Tales from the Eighteenth Century- Glimpses of Holy Island

A further installment of Carol’s archive research, with thanks to the Woodhorn Archive:

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working as a volunteer at Woodhorn County Archive, on the Lord Crewe papers. These are a fabulous collection reflecting life in the mid and late 8C in Bamburgh, and in the Castle; I would like to share some of the stories I have found with you.

Dr John Sharp was the foremost Trustee appointed under the Will of Lord Crewe, to oversight the restoration of Bamburgh Castle. This was followed under the terms of the Will by the establishment of charitable good works from the Castle, rather than being the seat of landed gentry. Dr Sharp accumulated a huge correspondence, and fortunately for us, never threw a letter he received away. From his many correspondents and supplicants-the power of patronage held sway and he was entreated and beseeched in the most subservient terms-we get enticing glimpses of the area surrounding Bamburgh. The following two letters give a glimpse of 18C Holy Island…

Rev Mr Dampier writes from Eton on March 12 1780 with a rather precious enquiry- (NRO452/C/3/2/10/10)

“Dear Sir- I hope you will excuse the Liberty I have taken in troubling you with this letter, containing a literary Enquiry concerning your island of Lindisfarne. Mention being made in the old Poems which were published three years ago, of a grove of majestic Oaks which stood near the Abbey there. I am desired by a learned Friend to inquire whether there are now any oaks or trees of any sort on the Island, or any traces that a wood has ever flourished there and also are there now any considerable number of Trees in one place near the Sea Shore between Bambrough Castle and Wearmouth”


Lindisfarne looking south towards Bambugh Castle

Much more basic and threadbare is the following letter written to Dr Sharp on May 1 1782, from Mark Reveley, schoolmaster on Holy Island (NRO452/C/3/2/12/3)

“Indeed the School turns out very badly, owing to the poverty of the generality of the Inhabitants; for they get few fish therefore are not in ability tom put there children to the school- I was at Durham and thought to have seen you or Dr Dickens for to have got a Terrier for my fear of the Clerks Office, but I was disappointed but Mr Wood told me that shourly there was a considerable fee belonging to the church on Holy Island which all have got it will not amount above 50 shillings a Year, which it and the School will not come to Seven pounds.

I had my victuals from house to house by them that had children at the school but they have all declined of giving any more Victuals any longer which Sir I have taken this opportunity to Aquaint you as Mr Roberts (Curate on Holy Island?) is so poorly that he cannot get out of bed, nor to give his advise to anybody-for he is quite insensible at times, and as to the publick duty in the church we have none done…Sir I hope you will mention ..our unhappy situation. We are in for want of one to do our duty in the established church for I dare say Mr Roberts is not able to ingage me.

Sir I am sorry that I should have the occasion to trouble you with this. please excuse my freedom and take it into consideration with my friends + well-wishers to settle something on me to help my family- for everything becomes very high in this place

Your very humble and much obliged servant..”

This vivid account of the poverty of the Holy Islanders-and their children’s’ Schoolmaster, takes us back only a hundred years or so, to an even more desperate age- In 1643 Father Gilbert Blakhal, (a priest of the Scots mission in France, in the Low Countries and Scotland) was storm driven into Lindisfane Harbour and witnessed “an unseemly brawl” as villagers and local priest fought over a box of hats decorated with gold braid washed up from an unfortunate wreck, and recounted “ how the Common people ther do pray for shippes which they sie in danger. They al sit downe upon their knees, and hold up their handes, and say very devotedly, lord Send hir to us. …they pray not God to sauve you, or send you to the port, but to send you to them by shipwreck, that they may gette the spoile of her. And to show their meaning,.. if the shippe come well to porte..they gette up in anger, crying the Devil Stick her, she is away from us”

(Linisfarne, the Cradle Island-Magnus Magnusson)

What a contrast with the Holy Island of today, so dependent on the seasonal Tourist influx, in a much more civilized but perhaps less colourful age

Carol Griffiths

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