An island life for me
Ted Elms recounts his transition from Thames Waterman to a boatman on Furzey Island in the 1960s
Published in December ’11
In 1963 I found myself crossing Poole Harbour. I was on my way to Furzey island to meet Lady Illiffe, the owner, to be interviewed for the position of second boatman for the island, and my wife Pam was to be interviewed for the position of cook. By an amazing stroke of luck we were accepted. I think the fact that Pam was also a trained nurse played some part in it. It proved to be a life-altering experience for both of us.
In the space of just one month, I had left my work as a Thames Waterman, Pam had given up her job as a nurse in the Seaman’s hospital in Greenwich, we had got married, been to Paris on our honeymoon and moved to a privately owned island.
Furzey is the second biggest island in Poole harbour after Brownsea. It is some thirty acres of pine woods, gorse and bracken and in 1963 it was left pretty much in its natural state. There was a single gravel track, which led from the pier to the only three houses on the island. The big house was used by Lady Illiffe, her two sons and various house guests for about eight weeks a year. The brick cottage was the home of Tony Bailey, the other boatman, and his wife Mary; we moved into the stone cottage.
The cottage came complete with two half-feral cats, whose duty it was to control the mouse population. There was no mains water or electricity on the island. The only water was rainwater; whatever fell on the roofs of the three houses was collected via the drain pipes into tanks next to the houses. My first chore every morning was to pump forty gallons of water – using a hand pump – from the tank up into the roof-tank in the cottage; that would be our ration of water for the day. Electricity was supplied by a diesel generator which would often overload, and when that was out of commission we relied on paraffin Tilly lamps. The sewerage was fed into septic tanks, whilst in the kitchen was a large Victorian earthenware water filter, which it was necessary to fill with three gallons of rainwater every evening. By the next morning the lower chamber would be full of pure drinking water.
The only vehicle on the island was a 1936 bull-nose Morris lorry. This was always parked at the highest point of the island. It had no starter motor and starting it on the handle was the last resort. It would, however, always start if we bump-started it down the hill, hence the parking point choice.
It is fair to say that all this came something of a cultural shock to a boy from south London; I found myself on a steep learning curve. There was much that I didn’t know about the harbour, and although I had plenty of boating experience, it was all from my time on the Thames, which had been spent on commercial sailing barges and tugs. The maintenance of pleasure boats was an entirely new job to me, and there were ten boats of various sizes on the island. These ranged from a beautiful thirty-five-foot varnished launch, a twenty-foot work boat, down through several sailing dinghies and a speedboat.
I also found myself involved with the more agricultural side of island work; there were three wide fire breaks cut across the island and it was necessary to keep them clear of undergrowth. We also had to fell trees for kindling and carry out maintenance on all the buildings.
Pam too had to learn new skills; she was often expected to devise menus and cook for house parties. The first of these would arrive at Easter, and the four of us would be kept busy ensuring that all the boats were ready, and that the running of the big house went smoothly. Once Easter had passed, there would be further visits throughout the summer. Lady Illiffe would leave in September and we would be left on our own to look after the island until the following Easter.
Within the space of a single year the transition from city folk to island folk was complete. Pam and I had made the old stone cottage our home; an old wire-fenced tennis court had been converted into an allotment, we had a dozen chickens and a black dog. The kitchen windowsill in the cottage had a row of demijohns brewing wine and beer and, on frosty winter mornings, Tony and I would fish for dabs and plaice with long lines. By year’s end, Pam found a seam of clay on the western end of the island and started
In 1963 the islands were sparsely populated. On Brownsea there was only one couple; they had looked after Mrs Bonham-Christie, the owner. She had died in 1961 and the National Trust took that island under its auspices. Guy Sydenham, the potter, lived on a converted World War 2 motor torpedo boat on Long Island, while another couple lived on Round Island and looked after it for the absent owner.
Although Furzey Island is only a mile from Poole Quay it always seemed much further. We would go ashore for one day every week to buy whatever we could not produce ourselves. As soon as we let go the ropes from the quay, and chugged out across the harbour on the way to our island home, all the troubles of the mainland were left behind. Island life had a lot to recommend it: we had no rent, no rates, no fuel bills and no travelling expenses. Although we had an isolated way of life, we never felt cut off. In 1963 there was still a postal service to the islands; there had to be gale-force winds in order to stop Harry Reeves, our intrepid postie, from delivering our mail, not to mention the daily bread and milk. Sandy Wills, who did harbour trips in his boat White Heather, would often drop off the daily papers and, in the winter time, many of the fishermen and wild-fowlers would come ashore for a cup of tea.
Furzey Island is a very different place today. Years after we left and the Illiffe family had sold it, oil was discovered beneath it and BP developed it into the most productive onshore oil well in mainland Britain. The National Trust-run Brownsea Island receives thousands of visitors every year; Green Island is owned by one of Lady Illiffe’s sons and Round Island now has holiday lets on it.
Almost everyone, at some stage in his or her life, dreams of getting away from the rat race and living on an island. We are lucky enough to have done it, and will always look back on our time as Furzey islanders with great fondness.
The ownership of Furzey Island
At present the 31 acres of Furzey Island are in the hands of Perenco UK, after 27 years under the safe guardianship of BP, whose well-screened wells, occupying only five of its acres, are engaged in a short-term commercial use, tapping into the oil resources that underlie the whole of the harbour and beyond, while the remainder is maintained as a nature reserve.
BP had acquired the island in 1984 from Algy Cluff, a former proprietor of the Spectator magazine. His companies had revived gold mining in Zimbabwe and in the 1970s they set out to recover oil from the North Sea.
In 1980 Algy acquired the island, apparently ignorant of the underlying resource; he intended the simple stone house, built in 1936 for a former owner, the Dowager Lady Illiffe, to be his seventh home.
In making the purchase from a Midlands businessman, Mr Hilton Newton-Mason, who had paid £35,000 for the island in 1969 and kept two wallabies named Fred and Batty on it, Algy Cluff bested a Liverpool lad – a local wine dealer – who had harboured plans to buy it as a ‘boozers’ oasis’. Little did he know that in the first century BC, Furzey’s inhabitants had been trading wine with the Romans – then in Hamworthy. Or that boisterous passengers returning from Poole Market to Wych on the ferry in 1759 had capsized the vessel and, of nineteen passengers, only six had survived by struggling through mud to safety on the island.
On a more sober note, BP won The Queen’s Award for Environmental Achievement in 1995 in acknowledgement of the innovative, technologically challenging and environmentally beneficial manner in which Furzey Island had been developed.