When ever I research items of local history, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of articles in local papers of the time that tell of new or rare things that the Victorians discovered, but despite all their curiosity of the amazing natural world around them…their first reaction would be to grab their gun and kill it, or in the case of amazing geological discoveries, destroy them !
The area around Weymouth and Portland was a favourite spot for those who came to this region. Both men and women would spend hours exploring our beaches and cliffs looking for geological or prehistoric keepsakes to take home as a reminder of their visits to this area.
We now know that the coastline around here is a hot spot for all manner of wonderful discoveries, no wonder then that it gained World Heritage status as the Jurassic Coast.
Fossils galore literally tumble out of the crumbling cliffs at your feet and litter the beaches hereabout.
Portland was a veritable smorgasbord of discoveries, especially during the Victorian era when people began to study such things, and began to realise their worth.
Such was the case with a fantastic discovery on Portland in 1869. (Taken from an article in the Western Gazette Friday 24th September 1869)
Near St George’s Church at Reforne on Portland stood Hitchcraft Quarry.
(St George’s church Portland © Channel Coast Observatory)
One day, while the quarrymen were removing layers of limestone, to their amazement they suddenly uncovered an entrance to a natural cavern.
It was vast, nearly 600 yards in length.
Inside that enormous “stalactite cavern” was what was described as “many wondrous and curious petrifications,” which included numerous huge and beautiful tinted stalactites.
What did they do with them…they destroyed them!
Portland © Channel Coast Observatory Dorset County museum archives)
Goodness only knows why, maybe they saw a quick buck to be made selling the fossilised peculiarities to inquisitive visitors to the island. (which at that time were numerous due to the Portland breakwater and Verne citadel being constructed.)
As the reporter says… had they stayed their hand and thought about it, maybe Portland would have had their own visitors attraction similar to Cheddar.
Bunny Caves sounds good to me….
(P.S. Anyone who knows anything about Portland knows you are forbidden to say the r….t word whilst on the island 😉
Even later on, in the 20th century, the fascinating finds kept coming.
In 1926, Mr H E C Brickell who was the headmaster of St George’s school at the time, suddenly found himself in the limelight.
He kept a miniature museum of Portland antiquities within the school itself, and had been recently handed a find, “some old bones,” by a quarry worker.
This discovery had been made at Inmosthay, Reforne, not far from the school.
Realising that they might be of importance, he forwarded them to Sir Arthur Keith, an eminent antiquarian, who recognised them as part of a mammoth and a few bones of a prehistoric horse both from the Ice Age.
The learned man in his reply also asked if any worked flints had been discovered nearby, with that members of the Dorset Field Club set off in search of any historic implements.
Nothing was found, but ” the quarrymen working there are keeping a sharp look out in the ‘vents’ or ‘gullets’ in the whitbed.”
Later, in 1936 an “Old Warriors Skull” was discovered in one of the quarries.
(Prisoners at work in a Portland quarry)
Men were busy working at Comben’s quarry at Chalklands one week-end, clearing rubble from the site ready to access a new “task” of stone.
In amongst the rubble lay numerous bones, but little notice was taken of them, they were just gathered up and disposed of with the rest down into one of the old workings. (one wonders why they were quite so blase about these bones?)
That was until one load was tipped, and out of the chute fell a human skull “with a perfect set of teeth.” Not only did it lay claim to a full set of gnashers, but a also rather suspiciously a“large irregular hole in the side of the head.”
Now the men were interested…they quickly scrambled down into the gaping void to try and retrieve the skull, but it had crumbled away, all bar the jawbones.
The papers reported that the skull was probably from way back in Portland’s history. (presumably by this stage they had been properly studied and found to be ancient and not the remains of some more recent foul deed.)
Chalklands was the site of the first ever recorded battle of Portland which was fought nearly 1,200 years ago.“In the reign of Brithic King first came three ships of Haeretha Land (Denmark,) and they sought to land at Portland. The officer of the King who commanded here went to them and endeavoured to compel them to come to the King’s vill (Dorchester?) ‘as not knowing whence came they, but he was slain by them.”
Fifty years later there was another battle on he same site, when Adedelhelm, duke, assited by the forces of Dorsaeta fought with the Danish army at Portland and after a long engagement defeated them.. ‘But,’ say the Chronicles, ‘the Danes remained upon the field and the Duke was slain.”
So next time you go for a stroll through the old quarries, or along the cliffs keep your eyes peeled…you never know what you might just stumble across.
Another image from the fantastic Channel Coast Observatory website attributed to Portland.
Could this be one of the many Roman stone sarcophagus that have been discovered over time?
- 1862; Portland prison, The Pleasantness of Penal Servitude. (susanhogben.wordpress.com)