Lewis's Topographical Dictionary 1831


SCILLY ISLANDS. These islands, of which there are seventeen, varying in extent from one thousand six hundred and forty acres to ten, besides twenty-two smaller islets, and numerous naked rocks, form a cluster lying off the south-west coast of Cornwall, about 17 leagues due west from the Lizard point, and 10 leagues nearly west by south from the Land's End. By the Greeks they were called Hesperides and Cassiterides; by the Romans Sellin' and Silur' Insul': their present name of Scilly, anciently written Sully, or Sulley, appears to be British, and they are reported to take it from a small island, containing only one acre, which is called Scilly Island. Except what relates to their trading intercourse with the Ph'nicians and the Romans, and the circumstance of their having been occasionally appropriated by the latter as a place of banishment for state criminals, the first mention we find of them in history is in the tenth century, when they were subdued by King Athelstan. After this there is no record of any remarkable historical event respecting them until the reign of Charles I., when they became of considerable importance as a military post. In 1645, they afforded a temporary asylum to Prince Charles and his friends, Lords Hopton and Capel. In 1649, Sir John Grenville being governor of the Scilly Islands, fortified and held them for Charles II. The parliament finding their trading vessels much annoyed by his frigates, fitted out an expedition for the reduction of the islands, under the command of Admiral Blake and Sir George Ascue, who first took possession of those of Trescaw and Bryer, and threw up fortifications for the purpose of attacking Sir John Grenville, at St. Mary's. The Dutch Admiral, Van Tromp, is said to have made insidious, but ineffectual, proposals to the governor to take the islands under his protection. Resistance being found vain, they were delivered up to the parliament, in the beginning of June of the same year, this having been one of the last rallying points for the royalists: the garrison consisted of eight hundred soldiers, with numerous commissioned officers.

The total surface of the islands is about four thousand seven hundred acres, and the number of inhabitants from two to three thousand. The extent of St. Mary's Island, the largest, including the garrison, which is joined to it by an isthmus, is one thousand six hundred and forty acres, and its population is from 1200 to 1500. The principal town, called Hugh-town, or Heugh-town, was much damaged by inundation during the great storm in 1744. The pier was finished in 1750, having been constructed at the expense of Lord Godolphin; vessels of one hundred and fifty tons' burden may ride here in safety. Near this town are the ruins of an old fortress, with a mount, and the remains of several block-houses and batteries, supposed to have been constructed in the civil war. About two furlongs to the eastward is a bay, called Pomellin, or Porthmellin, where a fine white sand, composed of crystals and talc, much esteemed as a writing sand, and for other purposes, is procured in abundance. About a mile from Hugh-town is the Church-town, consisting of a few houses and the church, in the chancel of which are interred Sir John Narborough, Bart., son of the celebrated admiral of that name; Henry Trelawney, son of a Bishop of Winchester; and Captain Edmund Loades, of the Association man of war, all of whom shared the fate of Rear-Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was lost on the Gilston rock, October 22nd, 1707. Two furlongs further, bordering on the sea, is Old-town, formerly the principal town of the island. On a promontory, called the Giant's Castle, are traces of an ancient fortress, supposed to be of remote origin. On the west side of the island are St. Mary's garrison, with the barracks and several batteries, and Star castle: the latter was built by Sir Francis Godolphin, in 1593. The island next in magnitude is Trescaw, anciently called Iniscaw, and St. Nicholas, which contains eight hundred and eighty acres, and about 500 inhabitants. In it are some remains of the conventual church of St. Nicholas, the ruins of Old-castle, and Oliver's Battery. Old-castle, which appears to have been built in or about the reign of Henry VIII., is spoken of by Leland as 'a little pile, or fortress:' it appears to have been afterwards enlarged, as its ruins shew it to have been a considerable building. Oliver's castle, as it is called, from its having been built by the parliamentarians, was repaired in 1740; but is described by Borlase, in 1756, as being then already much decayed. St. Martin's island, though next in size to St. Mary's and Trescaw, containing seven hundred and twenty acres, was uninhabited until the reign of Charles II.; it now contains about 250 inhabitants. Mr. Ekins, in 1683, built a tower on this island, as a land-mark, twenty feet high, with a spire upon it of the same height. On St. Agnes' island, which contains 250 inhabitants, is a lighthouse. Bryer, or Brehar, contains three hundred and thirty acres, and about 120 inhabitants.

The principal employment and trade of the islanders consist in fishing and making kelp: about one hundred boats are used for fishing, piloting, &c.: the quantity of kelp annually made varies from one to two hundred tons. Tin is found in several of the islands, and in some, lead and copper; but no mines are now worked. Some of them produce grain, chiefly barley, peas, and oats, with a small portion of wheat; a few acres are sown with the pillis, or naked oat: potatoes are cultivated in great quantities in St. Mary's. Cattle are fed on most of them, and though not very abundant, are sometimes sold to masters of vessels. Samphire, for pickling, is collected in abundance in the isle of Trescaw. The tamarisk and lavatera arborea grow plentifully in that of St. Mary.

The property and temporal jurisdiction of these islands were anciently attached to the earldom, as they now are to the duchy, of Cornwall (excepting those of Trescaw), St. Sampson, St. Elid, St. Teon, and Nullo, and some lands in other islands, which were given, in or before the reign of Edward the Confessor, to certain monks, or hermits, who had their abode in the island of St. Nicholas (now Trescaw), and were subsequently granted by King Henry I. to the abbot of Tavistock. The present lessee of the whole is the Duke of Leeds, the representative of the Godolphin family, to whom they appear to have been first leased in the 13th of Elizabeth; the duke holds them at a rent of 40, for thirty-one years, from 1800, so that the lease is now about to expire. The government of them appears to have been vested, at least since the Reformation, uniformly in the proprietors, except in the instances of Sir John Grenville and Joseph Hunkin, Esq., during the interregnum, and Major Bennet, previously to the year 1733. Before the Reformation, it appears that the proprietor kept the peace of the islands, with the assistance of twelve armed men; and that there were frequent feuds between them and the king's coroner, who came hither to hold assizes for the trial of prisoners accused of greater offences. It is most probable that all minor offences were cognizable, as they now are, by a court delegated by the lord proprietor, whose authority for exercising the civil jurisdiction is derived from a patent of the 10th of King William. The lord proprietor appoints a court, or council of twelve, consisting of some of the principal inhabitants, among whom are generally the military commandant, steward, chaplain, and commissary of musters. Vacancies are supplied by election; but the whole may be dissolved, and a fresh appointment made, at any time, by the lord proprietor. After the death of a lord proprietor, a new council is necessarily appointed. The court generally sits monthly, for the trial of plaints, suits, &c., between the islanders, excepting such causes as affect life and limb, and such as are cognizable by the court of Admiralty. Persons charged with transportable offences are tried here, such as receiving stolen goods, &c.; but the punishment is only fines, or whipping, and sometimes imprisonment. Those accused of murder, burglaries, &c., are conveyed before the nearest Cornish magistrate, and sent to be tried at the assizes for the county of Cornwall.

These islands have always been deemed to be under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishop of Cornwall, or Exeter, and to have formed part of the archdeaconry of Cornwall; but there is no record of any ecclesiastical jurisdiction having been exercised, except in proving wills. In early times the abbot of Tavistock held the tithes of the whole, and certain lands, by the title of finding two monks to reside there, and to provide for the spiritual wants of the inhabitants. Since the Reformation the tithes have been vested in the lord proprietor, who is patron of the donative, and pays the minister an optional salary. The minister receives neither institution nor induction, nor is he licensed by the bishop; and neither he nor the churchwardens are cited to visitations: the latter are sworn in at the lord's council court, where cognizance is taken of all offences usually brought before spiritual courts. It was formerly customary to punish such offenders by ducking in salt water at the quay head. Until of late years the minister of St. Mary's was the only of late years the minister of St. Mary's was the only clergyman in the islands, officiating constantly at St. Mary's, where a register of baptisms and marriages was kept for all the islands; at Trescaw, only on the Sunday after Easter; and at St. Martin's, on Trinity Sunday: the chapels of the other islands were served by laymen, or, as they were called, island clerks, usually fishermen. The Society for promoting Christian Knowledge now employs two missionaries, who officiate at what are called the Off-islands. There are chapels at Trescaw, St. Martin's, St. Agnes', Bryer, and St. Sampson's, for the most part built by the Godolphin family, since the Reformation; that of Bryer, about 1746: that of St. Agnes' was built at the expense of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, which also gave 400 towards erecting a house for the missionary, at Trescaw. The Wesleyan Methodists have four places of worship in these islands. The Earl of Godolphin, in 1747, established a school for instructing twelve boys in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Rev. Richard Corbet Hartshorne, rector of Broseley in Shropshire, about the year 1753, gave the sum of 250 towards the support either of a minister or schoolmaster at Trescaw, under the direction of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge. The only considerable benefaction which the society has received towards the religious instruction of the islanders, since that time, is the sum of 500, given by Charles Etty, Esq. About 300 per annum is expended by the society, on the missions and schools, chiefly out of their general funds. On St. Helen's island, now uninhabited, are the ruins of houses, and of an ancient chapel.

From Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England 1831