The History of Cowes
Westcowe was, in 1413, the name of one of two sandbanks on each side of the River Medina estuary. They were given this name because they were thought to resemble cows. The name was used for fortifications built there by Henry VIII . The forts built along on the east and west banks of the river to dispel a French invasion where known as as Cowforts or Cowes. This is the origin of the names for the two settlements that arose at Cowes and East Cowes, a place once known as East and West Shamblord.
These defences weren’t just a fanciful show of power and the French did attempt to invade the Isle of Wight . Cowes West Fort survives to this day, minus its original Tudor towers, and is now known as Cowes Castle. The eastern fort has long since disappeared. An 80 ton, 60 man vessel called Rat O'Wight was built on the banks of the river Medina in 1589 for Queen Elizabeth I . These are the origins of what was to become a world-renowned centre of boat-building excellence. East Cowes is separated from its sister town, Cowes, by the River Medina and is well know for its industrial heritage. The nearby Osborne House was a favoured residence of Queen Victoria . Today, the town hosts the terminal for the Southampton car ferry.
J.S. White's shipyard was originally founded in 1881 and went on to dominate the East Cowe’s industrial heritage until its closure in 1966. The company counted the Royal Navy as one of their best customers and it was also the site where, from 1959 until the 1980s, the hovercraft were developed and manufactured. Saunders Roe had the Columbine Shed erected in East Cowes in 1935. It was used to build sea planes and manufactured the world’s largest ever metal seaplane; The Princess. A giant Union Jack was painted on the door in 1977 in celebration of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II . The Columbine shed is today owned by GKN Aerospace Services.
The Isle of Wight’s proximity to Southampton and Portsmouth , and East Cowes role in shipbuilding, made it a target in World War II . An air raid of World War II saw action from the Polish destroyer Blyskawica which had previously been built by White’s in East Cowes. The ship, moored off Cowes, put up stiff resistance to the Luftwaffe’s attentions. Their bravery was commemorated in 2002 by celebrations lasting several days that marked the 60th anniversary of the event. Francki Place in Cowes was so-named 2004 in honour of the ship's commander.
The chain ferry floating bridge that connects the two Cowes is one of only a handful still operating in the UK. Norris Castle, designed in the Norman style by James Wyatt in the late eighteenth century, is still a private home. In 1798 architect John Nash started work on East Cowes Castle which was notable for its Gothic towers, turrets and its elaborate castellation. Nash died in 1835 and was buried in the tower of East Cowes Church which he also designed. Sadly, his great building was demolished during the 1960s.
It was during the reign of keen sailor George IV that Cowes began its career as 'The Yachting Capital of the World'. 1826 was the year that the Royal Yacht Squadron organised a three-day regatta for the first time. The King attended the next year and presented a cup at an event that was to become known as Cowes Regatta. The event is now one of the most important on the international sailing calendar, making the humble little town of Cowes world famous. During the Cowes Week the population of the town swells several-fold.