Despite being the second smallest town in England (either by population or land area), Yarmouth is the oldest town on the Isle of Wight and can boast an unusually long, lively and rich history. Although there is evidence of both Roman and earlier activity in the area, the first proof of a fixed settlement at Yarmouth (then ‘Ermud’) lies in a tax survey of 991 AD, something reconfirmed almost a century later in the Domesday Book compiled for William the Conqueror. During this medieval period, long before today’s harbour, the main anchorage lay in the deep water haven (today’s marshes to the south and west) connecting the River Yar to Thorley, where the original quay and centre of local population was sited.
During the reign of Henry I, the Lord of the Isle of Wight, Baldwin de Redvers, in strengthening his island possessions, decided to create an accessible purpose-built town at Yarmouth, to which he granted an official Charter in 1135 – the first such on the island. To this day the original and typically Norman grid lay-out of the streets remains unchanged.
Yarmouth quickly flourished, and by c.1200 (when King John twice stayed) it was reckoned amongst the three most important port towns on the south coast, along with Portsmouth and Southampton. Having two churches in part reflected this status. In due course, competition developed from Newtown and Newport, but Yarmouth remained strong (returning its own MP from 1295 when the Parliament began) – that is, until all three towns were sacked by a powerful force of French and Castilians in 1377! Although Newtown never recovered, Yarmouth (like Newport) did so, gaining full Borough status in 1440 following its 4th Charter. Progress, however, was again abruptly halted in the reign of Henry VIII when it was destroyed by the French for a second time!! The King, who had already fortified much of the coast, responded by ordering the immediate creation of Yarmouth Castle, which was completed in 1547 and brought the security needed to this then walled town.
Granted a second MP under Elizabeth I in the 1580s, Yarmouth for almost 250 years became an increasingly corrupt or ‘rotten’ borough, with a handful of men (‘voters’) effectively nominating the two MPs in exchange for reward. Although this right to parliamentary membership was ended by the Great Reform Act of 1832, Yarmouth was again declared a ‘rotten borough’ later in the 19th century, finally losing its borough status in 1890, and with it the right to a Mayor and town council – something happily restored since 1974.
Meanwhile physical changes affected the original town. In the later 17th century (after abandoning an experiment which briefly made Yarmouth a complete island for defensive reasons) an embankment was created to cut off Thorley Creek from the river and create a tidal mill pond. Thus by the 18th century the once deep-water Thorley haven had completely silted up. This change eventually led, in the 1840s, to the building of a breakwater to create today’s safe harbour at the mouth of the River Yar. A bridge across the river soon afterwards (1860) ended the town’s end-of-peninsular situation, by offering a permanent link with Norton, Freshwater and the western end of the island. This new link on land was at the same time matched by one at sea – in the form of a regular steam-powered passenger ferry service with the mainland from the 1830s onwards, a facility much enhanced when the pier opened in 1876. Other major changes awaited the 20th century when, in the late 1930s, the slipway and quay were enlarged to accommodate the first car ferries, and when, in the 1960s, much reclaimed land enlarged the quay again and made it possible for a new road to by-pass the need for all road traffic (including buses, coaches and lorries) to go through the Town Square.
As Yarmouth now edges towards its 900th anniversary, it not surprisingly offers some buildings of note. Apart from the Castle (1547), there is the old Railway Station (open 1888-1953), the School (1855), the Pier (1876), which is the only completely wooden one in England, and the large, impressive Mill house (1794) – now private accommodation. Besides these, in the heart of the town, lie the Town Hall (1763) and St. James’s Church (founded in 1614 and a mere 400 years old, its predecessors having been destroyed by French attacks). In the latter can be found a statue of Yarmouth’s most famous inhabitant – the swashbuckling figure of Admiral Sir Robert Holmes, who, as Governor of the Island, moved to Yarmouth in 1668, creating a handsome new home for himself next to the Castle, where he three times entertained King Charles II. That building is the original (and still clearly identifiable) part of today’s historic George Hotel.
For those interested in learning more about Yarmouth’s extraordinary history, a recent publication is widely available locally: ‘Yarmouth A.D. 1135: An Historical Guide to the Ancient Town’ by Kevin Shaw, the author of the summary above. (54 high quality, full-colour pages with many maps and illustrations. Cost £4.95)
This book was written as part of the Town Council-led Historic Yarmouth Promotion Project, which in 2012 erected a central Town Sign and four others marking the position of the four gates into the walled town Medieval, Tudor and Stuart Yarmouth. The whole project was sponsored by the West Wight Landscape Partnership/Heritage Lottery Fund and the local Delphi Lakeman Memorial Trust. All profits from the book go a council-held ear-marked fund for further ‘Historic Yarmouth Promotion’.
The Parish Church of St James' was built in 1614-26