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FADED GLORY. The Story of Cliff House.


The Story of Cliff House

(Drawn from original and other primary sources held in the Ventnor and District Local Historical Society “VDLHS”,

the IW County Records Office and newspaper archives)

Compiled by Robert Carter

1. The Background

By a Lease dated 20th December 1840, the Rev. James White and his wife Rosa granted a lease of the land on which Cliff House and the Bonchurch Inn now stand of 99 years from 1840 to 1939 to one Jonathan Jolliffe, this lease being granted, “by virtue of the power to them given by an Act of Parliament passed in the sixth year of the reign of His Late Majesty King William the Fourth…to grant building leases.”

William IV (William Henry; 21 August 1765 – 20 June 1837) was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover from 26 June 1830 until his death in 1837. The Act of Parliament referred to was therefore passed in 1836 - (6 & 7) Vict.). c. 27 -Reverend James White's and others' estates: confirming two leases and enabling the surrender of leases and the grant of new leases of estates in Bonchurch (Isle of Wight) (Hampshire).

2. James White

What do we know about JAMES WHITE (1803–1862)?

He was an, author, born in Midlothian in March 1803, was the younger son of John White of Dunmore in the county of Stirling, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Logan of Howden in Midlothian. After studying at Glasgow University he matriculated from Pembroke College, Oxford, on 15 Dec. 1823, graduating B.A. in 1827. He served as curate of Hartest-cum-Boxsted in Suffolk, and on 27 March 1833 he was instituted vicar of Loxley in Warwickshire.

Ultimately, on succeeding to a considerable patrimony on the death of his wife's father, he resigned his living and retired to Bonchurch in the Isle of Wight. In this retreat he turned his attention to literature, in which he had already made some essays, producing between 1845 and 1847 a succession of Scottish historical tragedies, works of some merit, though only moderately successful. Another tragedy, ‘John Savile of Haystead’ (London, 1847, 8 vo), was acted at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1847.

He married in 1839 Rosa, only daughter of Colonel Popham Hill who had owned the lands comprising Bonchurch manor and then embarked on a series of legal manoeuvres to overturn a clause in his father-in-law's will forbidding breaking up the estate, thus leading to wholesale development of Bonchurch from the 1830s. By her he had one son, James (1841–1888), and three daughters. White possessed a charming style, and interested his readers by his clearness of thought and his ability in selecting and arranging detail.

He was the friend of Charles Dickens, who in 1849 took Winterbourne, a house at Bonchurch, for some months in order to be near him. One of his tragedies was dedicated to Dickens. His portrait was painted in 1850 by Robert Scott Lauder. The Rev. James White, lived at Upper Mount, and later at Woodlynch. Here he entertained several literary celebrities, including Dickens, Thackeray and Tennyson, and these hilarious parties, with their gin punch, were probably the cause of Dickens' biliousness, for which he blames the "smashing" climate of Bonchurch.

So, the Bonchurch estate, belonging to Mrs. Rosa White, was put up for sale in 1836 and passed to different owners or lessees, of which Jolliffe was only one. The rest can be seen on the map annexed as Appendix 1 which is taken from a short unpublished book in the IW County Records Office called, “The Development of the Undercliff at Bonchurch during the First Half of the 19th Century” by Peter Brett (January 1967).

3. The Jolliffe Lease of 1840

This lease contained an obligation on Jolliffe, “to build within 18 months a messuage or dwelling house or detached villa with all necessary and commodious offices, outbuildings and other conveniences to cost at least £800.”

(£800 in 1840 is equivalent to £83,344.14 in today’s money according to the Bank of England Inflation calculator.)

The original Cliff House was duly built by Jolliffe, therefore, between 1841 and June 1842 and was in all probability built from locally quarried stone from the Pitts, called Bonchurch Stone. This is a massive, pale-grey to pale-buff coloured variety of Ventnor Stone which is only slightly glauconitic. It was quarried only at Bonchurch and saw mainly used as ashlar or roughly squared blocks in buildings and boundary walls in the Bonchurch and Ventnor area, and in some churches elsewhere on the Isle, for example at Freshwater.

4. Building completed by Jolliffe - Assignment to Ribbands of 1842

In July 1842, there is an assignment of the original Leasehold title. Jolliffe (described as a carpenter) assigns it to Henry Ribbands (“of Ryde”, described as a dairyman) for £1300.

(£1,300 in 1840 is equivalent to ££135,434.23 in today’s money according to the Bank of England Inflation calculator. We know that carpenter Henry and his ill-fated son took out several mortgages during the lifetime of the Hotel – see Appendix 3, “Mr. H. R Ribbands and His Affairs.”)

Together with this assignment, there is an Indenture dated 25th July 1842 by which James and Rosa White consent to the opening of the building as an hotel, inn or licensed victualler and covenant not to allow the establishment of any other hotel on their lands in Bonchurch.

5. Henry Buttle Ribbands

What do we know about Henry Buttle Ribbands? From the 1861 Census, he was a “hotel keeper”, born in 1797 in Belaugh, Norfolk, married to Mary, a year his junior, born in Shillington, Dorset. He was to have 4 daughters all unmarried in 1861 – Elizabeth (28), Emma A (20), Lucy M (17) and Fanny L (“Ethel”) (16), all then living in Ryde or Bonchurch. A son, Henry Buttle Ribbands and then 2 grand-daughters, Mary and Lola, and 2 grandsons - Henry Sydney Buttle Ribbands (born 1874) (see Appendix No.2) and Stephen Edgar (born 1877) (see paragraph 11)

Here’s Henry Ribbands’ signature on the Deeds:-

Here’s the Tithe map of the area in 1843

(annotated by Sue Lowday, see Bonchurch Blog, Maps):-

And here’s what the hotel looked like then:-

6. Reaction to the Developments

The well-known artist, illustrator and engraver, George Brannon of Wootton, was in two minds about it all between 1840 and 1855:-

Formerly this was one of the most romantic scenes in the island, but has lately been converted into a fashionable village. Amidst a profusion of new houses, more or less tasty in their style — a villa called East Dene, and the neighbouring old Church, are all that will here particularly call the stranger from the carriage road.

In the year 1834, this beautiful spot was advertised to be sold off in small lots for building 18 or 20 villas! — a circumstance much regretted by the admirers of the peculiar scenery of the Undercliff, which was exhibited here in its utmost perfection. Nearly the whole of the land is now disposed of; some of the houses were built for the purpose of letting lodgings; one has been opened as a first-rate Hotel ; but the greater number are private residences, — and certainly it must prove a most enviable retreat for families and invalids during the winter months. It is impossible for any spot to be better adapted for a number of houses being built in a comparatively small compass: for the whole of the ground is so romantically tossed about by the sportive hand of Nature, presenting here a lofty ridge of rocks, there a woody dell adorned with a purling stream or a limpid pool, that most of the houses are completely hid from each other's view.

From the bad taste which too generally prevails — we mean the vanity of glare, — the affectation of elegance — so frequently carried out at the expense of all propriety, we were not without apprehension, that many of the gentry at Bonchurch would also neglect the essential rule, that the peculiar character of every scene demands an APPROPRIATE STYLE in building and decoration; for it avails little to have ivy mantled rocks and mossy cliffs, the sunny knoll and the shaded glen, with their groves and streams, — if the Genius of the place be not consulted, and HARMONY made the rule of every innovation and improvement. In a word, it is too often in building as in dress, that many persons resort to show and refinement as the surest means of attracting the world's admiration for their superior taste and rank! But in justice to the Gentlemen who have located in this fairy-land, we must acknowledge that they for the most part avoided (as far as was possible) disturbing the natural beauties of the place, and have studied to make their happy retreats... - George Brannon, Brannon's Picture of the Isle of Wight, 1855

7. Success & Ownership

Henry Ribbands becomes an extremely successful hotelier and his hotel is recognised internationally. The Bonchurch Hotel is widely advertised for the next 50 years.

On 31st December 1870, Rosa White sells the freehold to Henry Ribbands:-

In June 1872, Rosa White sells an additional garden to Henry Buttle Ribbands.

With these original deeds which are held by the Isle of Wight County Records Office, there is the undated map shown below, which is probably the hotel and grounds in their final form in 1872. Note that the hotel now comprises a very large block built to include the central area now demolished between Cliff House and Cliff Mansions:-

In 1863:-

After 1863, (note differences in artist’s interpretation and the rear sections):-

8. Famous visitors

American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow nicknamed 'The Lion' visited Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson at his home Farringford House on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom during 15-18 July, 1868. He was accompanied by his two sisters, brother-in-law, 3 daughters, son, and daughter-in-law. The Longfellow clan stayed at the Plumbly's Hotel and then Henry Ribbands' Bonchurch Hotel.

Many other famous and socially elevated guests came and went, Kings, Lords, Earls, Dukes, Marquises, Marchionesses, Duchesses, Countesses etc., their movements all dutifully recorded in the “Fashionable Lists” of the local newspapers and are far too numerous to include here.

In 1875:-

In 1876:-

In 1880:-

And a little more ivy-covered:-

9. Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie, the American billionaire philanthropist and one of the richest at the time, stayed at Ribbands’ Hotel with his new wife Louise on his honeymoon in 1887. The first destination of the pair was Bonchurch, on the Isle of Wight. They reached this beautiful resort on the second of May. Mrs. Carnegie was charmed with the place, with its beautiful hotel, its walks, its literary and historic associations, above all with its wild flowers. Andrew Carnegie recalled in his Autobiography: "Her delight was intense in finding the wild flowers. She had read of wandering willie, heartsease, forget-me-nots, the primrose, the wild thyme, and the whole list of homely names that had been to her only names till now. Everything charmed her."

She wrote her mother the day after reaching the Island: I must send you the first English wild flowers I have gathered . . . . We arrived at this delightful spot last evening. You should see us at our meals in our cosy parlor, with grate fire burning, bright flowers everywhere and such a glorious view of the sea from our windows. We can sit at table and look out to sea at the ships crossing to France. This morning after breakfast we took a lovely walk, first around the grounds of the hotel, which are beautiful beyond description, where the first thing which attracted our attention was the American flag, floating from a high knoll near the house-of course in our honor, announcing our arrival. It was most touching, I can assure you. We visited the little Bonchurch, the smallest in England, with 88 its beautiful, peaceful churchyard, where many noted men lie buried. A most interesting elderly woman in charge gave us most of the flowers I enclose. The blue flower, which we have always called myrtle, is really the periwinkle, while the English myrtle is a shrub-this small fine leaf-and has a white flower. The season is backward, yet there is the greatest profusion of flowers, everywhere; the primroses and wallflowers growing wild would delight you beyond everything. This afternoon we took a long drive, visiting another part of the coast, and walking through a most beautiful glen called Shanklin Chine-Chine means glen or valley. Everything is so delightfully quaint.”

10. 1891 Census

From the 1891 Census return, we see that the Ribbands family had then, in their heyday, grown considerably, Henry the elder (now widowed), a year before his death, living in his house at The Mount with his immediate family, their servants living in the “Tap” (now the Bonchurch Inn):-

11. From the late Fay Brown at the VDLHS

12. Disaster unexplained

The London Gazette of February 19th 1895 contains an entry for Henry Junior’s bankruptcy, as follows:

Ribbands, Henry Buttle Bonchurch Hotel, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight •. Hotel Proprietor No 22 of 1892 Date of Order. Jan. 9, 1895 ' Discharge suspended for two years Grounds named in Order for refusing an Absolute Order of Discharge. Bankrupt's assets are not of a value equal to 10s. in the pound on the' amount of his unsecured liabilities; that he had omitted to keep such books of account as are usual and proper in the business carried on by him, and as sufficiently disclose his business transactions and financial position within the three years preceding bis bankruptcy; and had failed to account satisfactorily for the deficiency of assets to meet his liabilities. Creditors could expect no more than 5¼ pennies in the pound.

There is appended as Appendix No 3 a fascinating account of the Examination in Bankruptcy of Henry Junior in the Isle of Wight County Press of 4th February and 4th March 1893 from which it will be seen that Henry had managed the affairs of the Bonchurch Hotel (and other hotels) for a long time since his father had become old and infirm, letting affairs slide badly through his negligence and financial carelessness.

13. Suicide

In the same year, his bankruptcy undischarged, depressed, hopeless and ashamed, Henry Junior commits suicide.

From 23 March 1895 - Isle of Wight Observer - Ryde, Isle of Wight:-

14. Auction

So, on 27th July 1898, the hotel and its grounds are put up for auction:-

Note that the hotel still comprises a very large block built to include the central area now demolished between Cliff House and Cliff Mansions.

15. Notes from the late Fay Brown of the VDLHS:-

16. 1901 sale by Miss Ribbands to Jolliffe’s son

On 26th September 1901, Miss E.A.Ribbands re-acquires the hotel under a Re-conveyance and then sells it to Jonathan’s son, Albert Jolliffe.

But not without some perilous local drama, as reported 2 days later in the Isle of Wight Observer 28th September 1901:-

So, in 1901, Jonathan’s son, Albert Jolliffe, takes it over and keeps it going until 1916:

Visitors Books 1901 to 1915

Ending with final entry for September 14th in 1915, one year into the First World War:-

After which Jolliffe signed up and the Hotel was closed (see post; paragraph 20). By 1923, Jonathan and his son are dead (Portsmouth Evening News 6th January 1923):-

So, back to Fay Brown’s account:-

17. The Vultures Gather - Sale of Furniture and Contents in 1916

From the Hampshire Telegraph and Post, Friday, September 1st 1916:-

18. 1921 Sale of the Hotel by Auction

Note that the hotel now comprises “Cliff Buildings” and “Cliff Mansions”, the central area now demolished between them. Why? The legend has it that there was a fire which destroyed the central section, but I can find nothing in any of the records to confirm this, even in the local newspapers, the Minutes of the Isle of Wight Rural District Committee (where fires in the district were regularly reported by the Ventnor Fire Brigade) and in the Ventnor Building Control register. It remains a mystery.

19. The Tap becomes the Bonchurch Inn

The Bonchurch Inn began life as the Tap of the Bonchurch Family Hotel. As we know, the history of this building goes back to the early 1840s to Bonchurch carpenter Jonathan Jolliffe.In the second photo: On the right of this image you can see the door to the original Bonchurch Tap room and on the left is the outside wall of where the stables were for the Bonchurch Hotel (photos courtesy of the Bonchurch Inn website).

The Tap continued in operation, becoming the Bonchurch Inn, the name appearing in Kelly’s Directory of 1924/25 under the management of one Martin Frank.

20. A Hotel buyer at last

By 1922, A. R Chamberlayne has bought the Hotel, sold the Stables and Tap to a Mr. Sprake and relinquished the Tap and his alcohol licence:-

On 7th February 1924, the Portsmouth Evening News reports that Chamberlayne’s application for an alcohol licence for the hotel is objected to by Sprake and is refused, commenting that Chamberlayne had explained that, “he had acquired the freehold premises after the war, during which they were closed and he afterwards sold the Hotel Tap, with the one (alcohol) licence, to Messrs. Sprake and that the Hotel, which catered for many leading visitors, was closed early in the war when Colonel Jolliffe, who carried it on, joined up. He had spent £3,000 on reconstructing the hotel which, however, would not meet the full demand without a licence. The Bench refused the application.”

The loss of the alcohol licence is followed by the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, the three combining no doubt to severely reduce the appeal of the hotel and the ability of its former elite clientele to pay for relatively expensive holidays on the Isle of Wight.

And then in 1932, A.R Chamberlayne has renamed the property from “Cliff Buildings” to “Cliff House” and converts it, letting it out as flats. The importance of the following Flat lease of number 8 is that number 8 is on the new second floor, which suggests strongly that the new floor was constructed in the very early 1930s:-

From Richard Smout at the Isle of Wight County Record Office, 26 Hillside, Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 2EB

“I have found a reference as early as October 1945, in electoral rolls to there being 9 flats in Cliff House, and so it seems likely that the conversion of the Bonchurch Hotel to flats was a good deal earlier than I had anticipated. In 1937/38 it is described as a board / residence under the name of Mrs Newberry, and it sounds as if it was offered as apartments to paying guests. In the 1937 electoral register 1, 4, and 8 Cliff House is mentioned. It therefore looks as if some of the subdivision was occurring prior to that date. Bonchurch properties only came under Ventnor UDC from 1933-74. Before that date they were part of the Isle of Wight Rural District. I have looked in the period from 1933-45 in the Ventnor Building Control register to see if there are any obvious references to this property over that timeframe, but I have not identified anything of relevance.”

21. So, what happened between 1932 and now?

Answer – not a lot.

Appendix No. 4 gives sample extracts from the Electoral Roll for the years 1939, 1950, 1960, 1970 and 1980 from which can be seen that Cliff House and Cliff Mansions were in continuous occupation during those years and we have to assume that this continued throughout the period as the buildings were generally neglected and fell into disrepair. Despite a thorough search, we can find no details of the freehold chain of title until the ownership by Genial Investments Limited in the early eighties, when 99-year leases were granted to all of the 9 flats in the building.

The general decline, neglect and disrepair of the state of the property changed from June 2009 when Cliff House (Bonchurch) Management Co. Ltd was set up by Ian White who then succeeded to enfranchise the freehold, granting long leases to most of the occupants (who were members of the company) and commencing the wholesale repair and refurbishment of Cliff House, gradually bringing it back to its former glory.

Robert Carter, 8th November 2021

Appendix No.1

Map from “The Development of the Undercliff at Bonchurch

during the First Half of the 19th Century” by Peter Brett (January 1967).

Appendix No.2

Henry Sydney Buttle Ribbands

Ribbands, Henry Sydney Buttle (Harry)

Diving instructor, insurance salesman, lyricist, poet, music retailer Born: 1874, Isle of Wight, England Died: 1946, New Zealand Active in New Zealand: 1906-1946

Immigrated to New Zealand in 1906 and settled in Hastings where he collaborated with

A R Don on several songs and a comic opera, Marama or The Mere and the Maori Maid.

A rifleman with the 22nd Reinforcements during the First World War he also wrote the lyrics for The Land of the Long White Cloud (music by Sergeant Charles Lawrence James) which became the ‘official march of the New Zealand Division’.

In 1919 on his return to New Zealand he opened a music, book and stationery shop in Hastings,

Compositions Our Territorials: a chorus march song. (Wellington: Charles Begg & Co, 1914) We shall get there in time. (Hastings: Don’s Piano and Music Warehouse, 1915) Strike up that band. (Hastings: Anzac Music Publishing Co, 1915) The land of the long white cloud. (Wellington: Charles Begg & Co, 1917) Come canoeing down the Wanganui. (Hastings: Ribbands & Don, 1920) The Renown: a Maori medley waltz. (Wellington: Don’s Music House, c1927) Marama: comedy opera. (Hastings: Hastings Amateur Dramatic Society, nd)

Appendix No.3

The Affairs of Henry Buttle Ribbands

From the Isle of Wight County Press of 4th February and 4th March 1893

the Isle of Wight County Press of 4th March 1893

Appendix No.4

Electoral Roll Extracts






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1 Comment

Nov 17, 2023

Absolutely brilliant piece of research and a delight to read. I am delighted to say that with the continued dedication and commitment of residents and Directors of the Freehold Company we are getting ever closer to the former “Glory” enjoyed by all who know and love Cliff House and Bonchurch!

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