St. George's Island History

Island from Downderry

Prehistory

The first traceable human activity on the island belongs to the period of the prehistory of Cornwall. An upright boulder of local stone was erected on North Mead, overlooking what is now Hannafore; this standing stone may have had ritual functions, or may have been aligned with a point of astronomical significance, or may have been a waymark or a seamark. The recent discovery on the island of a fragment of an amphora, an earthenware storage vessel from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggests that it was visited by travellers, perhaps Phoenician tin traders. There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea visited England, bringing the child Christ with him, and founded English Christianity at Glastonbury. A local version of the legend claims that he left the child on the island to play on the beach, while he put into Looe to trade for local tin. Whether or not the story is true, the fragment of amphora is evidence of some degree of contact between the island and the vicinity of the Holy Land, at approximately the time of Christ.

Mediaeval History

St. Michael the Archangel is traditionally regarded as the patron saint of many high places, such as St. Michael's Mount in western Cornwall, and the chapel of St. Michael on Rame Head - which is visible from the island to the east. There was a chapel dedicated to him on the island, which belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. It was a place of pilgrimage, but because the crossing from the mainland was dangerous, a number of pilgrims died in the attempt to reach it. A second chapel, also dedicated to St. Michael, was therefore founded on the mainland opposite. Both chapels were in existence by 1144; the older one, that on the island, may have been considerably more ancient. The mainland chapel has been excavated, but the island one has not. One picture of it exists, showing a small building with a pitched roof and two narrow windows, perched on the summit of the island, where a few remains are still visible. We know that by around 1200 two Benedictine monks, Prior Helia (or Elias) and Brother John, were living on the island. Their job was to receive pilgrims, to maintain the church, and above all to pray and lead the contemplative life. It has been suggested that they were also expected to keep a light burning in the chapel as a guide to shipping at a time when there were no official lighthouses. In the late thirteenth century the island church passed out of the hands of Glastonbury Abbey and became a chantry, where prayers were now said for the soul of its new owner. In effect, the church had been privatised. The list of island chaplains, which begins with Helia ends in the sixteenth century. By that time the chapel had no jewels or vestments, and was rarely used for worship, although a local man accused of landing on the island for the purpose of piracy in the 1530's explained that he was there on a pilgrimage. It must have fallen into complete disuse around 1550. The suspected pirate's pilgrimage was to a chapel of St. George, who must have shared the dedication of the island chapel with St. Michael. Most early maps identify the island as St. Michael's Island or Looe Island, although the current name, St. George's Island, is recorded by the reign of Elizabeth I. Smuggler's Cottage

Smuggling and Afterwards

After the chapel had fallen into disuse, the island must have become a rather secluded place. The high cliffs on the western side have a number of narrow sea-caves in them, and are out of sight of the mainland: this feature, together with the island's seclusion, must have made it a particularly suitable place for the landing of smuggled goods. There are still metal stanchions in place on one of the dangerous western cliff-edges; presumably these were part of an apparatus for hauling goods up from below. Smuggling tends not to leave written records, but in the island's case there are exceptions. In 1834 for instance, it was one of the illicit ports of call of the ship 'Daniel and William', which brought brandy or other spirits from France to the South Coast. The island was at that time occupied by Amram Hooper and his daughter 'Tilda, who received scores or hundreds of tubs of spirits from the ship's crew, and kept the men shut up in their house, now called Smuggler's Cottage, while they stowed the goods in places known only to themselves. A nineteenth-century historian claimed to have learned the whereabouts of two of these hideaways, but their locations are no longer certain. By 1853, the occupant of the island, William Vague, described himself as a farmer. Daffodils were farmed on the island, benefiting from its mild winter temperatures, until a few years ago, when present owner, Miss R. A. Atkins and her sister Miss E. E. Atkins, decided to concentrate their efforts on the conservation of the natural life of the island.

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