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Scilly Islands

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1868 - The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland

"SCILLY ISLANDS, comprising the parish of St. Mary, in county Cornwall. These islands, of which there are about 40 in number, besides numerous rocks, form a cluster lying off the S.W. coast, and annexed to the western division of the county of Cornwall. They are situated about 40 miles due W. from the Lizard Point, and 30 S.W. from the Land's End. Sailing packets ply regularly twice a week between Hugh Town, in the island of St. Mary's, and Penzance. These islands are generally considered to have been first known to the Greeks and Phoenicians by the name Cassiterides, or tin islands; and both Diodorus Siculus and Strabo distinguish between the Cassiterides and Britain, though modern antiquarians are inclined to believe that the western extremity of Cornwall must have been included in the term Cassiterides, as there are no traces of workings in the islands sufficient to countenance the opinion that much tin was ever obtained from them. In the time of the Romans, who called them Sellinæ or Siluræ Insulæ, they were employed occasionally as a place of banishment for state criminals, but there are now no traces of their ancient importance. There are a few primeval monuments, but the early inhabitants appear to have been replaced by others of Saxon origin, as indicated by their names, language, and customs. In the early part of the 10th century the Danes, who had taken possession of them, were expelled by King Athelstan. They appear from this time to have been the property of the crown, but were subsequently in part granted to the abbey of Tavistock on its endowment. In the reign of Edward I. the remainder not so granted was held of the king at a yearly rent of 300 puffins, and at present they form part of the Duchy of Cornwall, although they are not so enumerated in the original grant of Edward III. to his eldest son. In the civil war of Charles I.'s reign they afforded a temporary asylum to Prince Charles and his followers, and in 1649, the king having been executed, Sir John Grenville, as governor, fortified and held them for King Charles II. At length in 1651 the parliament finding their trade much molested by Sir John's frigates, fitted out a formidable armament, under the command of Admiral Blake and Sir George Ascue, which effected the reduction of the islands in the following June. In 1707 Sir Cloudesley Shovel, on his return from Toulon, was lost on the Gilston rocks, which form the south-western portion of the group, and several of the officers lie buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's Isle. For several centuries these islands were held on lease from the crown by the lords Godolphin, and after them by the Duke of Leeds, but they are now in the possession of Augustus Smith, Esq., who is lord proprietor of the whole. The total surface of the islands is between 3,500 and 4,000 acres, and the number of inhabitants 2,431. The principal islands with their acreage are St. Mary's 1,640 acres, Trescaw or Tresco 720, St. Agnes 550, St. Martin's 500, Bryher or Brehar, 320, Sampson 80, St. Helen's 40, Annette 40, Tean 35, Great Gannilly 35, Arthur 30, Great and Little Genniomick 10, North Withial 8, Giveal 8, and Little Gannilly 6. The whole of the underlying rocks are igneous, consisting chiefly of granite, intermixed with felspar, quartz, and mica slate, and occasionally schorl, chlorite, and hornblende, in isolated patches. The soil is commonly a black peat intermingled with granitic sand, but is tolerably fertile, producing potatoes, barley, wheat, and rye. The produce of the land might easily be increased with improved modes of agriculture, but at present is scarcely sufficient for the inhabitants. The natural growth is a short, thin grass, intermixed with wild camomile, fern, heath, dwarf furze, and moss. Seaweed is commonly employed as manure, and the cattle are partly fed on it, which occasions their meagre appearance. The sheep are of a peculiar breed, and small sized, as are also the horses. Rabbits are less numerous than formerly, and puffins, once very abundant, are now but rarely seen. There are no timber trees and no fruit trees, except in a few sheltered spots in St. Mary's Island, which is the largest of the group and the seat of government. Its capital is Hugh Town, situated upon a sandy isthmus about a mile distant from the Old-town. The island is protected on the W. side by Star Castle, built by Queen Elizabeth, and the Garrison, with its numerous batteries and barracks. There is a new pier, built in 1838, and a good harbour, called the Pool. In 1855 a lighthouse was erected off this pier, another lighthouse has also been erected on Bishop's Rock, in the S.W. part of the group, and a floating light has recently been stationed near Leven Stones by the Trinity House. The military commandant at St. Mary's, and a collector of customs, are appointed by the authorities in London, but the lessee usually appoints the council, who exercise civil jurisdiction. The council hold their sittings at Hugh Town monthly for the trial of minor offences, but persons charged with capital crimes are remitted to Penzance, to be tried before the justices of the county of Cornwall. The islands are under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishop of Exeter, and form part of the archdeaconry of Cornwall. In former times the Abbot of Tavistock held the whole of the tithes on condition of finding two monks to reside there, and to provide for the spiritual wants of the inhabitants, but since the Reformation the tithes have been vested in the lord proprietor, who is patron of the donative curacy, and pays the minister an optional salary. Until of late years the minister of St. Mary's Isle was the only clergyman, but another has been appointed by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, who resides at Tresco. When these ministers cannot visit the churches on the other islands the service is performed by the clerks. The same society also supports schools on the principal islands. The Wesleyans have a place of worship. The Baptists have several preaching stations. In 1865 these islands were visited by the Prince and Princess of Wales."