Explore the history of Brownsea Island. From a defence to a sanctuary, it has seen the rise and fall of both settlement and industry. Managed by landowners who ranged from mad to depressed as well as hosting lavish parties for European royalty to hiding from the world, it has risen from the ashes twice and grown into a remarkable haven.
Max Height: 75ft.
Min Height: 0ft.
Terrain: Track, path and decking, some areas suitable for wheelchairs.
Map: OL Explorer 15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to Get There: Boats to the island travel from either Poole Quay or Sandbanks. See website for times. The seahorse is suitable for wheelchairs.
Dogs: Only guide dogs allowed.
Refreshments: The National Trust café at the pier and ice cream hut at the scout camp.
Toilets: Located near the café and at The Villa.
Brownsea Island is a treasure, hidden in plain sight. It is located in the eastern waters of Poole Harbour, facing the narrow entrance that squeezes between Sandbanks and Studland. To the north sits the town of Poole and to the south is the sandy heathland of the Isle of Purbeck. The island is owned by the National Trust who manages it alongside Dorset Wildlife Trust.
It is one of eight islands in the harbour, formed out of the mud and sand that fills the harbour floor. Brownsea is the largest at just over a mile long and just under a mile wide and is a haven for wildlife. The natural succession has meant the development of top soil on the oldest dunes is enough to sustain woodland. In combination with the surrounding heathland and saltmarshes it creates a number of ecosystems, suitable for a variety of flora and fauna. Sika deer are present too, as well as peacocks, which were both introduced by previous owners. It is also one of the few remaining homes for our native, the elusive red squirrel.
Only a few buildings are standing on the island, they include a number of small cottages, some farm buildings, the church and, the most prominent, Brownsea Castle.
The island’s significance in nature has meant its historical elements have somewhat remained in the shadows. When the National Trust gained ownership in 1962, they believed the castle was of no importance and so leased it for 99 years to the John Lewis Partnership, instead focusing their efforts on the landscape. Nevertheless, it was the castle, its history and the people involved that created, maintained and let the island grow into the sanctuary that survives today. Despite the island being open to the public, the castle is still hidden behind locked doors, darkening the shadows in which Brownsea’s history sits.
Brownsea was originally a small hill, lying in the wide valley of the River Frome. When the ice melted and the sea rose, Poole Harbour was formed and Brownsea’s peak became the island. The island’s positon was its greatest benefit. Safe in its own waters while watching over the entrance to the harbour. Despite an Iron Age boat being discovered on the shores, dated to be from 295BC, Brownsea’s known story begins in the 7th century, when it was under the ownership of Cerne Abbey. One lonely monk, a hermit, was thought to live on the island, whose role was not only to guide boats into the harbour with lighted beacons, but also to provide spiritual welfare for the sailors. Gradually the population grew and they built their own hermitage and Chapel dedicated to St Andrew. Where the farmhouses stand now, seven bodies were unearthed while renovation work was being carried out. They were dated to have died between 1030 to 1350 coinciding with the monks tenure and hinting strongly that the chapel may have stood nearby.
The name is thought to derive from the Anglo Saxon Brūnoces īeg or Brūnoc’s island and the island played a crucial part in the Saxon invasions. In 1015, King Canute settled himself here, preparing for attacks on both Poole and Wareham. After the Norman Invasion, William Conquer gave the land to his brother in law Robert de Mortain, but 100 years later it was returned to Cerne Abbey who maintained ownership for the next 350 years.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Henry the VIII took the land from the Abbey. With increasing tensions occurring between Henry and the French, he was aware off the vulnerability of the south coast. He soon realised the strategic importance of the island and, in 1545, he constructed a device fort to protect Poole from any attack (this was in conjunction with the construction of Portland Castle and extra fortification of Sandsfoot Castle, near Weymouth and the long gone Studland Castle that was sat on Old Harry’s Rocks). The fort was a simple square designed blockhouse, surrounded by a moat and accessed via a drawbridge. A hexagonal gun platform was on the seaward side, garrisoned by local men from Poole. In 1576, Queen Elizabeth I granted the castles of Studland, Corfe and Brownsea to her rumored lover Christopher Hatton, with the rest of the island leased to other owners.
The fort was not officially used again until the civil war in 1640, being under the control of the Parliamentarians. Meanwhile the land around was sold to Robert Clayton, a slave trader who worked alongside Edward Colston (the statue in Bristol that was thrown into the harbour). Clayton’s portrait was on display in the Bank of England but was removed in August 2021, along with others, due to his slavery links. When tensions of the Civil war calmed, the fort became neglected.
In 1722 the island was bought by William Benson who then decided to convert the ruins of what was now known as Branksea Caste into a home, but, this was not welcome by the people of Poole. They believed the town owned the castle due to the historic management and administration of the fort having always fallen to the local people. Benson, who was a keen botanist, got his way and proceeded to extend the existing blockhouse and landscape the gardens by planting 100,000 trees. Benson was a rather strange character. His interests also included hydraulics and in 1709 he was involved in a project to carry water up to the hilltop town of Shaftesbury (although it has been claimed that no credit for the project was actually due to him, but he claimed it anyway). Thanks to this good publicity, he was elected as the Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury in 1715. However, in 1727 he only got four votes and, in his anger, took revenge on the town by cutting off their water supply. Rumors began to spread around the town of Poole about Black Magic occurring on the island, a farm girl disappeared which aroused even more suspicion, then one day he got fed up of all his books and burnt them all on a beach. In 1741, the Prince of Wales came to stay and within a few days, the Prince had Benson committed to an asylum.
Branksea Castle and the island continued to pass through number of owners until, in 1762, it was purchased by Sir Humphrey Sturt, of Horton Tower fame for £650. He proceeded to make a number of extensions and alterations as well as introducing lakes and more trees into the landscape at an extra cost of over £50,000. His son, Charles Sturt, eventually made it his primary home.
In 1817 the island was sold again to Charles Chad who embellished the castle so much it was fit for a king, with Prince George arriving to a salute of guns in 1818. In 1840 it had been bought by Sir Augustus Foster. He suffered from depression, anxiety and religious doubts. He had also been diagnosed with a terminal illness of the heart and lungs. In 1848, the castle experienced its first tragedy when Foster slit his own throat, while the doctors back was turned, ending his life when he wanted to. However his spirit thought to still haunt the island.
In 1852 Branksea was purchased by Colonel William Waugh who went on to make the most significant changes. His wife, Mary, was a fan of the Dorset palaeontologist Mary Anning and on a walk got some clay stuck to her umbrella, sparking her interest. On investigation, the couple were told that the sand and clay in Brownsea’s ground was worth millions. The Colonel went on to excitedly found a pottery works, constructing a three story pottery factory on the south west corner of the island, along with a tramway to transport the wears. He required labour and so erected a village on the North West corner of the island, naming it Maryland, after his wife, the population rising from 20 to 200. He built the church, St Marys, also named after his wife, as well as the rectory (now The Villa), the family’s towered pier, the clock tower and gatehouse to the castle as well as the island’s school. Waugh also built the 3,000ft lagoon wall, using 1.25 million bricks, reclaiming the land and turning it into pasture. In 1857, Brownsea experienced another drama. Waugh’s venture into pottery proved unsuccessful. The information they had been told was incorrect, the clay was only suitable for pipes and bricks. Everything he had spent, he had borrowed, believing he would soon be rich. The fall resulted in him and Mary running away to Spain to escape his creditors. He is honoured with a memorial in the church but the island was taken in lieu of his debts and sold in 1873 to George Cavendish-Bentick.
Bentick continued efforts to make the island profitable. He persevered with the failing pottery business and introduced Jersey cows to expand the islands agriculture. He also decorated the landscape with a number of statues collected from his travels abroad, some of which still survive at the church and quay. The pottery ceased production in 1887, Bentick dying three years later. He is buried under an elaborate Venetian well in St Mary’s churchyard, but he left a great debt resulting in the estate being sold to Kenneth Robert Balflour.
Balflour made the brave decision to introduce electricity into the castle. This unfortunately led to another tragedy. The castle suffered a disastrous fire in 1896, gutting the elaborate interior. It occurred on a Sunday morning, while the family were at church. A servant disturbed the service with the heart-breaking news. Balfour completed the rebuild and sold it on in 1901 to Charles Van Raalte.
Made rich from the tobacco industry, Van Raalte was welcomed by Poole to Brownsea and became the Mayor in 1902. He was known to host lavish parties, attended by European royalty, in the, now 38 bedroom, castle. Music filled the rooms, often using some of his collected antique instruments that decorated the walls. Guests were welcome to play golf on a 9 hole course in the gardens as well as go pheasant shooting on the island. With so many visitors coming to the castle, Waugh’s wife, Florence, decided to change the name to Brownsea. This name change was due to confusion between Branksea Castle and Branksome Chime causing guests to accidently disembark at the wrong train station. Florence also developed a bulb industry in the gardens, supplying early daffodils to Convent Garden, many of the prepared ridge and furrows still visible today, the flower heads often eaten by deer.
The couple were family friends of Robert Baden Powell and in 1907 invited him to use the island for a camp, which became the birth of the Boy Scout movement. Charles died in 1908 from pneumonia whilst away in Calcutta. His tomb lies in St Mary’s church, where Florence built an extension to house him. She would attend service while sitting in the chair next to her husband, warmed by a log fire. She stayed on the island until 1925, eventually selling to Sir Arthur Wheeler.
Wheeler ransacked the castle, auctioning off everything he could, including some of Van Raalte’s musical instruments and contents of the library. His intention was to demolish the building and construct a snazzy new retreat for himself. He was never able to get planning permission and so the castle was saved, instead, purchased by Mary Bonham-Christie in 1927.
Mary was a recluse by nature and enjoyed her solitude. She was married, but her husband preferred to live in Hastings! On gaining ownership she shockingly evicted the residents and banned hunting and fishing on grounds of animal cruelty. The island became abandoned, allowing nature to return and the castle to fall into disrepair. Mary lived there alone apart from occasional visits from her son, John ‘Robert’, and daughter, Elsie, as well as a limited selection of staff. One staff member in particular gained the reputation of being an Amazonian beast of a woman who acted as security.
In real life she was a pretty Danish girl called Bertha Hartung Olson, but in 1934, was taken to court for assault of a fisherman and his daughter, having thrown them into the sea. Her story claimed that despite the island being private, it was often being invaded by tourists. On advising the fisherman to leave he apparently attacked Robert with a pike. Bertha, in retaliation, pushed him and he fell into the sea. The case was a sensation due to the Bonham Christie’s social links and she was found guilty, Robert covering the cost of her bail. She had a close relationship with Robert, closer than what was socially accepted, and in 1937 she fell pregnant. Bertha was sent back to Denmark on the promise that Robert would care for the baby, but he never spoke to her again.
Also in 1934, a wild fire occurred that decimated two thirds of the island. Mary blamed the boy scouts and banned them, and visitors, for the rest of her life. However, during the Second World War, Mary had to put up with a number of intrusions as the island was used as a decoy, guiding bombers away from Poole, known as Operation Starfish. Those working the decoys would land at Pottery Quay, light the fires and then bunker down in one of the prepared shelters. Meanwhile, Mary sat it out in the castle! The war effort was successful, saving Poole from a number of attacks, but it meant a number of bomb craters were left on the island and it also severely damaged the remains of Maryland.
Mary died aged 96 in 1961, the day she was taken off the island due to illness. The castle had collapsed, the lagoon flooded and the island had become wild. The treasury accepted the island in lieu of death duties, but dealing only in money, £100,000 was required. The National Trust raised £25,000, the payment for the 99 year lease by the John Lewis Partnership was an extra £21,000 with the majority of the rest made up by The Boy Scout Movement and The Dorset Wildlife Trust.
A member of the Van Raalte family had worked for the John Lewis partnership and it was through this link that the company was approached. The castle has since been renovated and is now used as a corporate hotel for employees, the boundary of responsibility including the castle and grounds. Some of the original castle remains are visible in the basement. The blockhouse walls still stand in the centre of the building, the flagstone floors marking the old moat and the hexagonal gun platform sinks into the cellar. Many of the 17th century cannons now decorate rather than defend the coastline but the exterior is mostly Victorian, dominated by a tower which was built off the blockhouse.
The National Trust took over management of the south of the island, claiming back some of the land from nature, while returning other parts to the sea. They also used the army to completely raze Maryland to the ground (unbelievable!). The north of the island’s management was taken over by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, making nature the priority and restricting access specifically for this cause.
Within the island’s landscape, the oldest signs of life that can still be discovered include St Andrews Chapel, its foundations most likely reused into the floor of the farm buildings, jutting out below the younger walls. The castle has been saved but the little estate is not open to the public. Remains of the industrial pottery works can be seen in the form of small brick walls that are somehow still standing or simply mark an old floor. The coastline is brimming with pottery fragments, which first give the impression of shells, but on closer look, contain the markings of produced material. Even though the buildings have gone, the little village of Maryland is scattered with piles of rubble that were once the houses, hiding a multitude of treasures from life. Fruit trees that were once harvested by those that tendered the gardens still grow on the banks and, on the beach the houses faced, are remains of an old jetty. The odd statue still scatters the landscape, retaining Cavendish-Bentick’s legacy, while lines of daffodils retain Florence Van Raaltes’s. The World War two bunkers are now used as a water sources, topped with small concrete lids, while circling the sands is the calm landscape and blue water of Poole Harbour dotted with smaller islands and views to Sandbanks, Studland, Arne and Poole.
Despite the overwhelming encouragement of nature and wildlife of the island, it only exists because previous owners made it happen. The history of each leaving their own remnants that lie hidden within the heath, amongst the woodland and on the beaches, unless discovered by those that know they are there! The hotel is private, the Dorset Wildlife trust area is restricted but it is possible to explore everywhere else around the island.
With special thanks to Jonathan Ball and Cat Gilmurry from John Lewis Partnership for sharing their knowledge, photos and time!