The very word “Blackgang” has a legendary ring about it, summoning up visions of smugglers, shipwrecks and wild storm lashed shores.
In 1800 Blackgang Chine was a steep gaunt ravine situated some 500 feet above the sea overlooking Chale Bay, on the S.W. tip of the Isle of Wight. Stretching some three quarters of a mile down to the shore, it was a wild and desolate place – frequented by none other than local fishermen, during the mackerel season. There were also rumours of a thriving smuggling trade!
Blackgang in 1840.
In about 1823, Alexander Dabell, his sisters and parents, all arrived on the Isle of Wight. Born in Nottingham to William and Martha in 1808, he and his family accompanied Mr. Nunn and others to start a lace-making factory in Newport.
Here he worked as a lad with his father who was a master of the art. After his apprenticeship he went to London as a shop and sales assistant, returning to Newport to open his first business in the High Street in about 1830.
He was a man who saw himself as a pioneer, an early settler in “this far flung barbarous clime” and above all, a man out to seek his fortune. Victorians were eagerly seeking out new health and holiday resorts, and the railway network was getting ever closer to the south coast.
Alexander recognised the business potential of what was happening, particularly as there was a newly opened chalybeate spring at Blackgang! Alexander’s entrepreneurial spirit soon had him trying a number of different business ventures, including hair-cutting, selling hair oil by promoting the product, using a chained bear and walking round Island towns and establishing gift shop outlets in Newport,Sandown and Shanklin.
By 1839 he had met and become friends with a publican who had recently built a new hotel at Blackgang. This is now a large cafeteria, and administration offices.
Development of the Park
Alexander studied the gaunt and awe – inspiring chine gorge, and knew immediately that he could create gardens here, which would appeal to the romantic Victorians!
By 1842, he had concluded a lease – some say that he purchased an amount of land measured by his ability to throw a stone – and he opened the Chine to the public. Pathways were built down the ravine, through previous rough terrain, gardens were landscaped on top of the cliffs, and steps were constructed to the beach from the lower road.
But this was not enough to make Blackgang a fascinating place to visit. In 1842 a huge fin whale had been stranded off the Needles, and Alexander saw his chance.
He bought it at auction, sold off the blubber, had the bones bleached, and transported across the island to a specially built hut, in which he displayed the skeleton to the morbid curiosity of all who visited.
A gift bazaar was also opened with great success. Amelia, his wife helped in all aspects of the business and so “The Blackgang Experience” had begun.
The Isle of Wight became one of the top seaside resorts of Britain, and Blackgang Chine shared in that popularity, as thousands of Victorian and Edwardian families enjoyed their annual holidays on the Island.
The Chine gardens increased in size and style, but remained scenic in nature. Alexander died in 1898, by which time his son Walter was managing the park.
Coastal erosion was already very much in evidence, the lower road having been carried away in the 1890′s and the last path down to the beach washed away in 1913.
By the 1920′s Bruce, Walter’s son had joined the business and continued to run the business as the growth in coach holiday tours dramatically changed the face of the island tourism. By the 1950′s Dick Dabell, one of Bruce’s two sons was also helping to run the business.
In 1967, Dick visited the USA and was inspired by Disney and others at theming their parks. This inspiration resulted in the development if Dinosaurland, Frontierland & Nurseryland during the 1970′s.
By the late 1980′s, further dramatic landslips were threatening the park and the company started to look for a second site to operate. In 1993, Robin Hill was acquired and has since been developed into a successful countryside adventure park. Blackgang Chine continues to be popular with young families and despite coastal erosion, will continue to delight the child in us all for many years to come.