Peel Heritage Trust - Treisht Eiraght Phurt Ny H'Inshey

Promoting the preservation, development and conservation of the
buildings and amenities of Peel, the Island's heritage and its history

A Short History of Peel

by Leslie Quilliam



The Town's Name
Earliest Times
The Castle
The Town
To The Present

An earlier version of this text was first published by Peel Heritage Trust in 1993. Hard copies are available from Manx National Heritage. The version reproduced here, with permission of the author, was published by Peel Town Commissioners in 1999.  


Peel is situated roughly halfway along the west coast of the Isle of Man, sheltered to the north by the rocky St. Patrick's Isle and to the west by Peel Hill. Its location allows the enjoyment of spectacular sunsets, particularly in the summer months. This phenomenon led the Town Clerk of the early 1930s to coin the catching epithet 'Sunset City' for Peel, a phrase which has lasted.

The tidal estuary of the River Neb provided a haven for the Island's first known human inhabitants - the hunter-gathering people of the Middle Stone Age, some 9,000 years ago. Since then, besides a domicile, the site has had a major religious community; a fortress for almost a millennium, including a centre of the Island's government; an important base for the Island's fishing and ship-building industries and, in the last hundred years or so, a holiday resort.

The town (or, as some would have it, because of the presence of the Island's Cathedral, - City) grew up on the right bank of the river, facing the walls of the fortification on St Patrick's Isle - Peel Castle. The earliest evidence of habitation in the town dates from the 13th Century - the foundations of dwellings close to the harbour, in what is now Castle Street. The oldest sandstone houses align the narrow streets crammed in the area between the harbour and sandy shore. Subsequent development, save for the late nineteenth-century guesthouse building along the sea front, has been inland, away from the coast.

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The Town's Name
Today's name for the town records but one stage in its history, for the Gaelic speaking Manx know the place as Purt ny h-Inshey - Harbour of the Island. Here 'Island' refers to St Patrick's Isle, the rocky islet at the river mouth. This inspired a Norse version from the invading Vikings-Holm = Island. (cf. Stockholm=Stake Island). Thus the settlement which grew up on the opposite river bank came to be known as 'Holmtown', which, in spite of over three hundred years of English rule, remained in use until quite late in the 17th century.

However, the name given to the Castle by the English rulers was 'Peel'. This could have been from a defensive fence or paling, but more probably from the keep at the castle's main entrance, a type of building known as a 'peel tower'. Such defensive towers are widespread in the Scottish/English border country. Thus the castle was know as 'the peel'. In a similar way to the Norse name, the settlement became 'Peeltown', until about 1860. By the time of the 1883 establishment of the Island's local councils, the Commissioners, the name 'Peel' referred to the town, not to the castle. In fact, today's name of the fortification on St Patrick's Isle - Peel Castle is a repetitive doublet.

An inhabitant of the town can be referred to as a 'Peelite', or somewhat disparagingly as Gobbag=dogfish, in Manx Gaelic. However, most inhabitants take pride in being so called.

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Earliest Times
A river estuary, sheltered from the worst sea winds, would be ideal for the post Ice-Age/Middle Stone-Age (Mesolithic) nomadic hunter/gatherers, who moved northwards after the ice receded. Such a place was provided by the place where the River Neb enters the sea. Stone tools found on St Patrick's Isle give us evidence that some of these people settled there and on the northern end of Peel Hill, where delicate flint scrapers, cutting blades and sharp barbs for wooden spears are still to be found. There is a large area of blackened earth at the latter site, indicating a place where there were fires for a very long period. This site would have been at the shoreline at the time, about 10m (30ft) above present sea level. It is likely there would have also been a similar site on the Town side of the river, possibly somewhere near today's Market Place.

Later Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers also settled in the Peel area. Pottery sherds and stone axe heads have been found, including one fine example, which was discovered in Peel Castle, incidental to the 1980s archaeological dig. At The Kew, about 3km (2m) east of Peel lies the so-called Giant's Grave, the remains of a Neolithic burial cairn. The people of the Bronze Age, c2,000 - 500BC, buried their dead, possibly important people, in what are now low mounds in prominent places on Peel Hill.

The 1980s excavations on St Patrick's Isle uncovered post holes of circular dwellings, dating from possible 650BC until about 600AD, the period referred to as the Celtic Iron Age. One of Peel's claims to fame is that the earliest known British Isles human flea was found during the excavation of a granary dating from between 700 and 450 BC.

It was about 550AD that a Celtic type monastery was established on St Patrick's Isle, it is thought by monks who came from Ireland, more than likely disciples of St Patrick.

After settlement by the Norsemen around 800AD, the Isle of Man remained subordinate to Norway, even after this Island was linked with the Hebrides, to form the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, whose capital was on St Patrick's Isle. Signs of a superior standard building there, a possible 'royal palace' were found in the 1980s excavations.

Meanwhile, the Neb estuary was used as a sheltered haven for the Norsemen's longships, as recorded in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles, when in 1228, King Olaf had his fleet beached for the winter in the upper reaches of the inlet. (This area was known as The Lake until 1873, when it was filled in to make Peel's railway station, now the site of the heritage centre, the House of Manannan). Olaf's fleet was attacked and burned by his dissident half brother and rival, King Reginald. Dissidence came to a head in 1266, when the Manx Norsemen clashed with the Scottish Norse at Largs on the Firth of Clyde. This battle saw the collapse of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, with Mann coming under Scottish suzerainty.

As Mann at that time was the key to strategic control of the Irish Sea, the Island became a pawn between Scotland and England which were vying for supremacy. This was finally resolved in 1333, when Edward III handed Mann over to William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. After passing on to various other English aristocrats, in 1405 it was granted by Henry IV to Sir John Stanley, whose descendants were to rule for over 300 years, as Earls of Derby.

Peel Castle remained a seat of government jointly with Castle Rushen until the mid 17th century, when St German's Cathedral continued with its ecclesiastical control. Finally, after years of neglect, the Cathedral was abandoned towards the end of the next century.

In 1736, the island passed to the Duke of Atholl, who succeeded as Lord of Mann, at a time of prosperity for some in Peel - those involved in the importing business. Goods could be imported into the Island directly from Europe on payment of low customs duties and then taken across to remote inlets in Britain or Ireland, avoiding the much heavier duties normally payable there. Gradually, the Isle of Man became a staging post in a widespread business, whose notoriety was not well received at Westminster. Various goods such as tea, fabrics and liquor were involved, some in large quantities such as 3,793 gallons of West Indian rum and 100 tons of brandy. At one period, a million pounds of tobacco, split into much smaller amounts were in store. While London held the monopoly of importation of tea from the Far East into the British Isles, one of the leading Manx businessmen, Sir George Moore, sidestepped this by purchasing tea in Amsterdam. He had this conveyed directly to the Isle of Man, risking confiscation and possible more serious consequences.

The end came in 1765, with the Revestment Act, in which sovereignty of the Island, handed to Sir John Stanley in 1405, reverted to the monarch, as Lord of Mann. Financial control was taken over by the British Government, who paid the Duke of Atholl the sum of £70,000, as a fee for control of the island's customs and excise. Thus a stop came to what Britain considered to be smuggling, but the Manx regarded as legitimate business. The Island's economy went into decline, with much financial hardship, particularly in Peel, one of the depots for the cargoes evading the official rules.

Later, in 1821, the feelings of the Manx public were upset by the proposed imposition of a tithe on the potato crop by the Island's bishop, a nephew of the Duke, and in the 1840s by reform of the Manx currency to conform with the English twelve pence to the shilling, unlike the Manx fourteen pence. Public unrest resulted in street riots in Peel at both these times, with consequent government retribution.

During this time of unease, many Peel people decided to look for a better life abroad in the new lands opening up in North America, Australasia and South Africa. Gradually, the Island's economy improved as a lucrative source of income became apparent - the exploitation of the herring shoals which migrated around the coast of the Island.

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The Castle
The first known fortification on St Patrick's Isle came after the arrival in 1098 of the invading Viking chieftain known as Magnus Barefoot. The Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles tells us that Magnus saw to the erection of two wooden prefabricated forts, one now believed to be in the South of the island and the other on St Patrick's Isle. It is likely that the rampart of this fort would have been topped by some sort of wooded fence or paling (=Peel), the possible inspiration of the eventual name of both the Castle and the Town.

The visible stonework in the Castle includes the remains of buildings belonging to the Celtic monastery, possibly dating from the 6-8th centuries and the 13th century cathedral of St German and later buildings allied to it. Other buildings include a medieval armory and barracks. These are protected by fortifications consisting of 14th century flanking towers, linked by 15th century curtain walls. The latest military construction took place in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic wars and later in the 1860s during the time of Napoleon III. It is considered that a vestige of Magnus's fort was found during the final phase of the excavations of 1982-87, when rough stonework of a rampart was uncovered at a depth of 5 metres beneath the surface, just inside the present curtain wall to the north of the Cathedral.

It is believed that Irish missionaries came here about the year 550, disciples of St Patrick and probably not, as local legend has it, led by him, but by St Carmane (or German). This would be a suitably isolated spot for monks of the Christian Celtic Church to choose. At the highest point of St Patrick's Isle stands the 50ft (16m) Round Tower. This is of the type seen at monastic sites in Ireland, where the towers tend to taper towards the top, unlike Peel's which has vertical sides. Though its top is battlemented, it once had a conical roof, like those in Irleand. The Tower would have acted as a belfry, as a lookout place and as a place of refuge. Nearby are as many as three keeills or chapels, the largest being St Patrick's Church, which was enlarged in the 12th century, possibly with the intention for it to be a cathedral. Until about 1500, it acted as the Parish Church for Patrick, when St Peter's Church in Peel became the parish church for both Patrick and German.

Irish sagas record St Patrick's Isle suffering a Viking attack, but modern belief is that it was another St Patrick's Isle, that near Dublin, which is indicated. It is likely that the settlement of the pagan Vikings about the year 800 would witness the decline of sites such as this monastery, possibly followed by destruction during later invasions.

However, it is likely that once the Vikings were Christianised, St Patrick's Isle once again became a holy place when the diocese of Sodor, with its cathedral, was established here. St German's Cathedral was built of the local red sandstone from across Peel bay about 1230, replacing a previous church. This was alongside the residence of the King and capital of the Viking Kingdom of Mann and the Isles.

After the Isle of Man passed into English suzerainty in the early 14th century, the fortress we see today was created. Firstly, about 1390, the sandstone keep - the peel tower which eventually was to give its name to the town - was built, along with the so-called 'Red Curtain', the adjoining sandstone curtain walls. This was to compensate for the weakness of the defenses at this point, so easy of access at low tide. Flanking towers were also built and later, the rest of the curtain walls. These are nicknamed 'The Green Curtain' after the slate used, which was quarried from an area just outside the Castle, at the northern most part of St Patrick's Isle.

Peel Castle was garrisoned as the administrative centre of the Northside of the Island, with Castle Rushen controlling the Southside. In addition to its governmental role, Peel Castle was used as prison. One of the best known political prisoners was Edward Christian, the Earl of Derby's Lieutenant Governor of the Island. Christian was one of the leaders of the 1643 protest about tithes. The Earl very cleverly calmed the large crowd of protesters who had gathered to meet him at The Green at Peel - today a public car park and grassy area along Peel Promenade. Christian, whose revolutionary reforms included election of the members of the House of Keys, was arrested and charged with treason. He died in 1661, during his second period of imprisonment in Peel Castle.

The Cathedral crypt became notorious as the Bishop's prison, housing Sabbath breakers for short periods. This crypt was, and remains, dank, dark and cheerless, conditions which made long sentences unnecessary. Those incarcerated had been caught, possibly by their neighbours, desecrating the Sabbath or special saint's days by playing the violin, making hay or by fishing. Meanwhile, just to the north of the Cathedral, in the most sheltered area of the Castle, the English Lords of Mann, the Earls of Derby, built their private apartments. The Cathedral continued its role until 1785, when it saw its last enthronement of a Bishop. Even then in a bad state of repair, its final humiliation came in 1824, when the remaining roof timbers collapsed in a violent storm, leaving the Cathedral as we see it today.

Save for the construction of a revetment for two heavy guns, plus a guardhouse and powderhouse about 1816, the Castle was abandoned until a revival of the garrison was necessary in the 1860s because of the scare caused by the renewed predatory ambitions of France. Today's ruinous state of the former Lord's apartment buildings is due to their being used as a quarry for the construction of these defenses.

There was some refurbishment at the behest of Sir Henry Loch, the Island's enlightened Lieutenant Governor 1863-83. His period of duty coincided with the burgeoning of both the tourist trade and the fishing industry, both of which became so important to the livelihood of Peel's inhabitants.

There have been several archaeological excavations carried out in Peel Castle. By far the largest was carried out 1982-87 by Liverpool University archaeology group at the behest of the Manx Museum and the then Government Property trustees. This was a 'teaching dig' in which the public were invited to take part, supervised by qualified archaeologists. A large number of volunteers, mainly local residents, but people from Britain and some from abroad, including the USA, also took part.

The many important finds included a cache of silver coins dating from around 1030, an extensive burial ground with several hundred graves, which included that of the so called 'Pagan lady', buried with her beautiful necklace, signs of Magnus Barefoot's fort of 1098 and many details of the Lord of Mann's apartments. An unexpected bonus as a claim to fame is the finding of the British Isles' earliest human flea. The dig progressed through the ruined buildings to the north of the Cathedral, revealing details hitherto unseen for centuries. Overall, the outcome of these excavations was a much greater understanding of the role of Peel Castle in the Island's history.

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The Town
It is natural that Peel would turn to the sea for its livelihood, so for many years fishing, trading and shipbuilding were mainstays, providing full-time employment for most of the population.

Peel-built schooners traded around northwest Europe and the Mediterranean, while Peel fishing boats fished around the southern coast of Ireland and near Shetland, as well as round the Isle of man. Probably the most daring voyage was that of the schooner Vixen, which sailed off in 1853, with 37 young adventurers hoping for luck in the newly discovered gold fields of Australia. Some returned to Peel, having had some success.

It was in 1840 that the initiative of entrepreneur Robert Corrin resulted in many Manx fishing boats sailing in the early summer to seek the mackerel shoals off the south coast of Ireland, mainly around Kinsale. Later in the summer, Peel boats set off to Shetland for herring, returning to the shoals in Manx waters. To accommodate the growing numbers of fishing boats and the trading schooners, the Harbour and Breakwater were gradually being improved. Peel became a prosperous place, with a large part of its income deriving from the export of salted herring, mainly to northern Europe. Also there was much demand for the famous Manx kipper. By the time of the peak in the 1880s, fishing had become the main source of income for the Town, when almost 3,000 men and boys were going off to the herrings. Ancillary businesses such as ship building, net and rope making, chandlering plus fish buying and curing gave employment to hundreds more. Catches and herring prices were jubilantly recorded in the Peel City Guardian. With hindsight, it is easy to denounce the decline in catches as the inevitable consequence of over fishing. The numbers of boats sailing to Ireland gradually decreased from the 300 of 1880, to the handful setting off for Ireland in 1915. One of these, the Wanderer, no. PL 11, was the first on the scene after the Lusitania was torpedoed, and rescued over 160 survivors. For their brave action, the six fishermen were given rewards and medals.

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As in other Celtic areas of the British Isles, the Isle of Man has a history of a high regard for academic learning. Even though Manx Gaelic has mainly been a spoken language, rather lacking the written word, it has strong poetic overtones.

Schools were operating on the Island earlier than the 17th century. In Peel there are accounts of an English School in Market Street and the so-called Latin School in Castle Street. In 1655, the will of a public spirited expatriate Peel man included a generous legacy to the people of Peel - the rents of two properties in the City of London. This was Philip Christian, who, after learning his trade in a linen mill at Union Mills, moved to London, where he prospered, becoming Warden of the Clothworkers' Guild. Because of his legacy, substantial sums came to Peel to defray the costs of the building and maintenance of schools and to help finance many students in further education. The first of these schools was built shortly after his death, probably in Market Street.

In 1860, the all-age Christian's endowed National School was built in Christian Street. New buildings followed in 1878 and 1898, on a site farther up Derby Road. The first of these originally accommodated only the older boys, but when the latter became the mixed Senior section, the first housed the Juniors, those aged from 7 upwards. In today's parlance, the then Peel Clothworkers' School could be described as comprehensive.

Change came in the mid twenties when those who passed the 11-plus exam 'The Scholarship', went off each day to attend Secondary Schools in Douglas - girls and boys separated. This situation lasted until 1947, when all children on reaching the age of eleven attended the newly comprehensive Douglas High School.

Back in Peel, the three old buildings were vacated in 1958, when the present Peel Clothworkers' Primary School was built. After a rather long interval, the Christian Street School was refurbished, perpetuating its founder's name when it took on a new life as the Philip Christian Centre, one of the small number of registered buildings in Peel. The other two newer school buildings were demolished in the 1980s to make way for a supermarket. Peel had to wait until 1979 or secondary education to return, with the opening of Queen Elizabeth High School.

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To The Present

In the meantime, particularly after the coming of the railway to Peel in 1873, tourism became important. To accommodate the visitors, who mainly came from northwest England, hotels and guest houses were built along the shoreline and higher up on the Headlands, followed by that amenity for any self-respecting seaside resort, a promenade. Such was the demand by the annual influx of visitors, many small cafes opened and private households 'took in' visitors. As has been remarked, Peel began to turn away from Harbour to face the seafront. New streets were laid out, with up-to-date amenities - tarmacadam and main drainage. Houses were still built of sandstone, but by 1920, the use of brick had taken over.

Peel's holiday business continued with interruptions for two world wars, when the happy holiday makers were replaced by reluctant visitors, 'enemy aliens', who had been trapped by the onset of war.

During WWI, Knockaloe farm, a little to the south of Peel, was turned into a prison camp, where up to 30,000 German, Austrian and Turkish civilian nationals were interned. In 1940, requisitioned guesthouses at the end of Peel promenade became Peveril Internment Camp, which incarcerated those suspected of having sympathy for the Nazi regime in Europe. While some prisoners really had fascist leanings, a number were refugees, escapees from various parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Still others were German nationals, but Jewish, who had managed to get out of their, now dangerous, country. After vetting, these mostly young men were released, to assist the Allied war effort.

Post WWII, holidays were again in demand, but gradually, the sun of southern Europe beckoned. By the mid 1960s, the fall in demand dictated the closure of the Peel/Douglas railway and many of the guesthouse businesses put up their shutters.

The fishery had its ups and downs. One period of great demand, for example, was during the 1960s and 70s, when large trawlers and freighters from Northwest Europe, the so-called klondikers , with apparently insatiable appetites for herring, were moored in Peel Bay. Another boom was provided by the gourmet demand for scallops - a demand fulfilled for a time only by the fishermen of Peel. Since then, the fishing has remained sporadic. Manx boats no longer fish for herring, which have been left to boats mainly from Northern Ireland, fishing for scallops and the smaller queenie, crabs, and even the once despised dogfish, which are all sought under rules emanating from Europe.

For some time, large crowds have descended on Peel for special events such as the spectacular Viking Festival, during which the Viking Fleet made a menacing landing on Peel Shore, witnessed, it is said, by several thousand spectators. After a stylised conquest of the indigenous Celts, reconciliation resulted in intermarriage. After the denouement of this popular event, others remain a draw - motorcycle sandracing on the Shore and races around the narrow streets by cycles and karts with speeds difficult to comprehend. Meanwhile, the former Festival replica Viking boats are used in races crewed by enthusiasts, members of various societies or businesses such as banks.

Once the lure of warm sunshine becamem ore attractive than the sometimes elusive sunshine from the Irish Sea, along with the rest of the Island, Peel has seen a decline in its tourist trade. However, its seaside atmosphere remains, for the fishermen still mend their nets, sand castles can still be built and the sea, though not the warmest, can still be paddled in. Peel's sandy shore remains popular with families, while a big attraction is ice cream, which proves to be a big draw, particularly at weekends.

The Town remains largely unaltered, by-passed by the finance sector's demands for accommodation. Peel's old fashioned air could well be why so many people are attracted to the place - with its sandstone buildings crowding its narrow, winding streets. The Harbour and Shore remain for those with nautical or general seaside interests, which spectacular views over the rest of the island and the Irish Sea can be relished from Peel Hill and the headlands. Worthy of reflection, is the evocative epithet for the town, so astutely coined in the 1930s - the Sunset City.

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