the area.

Dickie Dawes, smuggler

One of the area’s most famous smugglers was Dickie Dawes. Fisherman by day, he also ran the gauntlet of the customs men through a narrow channel known as 'Dickie Dawes Gut' to store his contraband of brandy, silk and tobacco.

The booty would often be hidden beneath tombstones in the churchyard of St Helens Old Church before being brought inland along secret passages believed to lead to the Priory and village. Another common practice was to lash and weight down barrels of brandy before 'rafting' them in when the coast was clear.

Sophie Dawes, baroness

Dickie had a daughter named Sophie, born in St Helens around 1792. After a period of winkle-picking on the beach, and an enforced stay in the workhouse after her father’s death, Sophie used her guile and cunning to climb the social ladder to a position of eminence, but later notoriety, at the French court.

Becoming a lady

In London, Sophie came to the attention of the exiled Duc de Bourbon, later Prince of Condé, who educated her as a lady. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the duke was able to return to his native France. Sophie followed him there, later marrying the Baron de Fouchères, a military aide to the duke, while remaining the duke’s mistress. She was known as the 'Queen of Chantilly', Chantilly being one of the duke's estates.

A change of fortune

She had no scruples about using her position for her own ends and cajoled the ageing duke into rewriting his will in her favour. Soon afterwards he was found hanged in mysterious circumstances. Unsurprisingly her reputation suffered and she returned to England, where she died in London in 1840.

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

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