Shanklin was a remote and sleepy little village until the second half of the 18th century when the beginning of the Romantic Age led to a new taste for beautiful scenery; hence the attraction of the Isle of Wight and Shanklin and the Chine in particular. The original community consisted of about a dozen fishermen’s cottages, many of which still survive in the Old Village, together with the Manor House and the medieval family chapel. In Victorian times the chapel was enlarged and altered to become St Blasius Church and the Parsonage was likewise extended to become the Old Rectory. The Popham family, noted Jacobites, were the Lords of the Manor.
In 1819, when Keats stayed at Eglantine Cottage in Pomona Road, it was one of only two lodging houses but before long other visitors began to arrive and numbers grew as Victorian seaside holidays and salt-water bathing became fashionable. This was to make the fortune, not only of the Lords of the Manor but also of many other inhabitants and as the 19th century progressed, the population of Shanklin began to increase. Improved rail communications and the presence of Queen Victoria at Osborne House encouraged other European royals to visit the Island and Shanklin became popular for its mineral baths; the natural mineral-rich spring waters being piped to the Royal Spa Hotel. Attempts to make the town a spa failed because of its remote location and even the addition of a Winter Garden, Palm Court and marble baths did not succeed as by the turn of the 20th century the days of the spa were nearly over.
The first Sea Wall was built in the 1840s, to be replaced in the 1880s by the Esplanade and a row of elegant establishments grew up along the sea front. In 1858 Charles Darwin stayed at Norfolk House, while working on the ‘Origin of Species,’ and Longfellow wrote from Williams Hotel (later Holliers) in 1868 ‘This is one of the quaintest and loveliest places in the kingdom.’ Meanwhile other ‘Gentry Cottages’ were appearing as holiday homes, in the ornate style typified by Vernon Cottage; entrepreneurial fishermen were hiring out boats and bathing machines and the famous sands where Charles Dickens set a scene in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ were being enjoyed by all.
The pier was built in 1891 after years of controversy about the likely effect on a select resort of crowds of trippers, while regular visitors were lamenting the growth of red-brick villas. Nothing much changes, it seems! The pier was a resounding success with its theatre and other amusements but was destroyed by fire the 1987 ‘hurricane’ and never replaced. Keats Green had become a fashionable place for parades after church on Sundays and many visitors were now arriving by train, the first of which was driven by ‘Hell-Fire Jack’ who ignored speed limits!
World War II saw the destruction of the Royal Spa Hotel and the advent of the PLUTO project to provide fuel to allied troops in France during the liberation period. By then the transformation of Shanklin from sleepy village to a smart, affluent town was complete and today visitors still arrive in their thousands to enjoy a traditional bucket-and-spade summer holiday – all the more necessary as an escape from the stress of modern life.