Trivia Week

We’ve learned in recent days that this was not only the very first place to give women the vote, but also the site of the World’s first holiday camp and the home of only paddle steamer ever known to have taken on a submarine and won.

Who’d have guessed? Those who’ve been following our travels will know that the place we’re talking about is, of course, the Isle of Man.

The paddle steamer story takes us back to the First World War. Back then, the Isle of Man was a major tourist destination. Visitor numbers were huge throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The World’s first holiday camp was opened here in 1894, and the island was, of course, geographically quite isolated. What better place, then, to inter enemy aliens (such as German nationals resident in the UK) for the duration of hostilities? As things turned out, the holiday camp was nowhere near big enough and another camp had to be built; by the end of the War over 23,000 prisoners were being held on the Isle of Man.

The Government didn’t just take over the holiday camp; it also chartered or bought 11 of the Isle of Man Steam Packet’s 15 ships (nowadays the Steam Packet only operates two vessels; that kind of tells you how much the tourism industry has shrunk in recent decades).

In February 1917, the Mona’s Queen, carrying a thousand troops from Southampton to Le Havre, was attacked by a U-boat. Here’s the Mona’s Queen in full WW1 “Dazzle” camouflage:

The quick-thinking captain decided to steer straight for the U-boat, hitting it with a paddle and disabling it. Hurrah!

Getting back to our adventures around the island, our first destination after our last post was Kirk Michael to look at some more Manx Crosses inside the church. We unexpectedly came across four very skittish Loaghtan sheep running around the graveyard:

Loaghtan sheep are native to the Isle of Man. They almost died out during the mid 20th century, but numbers have since revived somewhat. They’re kept mainly for their meat, though we have seen some chocolate-brown Loaghtan wool for sale. The name comes from the Manx “lugh dhoan”, meaning mouse-brown.

Here’s the best of the Manx crosses at Kirk Michael. The figure at the bottom is apparently “Christ in ascension, his arms outstretched in an attitude of blessing”. The cockerel (top left) is a symbol of the Resurrection and there is also a slightly spooky-looking winged figure (top right).

The figure of Christ reminded me very much of the one on Harald Bluetooth’s rune stone at Jelling in Denmark (which we visited in 2017):

The Jelling rune stone dates back to circa 965 AD, so is of the same approximate age as many of the Manx crosses on the Isle of Man.

In a complete change of time period, we then visited the Grove Museum of Victorian Life in Ramsey.

This is one of those seemingly random properties that end up in the hands of heritage organisations from time to time. Basically, a rich shipowner from Liverpool bought a cottage on the site as a holiday home back in the 1830s and enlarged it into the Victorian-style home we see today. He later retired to the Isle of Man. After his death, his widow took in two young granddaughters when a son (the girls’ father) died young. These two girls lived at the Grove for more than 80 years. Neither married, and both lived well into their 90s. When the sisters died in the 1970s, the house, substantially unchanged for decades, was left to Manx National Heritage.

To be absolutely honest, there is nothing remarkable about the house or its contents. For me, the most interesting thing was the story of the sisters’ lives, and how from a very comfortable childhood, they had been reduced to selling odd bits of silverware in later years to make ends meet.

Whilst I was, in the light of the experiences of these two nonagenarians, mulling over my own funding plans for later life (which involve buying an annuity in 20-30 years’ time, sufficient to top up my UK state pension and comfortably cover basic living expenses for life, however long that might be), Mark decided that a game of croquet was in order….

…. after which he really got on his hobby horse!

I eventually managed to drag Mark away from The Grove by promising him some monkery down at Rushen Abbey.

Rushen Abbey was a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1134 AD when the viking king Olaf I granted lands to Ivo, the abbot of Furness Abbey in Cumbria (which we visited in January).

There isn’t much to see today; pretty much everything was “recycled” following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. The gardens are nice, though, and there is an exhibition that tells you a bit about the Cistercians (though as we’ve also visited Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys this year, most of this was by now very familiar to us).

The Monks’ Bridge thankfully survived the Abbey’s dissolution (presumably because it remained in use after the monks left).

One funny thing we saw in the exhibition was a quote from the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles. The “Chronicles” is a beautiful manuscript (now in the British Library) created by the monks at Rushen Abbey. It is the written source of pretty much all of the known history of the island between 1016 and 1316. On the subject of Olaf I, who gave the land for the founding of their Abbey, the monks have the following to say:

“he was devout and enthusiastic in matters of religion and was welcome to both God and men, except that he over-indulged in the domestic vices of kings”

It seems that the monks weren’t sufficiently grateful to Olaf to airbrush from history all record of his, erm, weaknesses.

From here we moved back to Castletown and found out some more about the weaknesses of politicians over the ages…..

No-one knows quite how old the Isle of Man’s “Keys” are. The first written reference to the “24 Keys” comes from the early 15th century. Nowadays, the House of Keys is the elected lower house of parliament on the Isle of Man (equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK). It still has 24 members.

We learned more about the history of the Keys at the Old House of Keys in Castletown, which is where the Keys met from 1821 until 1874.

Initially the role of the Keys was as a kind of jury, to interpret cases in the light of Manx law and custom (which might not have been familiar to the King of Mann, who would have been one of the Stanley family and not originally from the island).

Later, the Keys became a lawmaking body in their own right. They weren’t elected, though. Once you had a seat in the Keys, you kept it for life. When a seat became vacant, two names would be put forward by the remaining Keys (who would of course look after their own) together with a strong suggestion as to who should be chosen! In this way, the House of Keys was dominated for centuries by the Isle of Man’s most prominent families. Whilst theoretically their role was to represent the island’s people, in practice they may have focussed a little bit too much on the needs and wants of their own social class….

The House of Keys didn’t become an elected body until 1866 – pretty late by international standards. Public accountability in the form of elections was one of the prices the island paid at that time for the financial autonomy it wanted from Westminster.

The Election Act, passed by the House of Keys in 1881, is a particularly interesting example of the Keys at work. It was initially intended to extend the franchise to all men without legal impediment (such as bankruptcy). A few months previously, though, Lydia Becker (founder and publisher of the Women’s Suffrage Journal) had addressed a number of public meetings on the island, thus raising the profile of women’s suffrage.

Lydia Becker:

When the Election Bill was proposed, it was pointed out to the Keys that simply removing the word “male” from the proposed legislation would extend the franchise to women too – and after the issue was debated in the House of Keys, that’s exactly what they voted through! Not so fast, though. The Uk Home Office advised the island’s Governor General that this would not do – it would never receive Royal Assent (how sad that the monarch in question was herself a woman). So the island ended up with a watered-down version in which only women who held property in their own right (ie widows and spinsters) initially received the vote. The Keys pragmatically accepted the situation but unanimously issued the following resolution:

“Resolved; that whilst accepting the proposition of the Council to confer the electoral franchise on female owners of real estate, and to exclude female occupiers, this House considers it right to record that their agreement to this proposal is solely with the object of securing the partial concession made by the Council towards female suffrage – and that the opinion already expressed by the House, that male and female occupiers are equally entitled to vote, remains unaltered”

Good for them!

We came across an earlier, unelected, member of the House of Keys just around the corner at Castletown’s Nautical Museum. The museum is housed in the boathouse belonging to George Quayle (1757-1835). Quayle was a member of one of the most influential families on the Isle of Man and was a member of the House of Keys for 51 years. His business interests included the Isle of Man Bank Company, the island’s first bank, of which he was one of the four founder members. Oh, and he was a smuggler. But we’re not supposed to say that…..

Smuggling was rife in the Irish Sea in the 18th century. Until 1765, though, the very low import duty imposed by the Tynwald meant that no-one would bother smuggling anything into the Isle of Man. Instead, goods were unloaded at Manx ports and the small amount of duty paid. These goods were then sold on by wealthy merchants (including members of those very same families who sat in the House of Keys) to known smugglers who would then smuggle them into the mainland UK. Of course, everyone knew what was going on, but the Manx merchants weren’t technically doing anything wrong….

A flurry of laws imposed by the UK in 1765 meant that the UK’s import duties now also applied to the Isle of Man. That meant that goods now had to be smuggled into the Isle of Man. Again, the House of Keys lead the way!

George Quayle had three fast boats built between 1789 and 1783. One, the Peggy, is normally on show at the nautical museum but is currently elsewhere for conservation. It’s one of the oldest surviving boats to have had sliding keels (so as to be able to get into shallow waters) and may even be the oldest surviving schooner in the World.

The guide at the Nautical Museum isn’t supposed to say that George Quayle was a smuggler…. but he built a boathouse with a non-obvious opening to the sea. On the floor above, he had a room built like a ship’s cabin:

The middle section of woodwork (the “pillar front” and the section of woodwork in front of it) pulls out and what looks like a pillar is actually a sneaky staircase to allow George to quickly get back upstairs to his own apartments and “respectable life” without being seen. This room also has a hidden cupboard (opened by an inconspicuous knob on the other side of the room) in which 3 bottles of French brandy were found by renovators, and a hidden compartment in a fake fireplace where he kept his records (well away from the records of his “legitimate” banking business). Of course, he wasn’t a smuggler…… hmmm…

We’ll leave you for today with those thoughts of smuggling, dodgy politicians, and much more enlightened 19th century politicians here on the Isle of Man.


  1. That holiday camp came in really useful yet again in WW2 when among many others, my brother-in-law and his mother were interred as dangerous Teesside ice cream wielding Italians. I imagine they were causing all sorts of mayhem on the mainland to justify their interment, such as uttering war mongering phrases like ‘do you want a flake in it?’ or threatening national security by uttering ‘would you like monkey’s blood on top?’ Bloomin’ aliens, coming over here and selling us ice creams! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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