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For the surname, see Chiswell (surname).
Chiswell is located in Dorset
 Chiswell shown within Dorset
OS grid reference SY689732
Civil parish Portland
District Weymouth and Portland
Shire county Dorset
Region South West
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Police Dorset
Fire Dorset
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
List of places

Coordinates: 50°33′43″N 2°26′55″W / 50.5620°N 2.4487°W / 50.5620; -2.4487

Chiswell from Tophill.

Chiswell (pronounced /ˈtʃɛzɨl/ or /ˈtʃɪzˌwɛl/; rarely Chesilton) is a small fishing village at the southern end of Chesil Beach, in Underhill, on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, and is the oldest settlement on the island. The small bay at Chiswell is called Chesil Cove, which the village is built around. The promenade and sea wall which forms Chiswell's coastal defences are a prominent feature.

The village itself is almost indistinguishable from Fortuneswell, the largest village on the island, as the two settlements are very close. However this distinction can be made: Chiswell occupies flat land close to sea level, whereas Fortuneswell's streets wind up and down the steep hills. Between the village and Fortuneswell, where the main road follows, is Victoria Gardens. At the entrance to the village is Victoria Square.

As with the rest of Portland's villages and settlements, Chiswell has been designated as a conservation area, as it is a place of special architectural and historic interest, given protection to ensure that people can continue to enjoy their character for years to come. Underhill, incorporating Chiswell, Maidenwell, Fortuneswell and Castletown became designated in 1976 with boundary extensions in 1997 and 2000.[1][2]

Today the village is maintained by the Chiswell Community Trust.[3]


Establishment of the village[edit]

Chiswell's high street.

The village was established through the ancient fishing industry, as the village's location was ideally suited alongside Chesil Beach. It was inhabited during Romano-British times and named "Coesl". The Anglo-Saxon Chronical reports the village was pillaged by the Vikings during the 8th and 9th centuries. In 789 AD, the first recorded Viking attack within British Isles, including Ireland, occurred on Portland's coast.[4] Although the Vikings' landing place remains uncertain, it is likely that Church Ope Cove was the location. Later Viking raids would have been at Chesil Cove, and attacks by pirates and other marauders followed in succeeding generations.[5]

Over the centuries the village grew, and by the 18th century it had become the largest settlement on the island, with many tradesmen establishing themselves in the area. By this time the residents of Chiswell were mostly made up of fishermen, seafarers or quarrymen.[5] It was during this period that many stone houses were constructed within the village, similar to The Cove House Inn. Some of these strong houses were built on, or against the slope of Chesil Beach. Such vulnerable houses were built with a stout gable facing seawards, and featured floodways. The large amount of shipwrecks at Chesil Cove meant that large timber beams would often be salvaged for use as supports for house roofs. The cellars of many houses within the village were used to store contraband, as the island was a thriving location of smuggling. A number of narrow passages were built as access points to the beach, and this included Big Ope and Pebble Ope. In 1782 Chiswell was recorded as having 100 houses, compared with 64 at Easton, the next largest village at that point.[6]

However the exposed nature of the village to storms and sea flooding meant Chiswell has had to withstand devastation on many occasions. Such incidents of flooding were not uncommon, particularly during winter storms. A plan was devised to drain the Fleet lagoon as a counter measure, but these plans were abandoned in 1630.[6]

The Great Storm of 1824[edit]

The most notable incident of flooding remains The Great Storm of 1824, which occurred in November, when the village saw destruction beyond anything seen before. The streets of the village saw seawater with a sufficient enough depth to float a vessel of 100 tons. A number of homes were destroyed, approximately 36, and another 100 were left uninhabitable. 27 residents died during the flooding, either buried under their destroyed homes, or by drowning. One reported incident involved a woman with her new born baby being washed away. The mother was saved, however the baby was lost. A local man, William Hansford was crushed when trying to escape from his falling house. Several ships were also wrecked on Chesil Beach during the storm.[6]

The village never fully recovered from the event, and traces of the aftermath still exist today. The initial help came from the island's governor John Penn, who organised local relief efforts, and launched a national appeal. A large number of donations were received, including £200 from the King. The island's only link with the rest of Britain was the ferry at Ferry Bridge, and this was destroyed in the storm. This caused a delay of four days before supplies could arrive at Chiswell.[6]

19th century development[edit]

The village was substantially changed in the late 19th century, when Portland saw a massive expansion within its population, directly due to the labour-demanding projects of building Portland's harbour breakwaters and the defensive Verne Citadel. A gasworks was constructed at the entrance of the village in 1865, while sewerage systems and reservoirs were installed to replace the traditional wells, in attempt to cope with the demand. However the supply remained insufficient until a piped water supply was laid in the early 20th century. The village's 19th century water cistern was filled from a West Weares spring, but the water was often contaminated. The tank was demolished in the 1920s.[7]

During the mid 19th century, Captain Charles Manning of Portland Castle set to work developing the entrance to the village, which became known as Victoria Square. The square was the location of Portland's initial sole railway station, which opened on 25 May 1864, after the extension of the Weymouth railway line to Portland between 1862-64. The station attracted further business into the area, including a stone sawmill, Portland Gas Works, and the island's first Masonic Hall.[8]

In 1886 police presence in Chiswell had to be increased to control "houses of ill-fame" within the village, as a direct result of the naval base's sailors.[9] The traditional Portland Fair was initially based in a field at Fortuneswell, but in 1862 the entire fair moved to Victoria Square, and Chiswell has remained the venue ever since.[10]

The first half of the 20th century[edit]

The idea of building a sea wall had been put forward since the early 20th century, to combat the flooding that caused havoc within the village. With the rise of unemployment following the First World War, it was suggested in 1920 that 250 local men could be hired to build the sea wall. However the council chose other schemes instead, despite local residents voicing their fears on the increasing likelihood of another potential flooding disaster. The cliff adjoining the beach at Brandy Row had been destroyed during this period, and other sections of land joining the beach were being eroded at a frightening rate.[11]

From 1930 a demolition scheme by the local council threatened a considerable number of historical houses on the island. Despite strong local objection, much of the island's historic, Jacobean, Tudor and Georgian cottages would be demolished, rather than being restored. This included various dwellings at Chiswell, which was a prime target for this scheme. A total of 80 houses were selected within the village, mainly at Artist Row and High Street. This caused local outcry, however this did not deter the council from their plans. In November 1936 official quit notices were issued, with a number of families removed from their homes. The demolition continued until the 1960s, and in the end a large selection of simple fisherman cottages were destroyed, despite there being no plans in place to replace the targeted buildings. To date some of these sites remain as open spaces.[12]

A 17th-century cottage at Brandy Row was one of the last of many hundreds of its kind on Portland. It was partially demolished, however the lower half of the building still remains, and is now in use as a fisherman's store.[13] A mirror found in Portland Museum was once in the upstairs room of a cottage in Chiswell when it got flooded, and traces of where the seawater rose can still be seen.[14]

In 1935 local residents drew up a petition of 165 signatures, demanding sea defences to be put in place to protect the village. The council agreed to take boreholes, and soon after a £33,000 defence scheme was created. However a lack of funds meant the plans did not come to fruition, as both the government and the Crown Estate refused to contribute. By this point 20 feet of cliff at Brandy Row had disappeared in only 30 years, and at Chesil Cove the natural banking between the village and the sea was becoming more eroded and weakened. In 1936 King Edward VIII made an appearance on the island to inspect the naval base. However his journey to the island on train had coincided with a flood. The king had to spend a night in his flood-bound carriage at the Victoria Square station. The incident sparked further pressure from village residents for sea defences.[15]

With the important naval base, Portland was a natural target for German aircraft during the war, and Chiswell had various cases of raids and bombings. The first air-attack of Portland, on 11 August 1940, saw a ten-minute raid by 50 German planes, and a number of cottages within the village were destroyed.[16] During early 1941 air-raid sirens would sound almost continuously during the night. One enemy plane was struck in March 1941 by AA fire from Castletown. This plane crashed in a builder's yard at Chiswell. In December 1942 the hardships that war had put on the local community was dramatically increased when a large-scale flood hit Victoria Square and the village. A number of houses were damaged, including protecting walls on the beach side of the houses. 150 houses were affected in total, and many residents were trapping in the higher levels of their homes to escape the flooding. The war effort meant that limited relief could be supplied, despite a relief fund being organised, and many residents lost good proportions of their possessions.

During 1942 the engineers Coode & Partners were approached to create a scheme to solve the village's flooding issues. The firm confirmed what had already been determined by local residents - the Admiralty and the Railway Company had caused flooding effects to be greater by filling-in the natural floodwater outlet of The Mere. This tidal lagoon was reclaimed for naval development, and was situated between the village and the southern edge of Portland Harbour. Coode & Partners devised a defence scheme, however again the project had to be put on hold due to lack of funds available, particularly with the ongoing war effort.[17]

Construction of sea wall, and flood defences[edit]

By the 1950s the council decided to make a start on construction the planned sea defences. In 1958 work started on the expansive sea wall. Even during construction the wall's strength at holding back high waves was seen to be a successful defence for the village. In efforts to save on construction costs the council decided not to add steel piling to the wall, despite engineers in 1945 stressing that these were essential. However when a 1962 storm left a hole under the foundations, these piling were quickly added. Atop the sea wall a promenade was laid, covering the distance along the beach from The Cove House Inn to West Weares, at the point where Chesil Beach ends. The promenade immediately proved itself a successful attraction, and it quickly became one of Portland's most popular recreational areas. The sea wall was completed in 1965, and not only did the wall protect Chiswell from storms, but it also stabilised a landslide at West Weares. A large mass of land had started sliding towards the sea when the stabilisation works were carried out, and this prevented Priory Corner and below as far down as Underhill Junior School from the danger of collapsing.[18]

Although the protective measures of the wall were great, particularly violent storms were still successful in breaching the beach beyond the defence. Within this region a large part of the village was still unprotected. In both December 1978 and February 1979, two major floods saw cars "tossed around like toys", and international attention focused on the village, as the flooding effects were shown on televisions across the world. A new look of neglect and dereliction followed within the village, as the damage was extensive. In May 1981 the Government minister appeared on the island, and made the announcement on the beach that a £2 million grant was being put towards new protection works. This joint £5 million Wessex Water Authority, and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council scheme started in 1983.[19] These highly innovative defence works brought further stability and confidence to the Chiswell community. The scheme was completed in 1986 and has been tested several times under the one in five year event, the storm surge.[20] The work featured the raising of Portland's Beach Road by one metre, and a huge drainage system that collects vast amounts of water pouring over the beach, and then carries it out into Portland Harbour in the east.[21] In addition to this wire-mesh baskets filled with pebbles were added to the ridge of the beach during the 1970s, and later in the 1990s. The sea wall was reinforced during the 1980s as a precautionary measure.[22]

In December 1989, the Cove House Inn suffered major damage in a storm, despite the installation of new sea defences shortly beforehand. After the storm, the pub remained forlorn for a short time, but managed to reopen three months later, as the building's basic structure still remained in good condition.[22] In January 1990 another storm hit Chesil Cove and the sea overwhelmed the defensive wall. A great deal of damage was caused and the mainland was cut off from Portland. Those who were stranded in the mainland from Portland had to spend the night as refugees in Budmouth School.[23]

The violent storms across the south-west of England in early 2014 caused flooding in the village, which received a lot of national and international attention.[24] The residents in the village remained on standby after flood sirens sounded for the first time in 30 years in early January 2014.[25] Following this work commenced on restructuring the beach, while repairs of the flood defences were carried out too.[26]

Commercial business[edit]

The Cove House Inn and part of the esplanade.
Chiswell Cottages

The village of Chiswell has various commercial businesses in place. The houses and shops in Chiswell have experienced many changes of ownership over the years. In some cases they changed use but others were converted to houses or even fishermen's stores.[23]

Aside from The Cove House Inn and The Little Ship pubs, one that no longer exists was the Lord Clyde Inn which suffered bombing damage in World War 2 and was demolished shortly after as a result.[27] The Bluefish Cafe and Restaurant is also close to Chesil Beach and lies within Chiswell, serving fish dishes as a specialty.[28] The restaurant was once the Dap and General cafe. For many years the Fresh Fish shop was found next to the restaurant at Pebble Lane, but closed in 2011.[23][29] At the southern end of Chiswell, where the road leads to the esplanade, a garage on the road was once the home of the Weymouth Perfume Company until the 1980s.[14] Around the 1980s, both Stone's Shoe Shop and the Royal Standard Pub sat at the back of Baker's Ground, however both closed, with the former closing in 1989.[23]

Within Chiswell is the hairdresser and artistic hair designers Elite Hairworks,[30] a craft/gift shop and the Chinese Food House - now known as the Golden Bridge.[31] The Indian restaurant Balti Island has had various changes over the last decades. Once a Chinese takeaway named The China Chef in the late 1980s, it was the Akash Indian Take-Away until it closed in 2002. In June 2003 it became The Kohinoor Cafe and in 2004 it became Cafe India, before finally in 2009 it transformed to the Balti Island. Close to the takeaway was once Blue Ribbon Trophies that was open around the late 1980s. Also close by was Artsmiths printing works, which was victim of a runaway lorry which smashed into the print shop section in the late 1980s. The certain part of the building was unoccupied and so no injuries occurred. The extension part of the building was never rebuilt after the accident and the main building was converted into a house.[14]

Portland Joinery Ltd is based in Chiswell, who have provided joinery products and service to individual clients, house builders and contractors for over 50 years.[32] The company was once based in Conjurer's Lodge. Accommodation in the area includes The Beach House bed and breakfast, which was built in the early 1800s.[33]

A church is also located in the area: The United Reformed Church. It was founded in 1825 when the people of Chiswell banded together and converted a barn and stable into a place of worship. In 2009 it was to close, despite its congregation's attempt to save it.[34] Nearby the old "Agnes Weston" Hostel was once open in the 19th century. Agnes Weston was a 19th-century lady who provided hostels for every naval port for the pastoral care of men of the Royal Navy. The hostel later became a pub before being closed for good.[35]


Chiswell Walled Garden

The Chiswell Walled Garden is found within the walls of an old house that remains in ruin. The garden was made during the period 2001 to 2006 by the Chiswell Community Trust, with funding from Countryside Agency under their Doorstep Green Initiative. It is maintained by volunteer members of the Trust and is open to the public.[36]

Also managed by the Chiswell Community Trust is Chiswell Earthworks, a land sculpture created by John Maine RA, between 1986 and 1993, located at the end of the promenade sea wall, towards West Weares, and at the end of Chesil Beach.

The village has held the annual November Portland Fair for many decades. The area which became a housing estate named Baker's Ground in the late 20th century was once the main site of the Portland Fair. According to a letter in an issue of the Free Portland News in 2010, the large area of Baker's Ground was a builders yard in Victorian times and was bought by John and Ann Orton who would travel around the country with horses and caravans to try their hand at many pursuits. They once set up a theatre at Baker's Ground in the early part of the 20th century and put on plays with music and 'magic lantern' shows. The site remained un-used until the housing construction.[23]

Grade listed features[edit]

Chiswell has a wide array of architecture and buildings, a number of which are Grade Listed.


At Brandy Lane, a number of notable buildings exist. 185 Brandy Lane became Grade II Listed in November 1977, and dates from the early 19th century. It is one of three cottages built probably after the destruction caused in the area by the great storm of 1824.[37] Originally two dwellings covering 187 and 189 Brandy Row is Fisherman's Cottage, dating from early 19th century. It has been Grade II Listed since September 1978.[38] A cottage adjoining the east side of 189, has been Grade II Listed since the same time.[39] In July 1975, 193 Brandy Lane became Grade II Listed, dating from the 19th century as well.[40] The pair of houses, 195 and 197 Brandy Row, have also been Grade II Listed since the same time, and date from the same period too.[41] 199 Brandy Row is a former small house(s), now derelict and used as stores/workshops instead. The building probably dates from the mid to late 18th century. Today the two units complete a significant surviving row, and are earlier than the remainder.[42] Much of Brandy Lane's row of houses were built or rebuilt following the destruction in the area caused by the great storm of 1824.

86 Chiswell dates from early-to-mid 19th century, and was designated Grade II in September 1978.[43] 90 and 92, Chiswell, a pair of houses, have 17th century origins, but were raised and refronted in the late 19th century. They became Grade II Listed in May 1993.[44] 120 Chiswell, an early 19th century house, with parts of earlier origins, steps down the steep incline in High Street, and the return front faces down into Chiswell, holding an important position in the townscape. It became Grade II Listed in July 1975.[45] 139 Chiswell, and its boundary wall, became Grade II Listed at the same time. The detached house dates from the early to mid 18th century but has been much modified since. The interior in particular is believed to be completely altered, but the house still offers external evidence of its early provenance, and holds a key position visually at the south end of Chiswell.[46] The workshop adjoining 46 Chiswell became Grade II Listed in July 1975, but this did not include No. 46 itself. The workshop/store has been dated to the 19th century, but is possibly of earlier origin. The small single-storey building is a rare survival of this building type in an area of later rebuilding.[47] The two cottages Dolphin and Neptune, along with the attached rear boundary wall, became Grade II Listed in May 1993. They were probably formerly one property, dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. The cottages, now rather isolated, may be one of the survivals from the great storm of 1824 which caused extensive damage in the low-set area.[48]

The Captain's House, located at the bottom of Mallams, just on the boundary of Fortuneswell and Chiswell, has been subject to local stories for many years. It stood in ruin for over one hundred years before being renovated in the late 1990s. Two stories about the history of the unfinished house have been speculated. One story stated that the house belonged to a sea captain who was building the house from him and his fiancée, but her death left the house unfinished in his grief. The second story is that the house once belonged to Dr Motyer who was known for exploiting the local's ignorance of medicine over a century ago. The house, together with the attached wall to the south east, has been a Grade II listed building since September 1978.[49]

Conjuror's and Ranter's Lodge[edit]

At Clement's Lane is the Conjurer's Lodge, a late 18th-century or early 19th-century workshop. A chapel within the building was initially set up in 1816 when Rev. Francis Derry came to Portland to investigate allegations that the local Methodists were witchcraft believers. Roughly fifty of the locals were expelled from the church and so they worshiped in the upper floor of Conjurers Lodge for ten years until they were welcome back to the church.[23] It is a rare surviving example of this building type on Portland, which, like the village's Ranter's Lodge, has historical interest in tracing the development of non-conformity which was an important factor in the island's social history. In May 1993 the lodge became Grade II Listed.[50] Ranter's Lodge, and its enclosing wall, has been Grade II Listed since January 1987. A small cottage with an outbuilding, it is also known as "The Dead House". It dates from the late 18th or early 19th century, built as a fishing store/boat house, until it was altered for use as Methodist chapel. At the time of survey in May 1991, the buildings was seemingly abandoned and deteriorating.[51] However as of 2014, the lodge had been converted into a self-contained artist studio with accommodation.[52]

Public houses[edit]

The Cove House Inn has sat next to Chesil Beach and right at the sea front since the 18th century, and remains one of Portland's most popular pubs.[53] The inn has played a prominent part in the saga of shipwrecks on this part of the coast, particularly in the infamous Avalanche and Forest disaster of 1877. Many important meetings were also held here in the 19th century. It became Grade II Listed in May 1993.[54] The Little Ship, and the Royal Victoria Hotel, both in Victoria Square, became Grade II Listed in May 1993 too.[55][56]


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