The first known settlements in the Cowes area were created by Vikings, who during the 11th Century used the Medina River as a base for raids along the South Coast of England. They established a settlement on the west bank of the river, roughly opposite where the Folly Inn is today, and it is believed they may have used it as a winter quarters.
The earliest recording of a village on the site of Cowes itself dates from 1303. The two parts of the villages were called East and West Shamblord, with the larger settlement being on the eastern bank of the Medina River.
The names Estcowe and Westcowe emerged just over a century later in 1413, as the names of two sandbanks on either side of the Medina estuary. Apparently the sandbanks were shaped like cows.
Throughout this period the Island was subject to invasion attempts by the French and in 1539 Henry VIII built castles on both sides of the mouth of the river. The names of the sandbanks were gradually transferred to the fortifications and then to the villages themselves. The castle on the East side was abandoned in 1546 after a peace treaty with France, the castle on the West side continued to be occupied by the military until 1854 when it was acquired by the Royal Yacht Squadron.
From Tudor times onwards, the village on the East bank became known as East Cowes. The village on the western side was variously know as West Cowes or simply Cowes. The matter wasn’t settled until 1895 when the name was officially changed to Cowes.
The world’s most famous sailing centre
The town became the world’s first yachting centre with the foundation of the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1815. As the name implies, the club has been intimately linked with the Royal family for two centuries. George IV, then Prince Regent, became a member in 1817. Queen Victoria’s son, Edward
VII was commodore of the club and his son George V was also a member. Today the royal connection is maintained by the Queen as its Patron, the Duke of Edinburgh as its Admiral and Princess Anne as a member. Other royal members include The King of Norway, Prince Rainier of Monaco, The Aga Khan and King Constantine of Greece.
When the German Kaiser brought his yacht Thistle to Cowes in 1892 it spurred Edward VII to build the first Royal Yacht Britannia, which became one of the most successful racing yachts of all time. His son George V was also a passionate sailor and loved Britannia so much that his dying wish was that the yacht should follow him to the grave. So in July 1936, after Britannia had been stripped of her spars and fittings, her hull was towed out to St Catherine’s Deep on the south side of the Island and she was sunk by HMS Winchester.
The Royal Yacht Squadron organised yacht racing and its annual regatta, started in 1826, grew into what became known as Cowes Week. Until World War I, big cutters and ‘raters’ were raced by gentlemen amateurs employing skippers and crew. Later cruiser handicap classes were added together with more modest keelboats and local one-designs.
After World War II there was a revival of big ocean going yachts, especially after the first Admiral's Cup in 1957. Today Cowes Week typically sees up to forty races per day with up to 1,000 boats and around 8,000 competitors. Sailing activities are complemented by a large number of onshore events including live music and cocktail parties.
Marquees are erected on the Esplanade and in the marinas serving food and drink. The festival atmosphere attracts around 100,000 visitors throughout the week and culminates in a fireworks display over the water. This has occurred for more than 150 years and hundreds of boats drop anchor around the town to get the best waterside view
Immediately following Cowes Week is one of the world’s most famous and challenging sailing races, the Fastnet race. It takes place every other year and boats race from Cowes, around the Fastnet lighthouse off the Irish coast, and finish in Plymouth. Another famous sailing event is Round the Island Race which takes place early in the summer. Boats race west from Cowes, around the Island and back to Cowes for the finish. The first race in 1931 had 25 entries but now it regularly attracts up to 1800 boats.
The world’s most bizarre cricket match
Each year the world’s most bizarre cricket match takes place on the Brambles Bank in the middle of the Solent. In a tradition dating from the 1950’s, the Island Sailing Club of Cowes and the Royal Southern Yacht Club from Hamble play cricket on the sandbank that is exposed by the lowest tides. The undulating surface and large puddles present unique challenges and the game has a natural end as the tide returns. But this does not affect the result, as the two clubs take it in turns to win the game, usually by a single run.
The match has been described as "quintessentially English" and has even drawn the attention of the House of Commons, where it was mentioned as an example of events that fall between the boundaries of two different licensing authorities. Tug of War matches and Morris dancing have also been staged on the Brambles Bank.
Cowes Industrial Heritage
The history of Cowes is steeped in maritime heritage. Cowes has a long and illustrious reputation as an industrial town that specialised firstly in boat building, but which also diversified into aircraft technologies and manufacturing.
The sail makers Ratsey and Lapthorn were established in 1790 and supplied sails, initially to the nearby shipyards and later to racing yachts. Some of the most famous super yachts of the golden age of sail were powered by Ratsey and Lapthorn sails. Their Portland stone sail loft in Medina Road dates from 1543 and is still occupied by the firm. The building was originally used as an arsenal and later housed French prisoners of war during the Napoleanic wars. Ratsey and Lapthorn were the first company in Cowes to get a telephone and so had the number Cowes 1.
From 1832 onwards many naval ships were built at the shipyards, then owned by Whites, located on both sides of the river just south of the Chain Ferry. Ships built by Whites include the Grom and Blyskawica, built in 1935 for the Polish Navy. They were acknowledge as two of the finest Super Destroyers in the world. Amongst the ships built after the war were two cross channel ferries, but large scale shipbuilding ended in 1965 following the completion of HMS Arethusa.
Ship building and repairs continues to this day on a smaller scale. The Redjet fast catamarans that ferry passengers from Cowes to Southampton were built in Cowes and a new Redjet was recently constructed in Cowes.
Boat builders in Cowes were quick to embrace the opportunities that the developing aircraft industries offered and through the first half of the last century flying boats and seaplanes were built at Cowes. This culminated in the construction at Vectis Quays of the largest ever built all-metal flying boat in 1952. Alas it was the start of the jet age and large scale flying boats were no longer commercially viable and the Saunders-Roe Princess 45 never went into service.
Fortunately the company’s next venture was much more successful and led to Cowes being hailed as the home of the hovercraft. The world's first practical hovercraft, designed by Sir Christopher Cockerell and built by Saunders-Roe, first flew in Cowes on 11 June 1959.
The giant of British industry, Saunders Roe, built the famous Columbine Shed in East Cowes in 1935. The company built many sea planes including the largest ever metal seaplane The Princess.
Today, the shed is publicly-owned but remains home to cutting edge technology such as the innovative Vestas Sailrocket 2 which broke the outright World Speed Sailing Record in 2012. The giant Union Flag was originally painted on the doors in 1977 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II; it was restored to its former glory to celebrate a truly historic British year on the occasion of HM The Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
The hero Polish warship
Cowes during the 2nd World War As a shipbuilding and repair centre, Cowes was a strategic target for German bombing and suffered badly in a series of raids in May 1942. During the raid on the night of 4th May 1942, the Polish destroyer Błyskawica was undergoing an emergency refit at the White’s where she was built.
Her crew was able to defend the town with firing so fierce that additional ammunition had to be ferried over from Portsmouth and her overheated guns doused with water. This forced the bombers to stay high, making it hard for them to target properly. Blyskawica also laid down a smokescreen to hide the town from sight.
Undoubtedly the ship saved Cowes from even worse damage and the courage of the crew has been honoured by a plaque in the town. In 2004 Francki Place in Cowes was named after the ship's captain. Cowes also played an important part in the D-Day invasion of 1944.
The Royal Yacht Squadron Served as the headquarters for part of the invasion force. The chalets at Gurnard Pines were earmarked for use as emergency hospital accommodation for wounded evacuated form the invasion – fortunately they were not needed. Osborne House however continued to act as a convalescent home for officers as it had since World War 1.
For more information about the history of Cowes, as well as great place to eat and stay, visit Destination Cowes.