"ISLE OF WIGHT, an island, in the English Channel, off the S. coast, county Hants, of which it forms part, and from which it is separated by an arm of the sea called the Solent. It extends between 50° 35' and 50° 46' N. lat., and between 1° 34' and 1° 5' W. long. In form it is an irregular rhomboid, the extreme length from the Needles Cliff to the Foreland being 22½ miles, and the greatest breadth 13½ miles, while the average does not exceed 6½. The circumference is 56 miles of coast, and its area 86,810 acres, or nearly 136 square miles. The original settlers of the Isle of Wight are probably to be found among the Celts.
The island emerges from obscurity when it was brought under the yoke of the Romans, A.D. 43, who called it Tectis. The Roman occupation, of which traces remain in the villa and tesselated pavements still existing at Carisbrooke, lasted 400 years. In A.D. 530 it was united to the kingdom of Wessex, by the Saxons Kerdic and Kynric, after a severe battle at Wiht-garas-byrg, the modern Carisbrooke. In A.D. 686 Ceadwalla was the means of introducing the blessings of Christianity, by granting the fourth part of the island to Wilfrid of York, the Bishop of Selsey. William the Conqueror granted it, as an independent lordship, to his kinsman William Fitz-Osborne. The lordship was again granted by Henry I. to Richard do Redvers, and it remained to his descendants through a long series of De Redvers and De Vernons, till the reign of Edward I., when Isabella de Fortibus sold it to that king, A.D. 1293.
From the period of the sale the island has been always attached to the crown of England. When the French Armada was fitted out by Francis I., A.D. 1545, for the invasion of England, the islanders repulsed with success the attempted occupation of the island. In A.D. 1647 Charles I., who had escaped from Hampton Court, entered the gateway of Carisbrooke Castle, the stronghold of the island, and remained in captivity here until his removal to Hurst Castle, two months before his execution at Whitehall. Since that time little historical interest is attached to the island. It now forms a magisterial division of Hampshire, and comprises the two liberties of East and West Medina, with 30 parishes. The towns are Newport, Ryde, Cowes, East and West, Yarmouth, Sundown, Freshwater, Brading, Newtown, and St. Helens, all which are noticed under their respective titles. The principal ports are Cowes, Ryde, and Yarmouth, to which steamboats ply constantly in connection with the railway stations on the mainland, but Newport is the capital and the only borough in the island, returning one member to parliament, Newtown and Yarmouth having been disfranchised by the Reform Act of 1832.
The island also returns one member, the polling places being Ryde and Cowes. The population at the commencement of the present century was only 22,097, in 1851 it had increased to 50,324. During the summer season the population is about 20,000 extra, owing to the presence of numerous visitors, who resort here for sea-bathing and the attractions of yachting, of which Cowes is the centre, being the station of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The supply of provisions to the shipping at Spithead and in the Downs, gives employment to a considerable number of persons, but the prosperity of the island is mainly dependent on its attractions as a watering-place. Game is abundant, especially pheasants, and vast numbers of sea-fowl, choughs, puffins, razorbills, and other seabirds resort to its cliffs in summer. The S. coast is bluff and precipitous, the chalk cliffs rising at Scratchell's bay to the height of 600 feet.
The N. coast is more sheltered, and the shore is broken by bays and inlets on which are situated the seaports and the numerous watering-places. At "the Back of the Island," repeated landslips, occasioned by the action of springs on the soft marl, underlying the sandstone and chalk, have caused the cliffs to give way, thus forming a terrace called Undercliff, extending about 7 miles in length from near Bonchurch, past Ventnor, to Blackgang Chine. The climate of this sheltered spot, which is from a quarter of a mile to a mile wide, is so soft that myrtles, hydrangeas, geraniums, and other half-hardy plants, live out all the winter, and the fig is found growing wild. The general surface of the island is at a considerable elevation above the sea, and is intersected by a ridge of lofty chalk bills running from the Needles down through the centre of the island to Bainbridge or Culver Cliff. The most lofty summits are St. Catherine's Hill, which is 830 feet above sea-level, and Dunnose, 792 feet.
An extraordinary feature connected with the geological structure of the island is the almost vertical position of this central chalk ridge, while the strata on either side of it are horizontal, and scarcely appear to have been disturbed. To the N. lie the plastic clay sands, beds of shell marl, and the clays resembling those of the London basin; while to the S. the upper and lower green sandstone strata prevail, and are crossed by the Weald clay, containing numerous fossils of the Saurian species, and cyprides and cyclades shells. The principal streams are the Medina, which rises near the north-eastern foot of St. Catherine's hill, and falls into the sea between East and West Cowes, the Eastern Yar, or Brading river, the Western Yar, the Wootton and the Newtown river, all of which form small estuaries at their mouths.
[From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) - transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]