May 31, 2013
Blackgang Chine: a Victorian attraction
After spending my days pounding the grimy streets of 19th century Manchester’s underworld, it’s refreshing to explore a more attractive place in Victorian history. Established in 1843, Blackgang Chine, on the Isle of Wight, celebrates its 170th anniversary this year and this wonderful theme park hasn’t lost any of its old-world charm.
Famous for smuggling and shipwrecks, Blackgang hit the headlines for the first time because of a maritime disaster. In 1836, the Clarendon was returning from the Caribbean laden with exotic goods such as rum, coconut and sugar, when it ran aground during a terrible storm and was dashed to pieces in Chale Bay, just below Blackgang. Hundreds of sightseers flocked to the village to see the wreck and an enduring interest in this remote part of the island was kindled.
In the early 1840s, Alexander Dabell, a local entrepreneur and shop owner who described himself as ‘a pioneer in this far flung barbarous clime’, carved out pathways through the chine so that visitors could admire the spectacular views. In 1844, a huge fin whale was washed up on the shore near the Needles and Dabell bought the carcass. After stripping the blubber and bleaching the bones, he displayed the giant skeleton in a custom-built hut in Blackgang Chine.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert opened their luxury holiday home on the Isle of Wight in 1845, the tourist trade flourished and the island became a fashionable place for wealthy Victorians. At Blackgang, Alexander Dabell added a gift shop, gardens, a shipwreck museum and tearooms. When he died in 1898, his son took over the business.
There are no traces left of the Victorian attraction, as many old buildings have been washed away into the sea due to landslips but the spirit of the first enterprising adventure remains. Populated by fairies, cowboys, pirates and dinosaurs, Blackgang Chine is still a magical place to visit.