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
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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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
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
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
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 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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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
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
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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