Island Life Magazine Ltd December 2008/January 2009 - Page 30

life Church Litten ISLAND HISTORY By June Elford Photo: Newport's famous 16th century Elizabethan gateway Church Litten, an oasis of green in the centre of Newport, is famous for its 16th century Elizabethan gateway. It was built in 1582 when the park was used as a cemetery for the victims of the bubonic plague because Newport’s church had no burial ground. The arch is made of Bembridge or Dodd Pitts limestone and it recently underwent a major refurbishment as over the centuries it has suffered from weathering and lack of maintenance. The structure was first steam cleaned and the carbon staining removed with ammonium carbonate poultice, then the stonework was repointed using moderately hydraulic lime mortar instead of the old dense cement which had previously damaged the arch by trapping moisture in the stone. A plaque on one side of the gateway wall reads, “Borough of Newport Litten Park lay-out inspired by Mrs. Elizabeth Ruby Chandler OBE Mayor 1930 Hon. Freeman of the Borough” and on the other side an intriguing small metal plaque commemorates, “Martha, The wife of Doctor Poor died 10th of June 1780 aged 58 years”. Another interesting feature in Church Litten park is the four sided stone pillar erected in 1822 to the memory of a boy called 30 Valentine Gray who was brought to the Island from Alverstoke in Hampshire to work as a climbing boy for a local sweep. In the 18th century, small underfed boys (and girls) were the right size to climb naked up narrow chimneys and often they were sold by their families to the highest bidder for as little as one guinea or, like Valentine, they came from a parish workhouse. The children frequently got stuck up chimneys, suffocated or lost their way in the maze of shafts and it was quite a common practice for the sweeps to light the straw under the youngsters to force them to go up the chimney. Valentine Gray died as a result of his employer’s cruelty and when the people of Newport learned he had been starved and severely beaten before he died, there was such a public outcry that a collection of 1,600 penny subscriptions was raised to pay for a monument to be erected in his memory. The inscription on it reads, “In Testimony of the general feeling For suffering Innocence This Monument Is erected By Public Subscription”. But it was the story of Tom in ‘The Water Babies’, written by Charles Kingsley and published in 1863, that really created public sympathy for the climbing boys. Kingsley stayed with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at Farringford on the Island and the poet may have told him Valentine’s story but it’s more likely that Kingsley based his book on a boy called James Seaward who cleaned the chimneys at Eversley in Hampshire where Kingsley was rector. Valentine’s obelisk is made of Portland stone and until recently was heavily covered in moss, lichen and algae but it has been cleaned and the damaged Purbeck stone steps around it have been replaced with new ones. The urn on the top of the memorial has been mended and Island Stone Conservation who also carried out the work on the Elizabethan gateway think it’s likely that a carved flame originally came out of the top of the urn. They Photo: hope to find some Valentine’s photographic obelisk evidence so that they can replace it, the idea being that the flame still burns for Valentine Gray. In 1875 Lord Shaftesbury succeeded in persuading Parliament to pass a Bill abolishing the use of climbing boys and his memorial, a statue of Eros, stands in Piccadilly Circus with the London traffic roaring past. So different to the simple one in Newport’s quiet park but linked by two people, a little boy who worked “in pitchy darkness” and the man who fought to make life better for the climbing boys. The Island's new funky radio station www.wightfm.com