The People of Golden Hill

Our volunteers researched people who lived in or around Golden Hill Fort. Our two reports are not only a wealth of brilliant information for local historians and those researching their family history, but a beautiful insight into life in earlier times.

We recommend reading the reports, and the following is a summary of the contents.

Richard Matthews analysed and transcribed census from 1861 to 1911. Military personnel included Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, Gunner’s, Trumpeters, Bombardiers and Surgeons and whilst most originated from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, some were born as far afield as Canada and India. Other civilian personnel included a Canteen Steward, an Officer’s Mess Butler, Servant’s and a Cook.

A few of the soldiers had their wives and children living with them. Some children were born whilst their fathers were deployed at the fort. The records of All Saints Church, Freshwater has revealed that a large number of Children of Army Personnel were baptised in the Church. A transcript of baptisms that took place between 1858 & 1903 is included in our report. Burials are also recorded.

Not all of the soldiers lived in the Fort. Some army personnel lived with their families in the local villages of Freshwater, Norton Green & Totland. They included higher ranking Officers, who were billeted with their families and in some cases with servants. Richard has produced pen pictures of many of the soldiers.

Sheila Colenutt looks at the census for 1911, and upwards of 50 families or single persons connected to the fort during that period. Some personnel are listed as retired so may not be directly connected with the administration of the fort but have been included, as an illustration of just how much impact the personnel at the Fort had on the West Wight area.

Caroline Dudley writes about Clara Marion Horton and her husband, Captain Sydney George Horton, who moved to Freshwater in August 1896.

“Our arrival was somewhat depressing…….The food was tough. The beds were as hard and unyielding as our landlady’s religious principles. No food was cooked on Sundays…..After a month of life in the Island we discovered that it was the most delightful place in the world…”

Her memoirs include Marconi, Queen Victoria and details of life in West Wight.

Herbert Arthur Condon was the grandfather of Cherry Thompson who lives next to the Country Park kindly allowed us to include information about her grandfather who was stationed at Golden Hill Fort. He came to the Island for Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 from Gosport and married a local girl.

Alan Alexander Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories was at Golden Hill Fort in 1915 and his time on the Island has been researched in great detail by Caroline Dudley. He joined the Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. With his wife Daphne he rented a house called De-La-Ware, in The Avenue, Totland. He struggled to acquire the necessary skills in the use of a rifle and bayonet…

‘My knowledge of firearms or (as they are called, I never discovered why) weapons of precision, was not worth passing on. It is true that my men carried rifles, and that Iinspected them from time to time, but I never knew what I was looking for… I never, as they say, fired a shot in anger, and only twelve under the impetus of any other emotion. These all missed the musketry instructor, but hit the Isle of Wight.’

Whilst at Golden Hill Milne wrote a play The Two Wishes and later began to write a children’s book based on the characters in this play. The Two Wishes, was a humorous fairy tale about a prince and princess, a wicked countess and a magic ring and was performed in 1915 at the Assembly Rooms in Freshwater. The book was completed after his battalion had moved to Sandown. It was called Once on a Time and would be his first published novel.

Bandsman Thomas Rendle, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was stationed at Golden Hill Fort between 1916 and 1918 at least. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing wounded comrades from a collapsed trench on the Belgian front under enemy machine gun fire from only 200 yards away.

Local man, Arthur Williams gives an account of his time at Golden Hill Fort in his book “Memories from Golden Hill to Jerusalem” published in 1951. In 1917, after convalescing in hospital with trench fever caught in the trenches at the Western Front, Arthur was posted to the draft-finding Depot at Golden Hill. He says that “thanks to plenty of fresh air and training by regular instructors of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry…we felt once again on top of the world.” He describes how his stay at Golden Hill Fort coincided with the height of the submarine menace, when the country had only a reserve of six weeks food supply.

Gill Kennett tells us of her grandfather, Alfred Brown, who was in the Royal Warwickshire’s stationed at Golden Hill after returning from India. A sharpshooter he won the Queen Victoria Cup for Shooting two years consecutively. He came to the Island with his regiment where he met her grandmother Cecilia who lived in Norton Cottage with her parents, they married and had 8 children.

Helen Wood has kindly provided us with a photograph taken of soldiers in the Drill Hall for some kind of an event (possibly watching a newsreel?) in Freshwater in either 1914 or 1916. We have a photograph of the Royal Ulster Rifles in June 1923.

Henry John Patch (Harry Patch) was researched by Linda and Peter Harding. Known as The Last Fighting Tommy of World War 1, he was the last surviving veteran of the trenches and lived to the age of 108 years old.  Harry was injured in September 1917 during the Battle of Paschendale and was brought back to Britain to recover. Once he was fit enough for battle, he was sent to Golden Hill Fort.

Harry notes that hundreds of men were billeted in the Barrack rooms inside the Fort, and that there were so many men training, the overflow were billeted just outside the Fort’s main entrance in huts. In the late summer of 1918 Harry was considered fit for duty and was placed on the next draft to go back to his Regiment in Belgium, however they were told that the war was coming to an end. On the morning of 11th November 1918, Harry was on the firing range and had been told that a rocket would be sent up if a ceasefire was signed. Our report tells of the subsequent events and celebrations. It also details how it was another 5 months before these men could leave Golden Hill during which time the number of men had grown from 260 to over 1000.

All Saints Primary School on School Green Road, Freshwater, has been used as a school for more than 150 years. Aided by Volunteer Fiona Johnstone, they discovered attendance registers for the school from 1916 to present day. These were studied by the children, with the help of volunteers, to discover how many military children from Golden Hill Fort attended the school between 1916 and 1962 when the fort closed. The children investigated the place families had move from and to. They discovered that soldiers worked as far away as Mauritius, India and Canada with considerable movement within the U.K. As well as a transcription of the register, our reports include details of a excellent project that goes across a school curriculum.

The details of the 229 children with parents based at Golden Hill Fort, at Fort Victoria and associated with the Fort but with parents living in other accommodation who attended All Saints Primary between 1917 and 1949

Mrs Marion Preece told our volunteers Jackie and Graham Field of life in West Wight during the Second World War when batteries like Golden Hill were strictly off limits with gates and sentries. The soldiers used to come down to the village a lot and were quite a presence there.

Lynne Copping provided our volunteer Richard Wilson with information about her father Richard George Wilson who joined the RASC in 1950 and transferred to Golden Hill in the 1950s. They lived in one of the tiny old cottages next to the fort and later in married quarters in Monks Lane. She believes he commanded the small boat, the Dickens Class ‘Uriah Heap’.

Vince Fennel came from Newport in Wales to the Island in 1960/61 in the Water Transport Training Company, R.A.S.C. He did seamanship training at Fort Victoria. One group did seamanship training and the other marine engineering. He went out in the Yarmouth Navigator during training. They nicknamed it ‘The Plonk’ as it went up and down like a yo-yo. When they were proficient enough, they would sail to Guernsey on training cruises.

Private Ian Lennie told volunteer Fiona Johnstone how he joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1961, at the age of 21. After his initial training in Aldershot, he was sent to Golden Hill for trade training as a marine engineer. He describes a typical day at the fort and was in the last garrison troupe to use the both forts.

Terry Noyce has volunteered with our heritage project from the start and has also kindly recorded some of his memories of the Fort, visiting with his father when he was a child. In the early 1970’s he worked for George Weeks’ transport company. George Weeks bought the fort in 1964.

Terry also interviewed John Awty whose father’s company held a contract to maintain the Fort clock, facing the square, from 1927 to 1962. His memories include the Fort being used in between the Wars for summer camp and the NAAFI Shop in the moat. Mr Awty’s mother and other ladies used the Fort for rifle practice.

Gary Mowle was interviewed by Sheila Colenutt and Josephine Hinson. He is a cabinet maker and furniture restorer and started his career within Golden Hill Fort in the 1980’s and had a workshop and retail outlet there. By that time the Fort was in private ownership and open to the paying public. It housed a number of private enterprises which he describes. Gary spoke about the wildlife that lived in and around the Fort at that time, and another type of ‘wild life’ arrived in the 1990’s in the form of rave type parties.

Penny Green, one of our volunteers along with her husband Dave, had one of the craft stalls within Golden Hill Fort in the 1980s. She has written some of her memories for us, including  the Gnome Man who turned his unit into a little fairy, or gnome land. One person who cannot be forgotten was the ghost of a soldier who was often seen frequenting the pub.