The Scilly Islands

Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1814.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'The Scilly Islands', in Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall, (London, 1814) pp. 330-337. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]


From the connection of these islands with the county of Cornwall, it may be deemed proper to treat briefly of them in this place.

These islands, called by the Greeks Hesperides and Cassiterides (fn. n1); by the Romans Sillinœ and Silurœ insulœ, (fn. n2) are 27 in number, besides small islets and rocks; they lie about 17 leagues due west from the Lizard, and 10 leagues nearly west-by-south from the Land's-end. A small island, containing only one acre, gives its name to the whole cluster; this name is written, in ancient records, Sully or Sulley, now Scilly. The names and extent of the islands are given below, as computed by Heath. (fn. n3)

Except what relates to their trading connections with the Phœnicians and Romans, and the circumstance of their having been occasionally appropriated by the latter as a place of banishment for state criminals (fn. n4), the first mention we find of the Scilly islands in history is in the tenth century, when they were subdued by King Athelstan (fn. n5). After this, we hear nothing of them till the time of the civil war, when they became of considerable importance. In 1645 they afforded a temporary protection to Prince Charles and his friends, Lord Hopton and Lord Capel (fn. n6). In 1649, Sir John Grenville, who was afterwards so distinguished for the share that he had in bringing about the Restoration, being governor of the Scilly islands, fortified and held them for King Charles the Second. The parliament finding their trade much annoyed by his frigates, fitted out an expedition for the reduction of the Scilly islands, under the command of Admiral Blake and Sir George Ayscue, who first took possession of the islands of Trescaw and Bryer, and threw up fortifications for the purpose of attacking Sir John Grenville at St. Mary's. The Dutch Admiral Vantromp is said to have made insidious but ineffectual proposals to the governor, of taking the islands under his protection. Resistance being found vain, they were delivered up to the parliament in the beginning of June. The garrison consisted of about 800 soldiers, with commissioned officers enough, as Whitlocke observes, "to head an army," Sir John Grenville's standard having been one of the last rallying points for the Royalists.

The authors who have treated of the Scilly islands seem much puzzled with respect to the history of their proprietors, and are at a loss to reconcile the circumstance of the abbots of Tavistock, and certain lay persons, being called, in contemporary records, "lords of Scilly." By a careful attention to the substance of those records, all difficulties may be easily removed. In or before the reign of Edward the Confessor, some of the islands, and the tithes of the whole, had been given (probably by King Athelstan) to certain monks or hermits who had their abode in the island of St. Nicholas, now Trescaw. King Henry the First granted to the abbot of Tavistock all the churches of Suliye, with their appurtenances, and the land which had belonged to the monks, or rather hermits, in the reign of King Edward, when Burgald was Bishop of Cornwall (fn. n7). Pope Celestin, in 1193, confirmed to the abbey the islands of St. Nicholas, St. Sampson, St. Elid, and St. Teon, the island called Nullo, with all their churches and oratories, and certain lands in other islands (fn. n8). Reginald Earl of Cornwall granted to the monks all wrecks, except whole ships and whales, in Kentemen and Nurcho (fn. n9), and the isles of St. Lid, St. Sampson, and St. Teon (fn. n10). It is sufficiently clear why the abbot and convent of Tavistock were called Domini de Scilly; meanwhile the property and temporal jurisdiction continued vested in the Earls of Cornwall, or in such as held under them, possessing an independent and contemporary power; and these were likewise called Domini de Scilly.

The first proprietor whom we find mentioned as holding under the Earl, is Robert de Wick, who, by an ancient deed, without date, conveys to the monks of Scilly the tithes of those islands, which he had unjustly detained from them. Drugo de Barentin was governor of the Scilly islands, in the reign of Henry III. (fn. n11); but whether he had any property in them does not appear. In the reign of Edward I. Ralph de Blanchminster held the castle of Ennor, in the Scilly islands, by the service of finding 12 armed men to keep the peace in those islands: complaint was made, that he had not only failed in this service, but had committed the King's coroner, who came to the island for the purpose of holding an assize, to the prison of La Val (fn. n12). In the year 1314, Ralph de Blanchminster had the King's licence for embattling his castle of Inor, in the isles of Scilly (fn. n13). In the year 1345, Ralph de Blanchminster held the isles of Scilly under the duchy of Cornwall, as of the honor of Launceston, by the annual render of 300 puffins at Michaelmas (fn. n14). In the reign of Henry VI., the rent was only 50 puffins, or 6s. 8d., the islands being then the property of Sir John Coleshill, representative of the Blanchminsters (fn. n15) : their annual value in 1484 was estimated at 40s. in time of peace; in time of war, nothing (fn. n16). In Leland's time, being then valued at 40s. per annum, the Scilly islands belonged to Davers and Whittington, as representatives of that branch of the Arundells which inherited the estates of the Coleshills and Blanchminsters. In the reign of Edward VI., Thomas Lord Seymour, the Lord Admiral, became proprietor of the Scilly islands, as appears by one of the articles of his accusation, which charges him with having gotten into his hands those strong and dangerous isles, bought of divers men, (viz. the heirs of Danvers and Whittington (fn. n17).) The Lord Admiral was beheaded and attainted in 1549, when the temporal property of the Scilly islands fell into the duchy, already by the dissolution of religious houses possessed of what had belonged to the abbey of Tavistock.

In 1552, Thomas Godolghan, Esq. was captain (or governor) of the Scilly isles (fn. n18), and most probably lessee under the duchy; though we do not find any lease to the Godolphin family on record prior to the 13th of Elizabeth, when the Scilly islands were demised to Francis Godolphin, Esq. for 38 years, at the rent of 10l. per annum: the lease was renewed to Sir William Godolphin, in 1604, for 50 years, at 20l. per annum (fn. n19); in the 12th of Charles the First, to Francis Godolphin, Esq., at 40l. per annum, for 50 years, to commence from 1659; in 1698, to Sidney Lord Godolphin, at the same rent, for 89 years, to commence from 1709. The present lessee is the Duke of Leeds, the representative of the Godolphin family, who holds the Scilly islands at a rent of 40l. for 31 years from the year 1800. The island of St. Agnes was at an early period in the Hamely family, and appears afterwards to have passed to the Blanchminsters (fn. n20). John Allet held lands in Scilly (temp. Edw. III.) of Ralph Blanchminster, by the service of being keeper of his castle (fn. n21). There is no person who now possesses either house or land, except as sub-lessee under the Duke of Leeds. The government of the Scilly islands appears to have been, at least since the Reformation, uniformly in the proprietors, except in the instances of Sir John Grenville and Joseph Hunkin, Esq., in the interregnum, and Major Bennet, previously to the year 1733. Before the Reformation, it appears that the proprietor kept the peace of the islands, with the assistance of 12 armed men (fn. n22); and that there were frequent feuds between them and the King's coroner, who visited the islands to hold assizes for the trial of greater offences (fn. n23). It is most probable that all other offences were cognizable as they now are, by a court delegated by the lord proprietor, whose immediate authority for exercising the civil jurisdiction is derived from a patent of the 10th of King William. The lord proprietor appoints a court or council of twelve, consisting of some of the principal inhabitants, among whom are generally the military commandant, the steward, chaplain, and commissary of musters. Vacancies are supplied by election; but the whole may be dissolved, and a fresh appointment made, at any time, by the lord proprietor. After the death of a lord proprietor, a new council is necessarily appointed. The court generally sits monthly, for the trial of plaints, suits, &c. between party and party, inhabitants of the islands, except such causes as affect life or limb, and such as are cognizable by the court of Admiralty. Transportable offences are tried here, such as receiving stolen goods, &c.; but the punishments are only fines or whipping, and sometimes imprisonment. Persons accused of murder, burglaries, &c. &c. are taken to the nearest Cornish magistrate, and sent to be tried at the assizes for the county of Cornwall. (fn. n24)

The Scilly islands have always been deemed to be under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Bishops of Cornwall or Exeter, and to have constituted part of the archdeaconry of Cornwall; but there is no memory of any ecclesiastical jurisdiction having been exercised, except in the particular of proving wills. In early times, the abbot of Tavistock held the tithes of the Scilly islands, and certain lands, by the service of finding two monks to reside in them, and to provide for the spiritual wants of the inhabitants. In the reign of Edward III. he was allowed to provide two secular chaplains for this service, instead of monks, during the war with France. Since the Reformation, the tithes have been vested in the lord proprietor, who is patron of the donative, and pays the minister or chaplain an optional salary, now sixty guineas per annum. The minister receives neither institution nor induction, nor is he licensed by the Bishop; and neither he nor the churchwardens are cited to visitations: the latter are sworn in at the lords' council court, where cognizance is taken of all offences usually brought before spiritual courts. It was formerly customary to punish such offenders by ducking in salt water, at the quay head (fn. n25). Till of late years, the minister of St. Mary's was the only clergyman in the island, officiating constantly at St. Mary, where a register of baptisms and marriages was kept for all the islands; at Trescaw only on the Sunday after Easter; and at St. Martin's on Trinity Sunday: the chapels of the other islands were served by laymen, or, as they were called, island clerks, generally fishermen. The society for promoting christian knowledge now employ two missionaries, who officiate at what are called the Off-Islands. There are chapels at Trescaw, St. Martin's, St. Agnes, Bryer, and Sampson, mostly built by the Godolphin family, since the Reformation: that of Bryer, about 1746; that of St. Agnes was built at the expence of the society for promoting christian knowledge, who gave 400l. towards building a house for the missionary at Trescaw.

The Earl of Godolphin, in 1747, established a school, for instructing 12 boys in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Rev. Richard Corbet Hartshorne, rector of Brosely in Shropshire, about the year 1753, gave the sum of 250l. towards the support either of a minister or schoolmaster at Trescaw, under the direction of the society for promoting christian knowledge (fn. n26). The only considerable benefaction which the society has received towards the religious instruction of the Scilly islands, since that time, has been the sum of 500l., given by Charles Etty, Esq. About 300l. per annum is expended by the society, on the missions and schools in these islands, chiefly out of their general funds (fn. n27). St. Helen's island (now uninhabited), supposed to have been the same as St. Lyde's, exhibits the ruins of houses, and of an ancient chapel, probably that of St. Lyde, "where, in times past," says Leland, "at her sepulchre was gret superstition."

The whole population of the Scilly islands was estimated, in 1750, at about 1,400 persons; in 1799, they were calculated at about 1,960: the present number is 2,358. (fn. n28)

Dr. Borlase estimates the number of inhabitants on St. Mary's island, in 1756, at about 600: Heath had computed them at 700 in 1750. In 1799 they were nearly 1,000: the present number is 1,271. St. Mary's island is about nine or ten miles in circumference. The principal town of this island is called Hugh or Heugh-town, which was much damaged by inundation during the great storm in 1744. (fn. n29) The pier was finished in 1750, having been constructed at the expence of Lord Godolphin: vessels of 150 tons burden may ride here in safety (fn. n30). Near this town are the remains of an old fortress, with a mount, and the remains of several block-houses and batteries, supposed to have been constructed in the civil war. About two furlongs to the eastward is a bay called Pomellin or Porthmellin, where is procured in abundance a fine white sand, composed of chrystals and talc (fn. n31), much esteemed as a writingsand, and for other purposes. About a mile from Hugh-town, is the churchtown, consisting of the church (fn. n32) and a few houses; and two furlongs further, bordering on the sea, Old-town, formerly the principal town of the island. Near this are the remains of Old-town castle, spoken of by Leland; probably the castle of Ennor, which belonged to the Blanchminsters. The traces of an ancient fortress, on a promontory called the Giant's-Castle, are supposed to be of remote origin. On the west side of the island are St. Mary's garrison, with the barracks, and several batteries, and Star-Castle; the latter was built by Sir Francis Godolphin, in 1593. It was in this castle that Dr. John Bastwick was imprisoned, by order of the Court of Star-chamber, in 1637, after having lost his ears in the pillory, for writing against the church and state: his sentence was imprisonment for life; but he was liberated by order of parliament in 1640. The severity of his sentence caused great odium against the government; and he and his fellowsufferers, Prynne and Burton, who had been sent to other distant prisons, were conducted into London, on their return, with much triumph and rejoicing. (fn. n33)

Trescaw, anciently called Iniscaw and St. Nicholas, is the second island, in point of size, and contains 465 inhabitants, although, within the memory of persons living in 1793, the number of houses did not exceed 12. (fn. n34) In this island are some remains of the conventual church of St. Nicholas, of which there is a view in Dr. Borlase's Observations on the Scilly islands; the ruins of OldCastle, and Oliver's Battery. Old-Castle, which appears to have been built in or about the reign of Henry VIII., is spoken of by Leland, as "a little pile or fortress:" it appears to have been afterwards enlarged, as its ruins shew it to have been a considerable building. Oliver's Castle, as it is called, from having been built by the parliamentarians, was repaired in 1740; but is described by Borlase, in 1756, as being then already much decayed.

St. Martin's island, though by far the largest except St. Mary and Trescaw, was uninhabited till the reign of Charles II.: in 1756 there were 18 families, all related: it now contains 235 inhabitants. Mr. Ekins, in 1683, built a tower on this island, as a day-mark, 20 feet high, with a spire on it of the same height (fn. n35). On St. Agnes island, which contains 244 inhabitants, is a light-house. In Heath's time there was only one family on St. Sampson's; there are now 32 inhabitants. Bryer or Brehar contains about 330 acres, and about 111 inhabitants. Borlase says, that not long before the date of his work (1756), there were only two families in this island.

The principal employment and trade of the islanders is, fishing (fn. n36) and making kelp (fn. n37). Mr. Nance, who introduced this process in 1684, resided many years in the island of Tean, the Sta. Theona of the records, now uninhabited. Tin is found in several of the islands, and in some lead and copper; but there are now no mines in work. Some of the islands produce corn, principally barley, peas, and oats, with a small proportion of wheat; a few acres are sown with pillis (fn. n38) : potatoes are cultivated in great quantities in St. Mary's. Cattle are fed on most of the islands; and though not very abundant, are sometimes sold to captains of ships. Samphire is collected in abundance in the isle of Trescaw, for pickling. The tamarisk and Lavatera Arborea grow plentifully in the island of St. Mary. (fn. n39)


  • n1. See Camden.
  • n2. Ibid, on the authority of Sulpitius Severus and Solinus.
  • n3. An estimation of the quantity of land, in acres, contained in each island: —
    Five larger islands, inhabited by about 1,400 people, 1. St. Mary 1,520 besides the garrison, 120 acres, joined to the isthmus.
    2. Tresco 880
    3. St. Martin 720
    4. St. Agnes 300 besides the Gugh, 90 acres, joined at low water,
    5. Bryer 330
    One family, 6. Sampson 120
    Four scattered islands, bearing grass, 7. St. Helen's 80
    8. Tean 70
    9. White-Island 50
    10. Annet 40
    Ten eastern islands, stocked with conies, and fit for seeding cattle in summer, 11. Great-Arthur 30
    12. Great-Ganilly 20
    13. Great-Gannick 18
    14. Minewithen 15
    15. Nornour 13
    16. Little-Arthur 7
    17. Little-Ganilly 6
    18. Little-Gannick 5
    19. Ragged-Island 5
    20. Innisvouls 4
    Carry forward 4,233
    Brought forward 4,233
    Seven scattered islands, placed about the largest, 21. Mincarlo 12
    22. Guahall 10
    23. Northwithell 9
    24. White-Island, near Sampson 7
    25. Round-Island 3
    26. Scilly-Island 1
    27. Rat-Island
    Total sum, 4486½ of which, at least the half are tillable and improveable.
    N.B. Besides the above, which are most noted, there may be numbered about a dozen very small islands, bearing grass; and rocks innumerable above water.
  • n4. Camden quoting Sulpitius Severus.
  • n5. Camden.
  • n6. Clarendon.
  • n7. Dugdale's Monasticon.
  • n8. Ibid.
  • n9. Ancient names of islands.
  • n10. Dugdale.
  • n11. Rot. Cl. 32 Hen. III.
  • n12. Pat. 35 Edw. I. 45.
  • n13. Rot. Pat. 8 Edw. II. 26.
  • n14. Survey of the duchy of Cornwall, 19 Edw. III.
  • n15. See Borlase's account of the Scilly isles, p. 109.
  • n16. Esch. 1 Ric. III.
  • n17. Burnet's History of the Reformation, p. 161.
  • n18. Borlase, p. 110.
  • n19. In this lease there was a proviso that none of the islands should be bequeathed by Sir William Godolphin to his daughters. (Heath, p. 203.)
  • n20. See Heath, p. 190, 191.
  • n21. Ibid. 187.
  • n22. A record of the reign of Edward I. says, that Ralph de Blanchminster held the castle of Eanor by the service of finding and maintaining 12 armed men, at all times, for keeping the peace in those parts. (Pat. 35 Edw. I. m. 45.)
  • n23. Pat. 19 Edw. III. pt. 1. m. 5.
  • n24. Troutbeck's Survey of the Scilly Islands.
  • n25. Ibid.
  • n26. Borlase, p. 136.
  • n27. From the information of the Rev. Dr. Gaskin, Secretary to the Society.
  • n28. From the information of Mr. John Johns, resident agent to the Duke of Leeds, in the Scilly Isles, and president and magistrate of the Duke's council.
  • n29. Heath, p. 63.
  • n30. Borlase.
  • n31. Ibid. p. 67.
  • n32. Among the few monumental inscriptions in St. Mary's church and church-yard, enumerated by Heath, Borlase, and Troutbeck, are those of Mary, wife of Joseph Hunkins, Esq., governor of the islands, 1659; some of the family of Rattenbury, commissaries in the early part of the last century; and Captain James Bostock, of a Kentish family, who was killed by the accidental discharge of a gun, whilst taking the diversion of shooting, in 1756. Sir John Narborough, Bart. (son of the celebrated admiral of that name); Henry Trelawny, son of the Bishop of Winchester; and Captain Edmund Loades, of the Association man-of-war, all of whom shared the melancholy fate of the brave Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was lost on the Gilston Rock, October 22, 1707, lie buried in the chancel at St. Mary's; but there is no monument to their memory. Captain Hancock, of the Eagle, and Captain Coney, of the Romney, two gallant officers, shared also their commander's fate. Sir Cloudesley Shovel's body was found by a fisherman, on the shore at Porthellic, and by him buried in the sands; but was afterwards removed to Westminster Abbey. The Colossus, of 74 guns, Captain Murray, was lost on a ledge of rocks to the south-west of St. Sampson's island, in the month of December, 1798.
  • n33. Borlase, p. 10.
  • n34. Troutbeck.
  • n35. Borlase.
  • n36. There are about 100 boats in the island used for fishing, piloting, &c.; 12 of these are used for fishing only. (From the information of Mr. Johns.)
  • n37. The quantity of kelp now made in the islands, varies from 100 to 200 tons. (Ibid.)
  • n38. See p. cciii. of the General History.
  • n39. From the information of Mr. Edwards.