Scilly Survival

Today, Scilly can be reached in 15 minutes from Land’s End and is connected to the world via the internet.

But before computers, planes, tourism and flower farming, the people of the Scilly Isles lived a much more isolated existence.  The communities had to be virtually self-sufficient.

For years, land that had been allocated to tenants had been subdivided between all the sons of the next generation, resulting in smaller and smaller plots; less able to produce enough food for a family.

Poor weather could reduce crop yields.  There were two periods in the early 19th century when availability of food from the sea was the only thing preventing starvation.

Some income was available from piloting vessels into the English Channel, and gigs from each island would race out to provide the service; the origin of present-day gig racing.

The only land-based industry was kelp burning.

In these pits the seaweed was burnt, to produce soda-ash, which was sold to the mainland for use in the glass and soapmaking industries.

Life was hard, but it began to improve in 1834, when Augustus Smith leased the islands from the Crown.  He reallocated the land, creating viable farming units and, in 1855, permanently evacuated the residents of Samson, leaving just 5 inhabited islands.

He created jobs in construction, including road building, extending the quay on St Mary’s and clearing the land for the Tresco garden.

He also built schools, making attendance compulsory.

Kelp burning ended, but shipbuilding developed, with 4 shipyards on St Mary’s producing fishing boats and other small craft.  This lasted until the introduction of steel ships around 1870.

But by then flower farming was starting to provide an income.

And then tourists discovered Scilly.