Cowes, town (1991 pop. 16,134), Isle of Wight, S England. A resort town with lovely promenades, it is also the main port of the island and the center for yachting in the British Isles. Cowes became the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Club in 1838, and fashionable regattas are held annually. Industries include shipbuilding and aircraft works. Queen Victoria died in Osborne House in East Cowes.

Cowes is an English seaport town on the Isle of Wight, an island south of Southampton. Cowes is located on the west bank of the estuary of the River Medina facing the smaller town of East Cowes on the east Bank. The western town is sometimes referred to as West Cowes where distinction is needed - such as at the two differing ferry termini. However the unqualified name 'Cowes' invariably means the western town. This article describes both towns.

Leland's nineteenth century verses described the towns poetically as "The two great Cowes that in loud thunder roar, This on the eastern, that the western shore".

The two towns are linked by the Cowes Floating Bridge, a chain ferry. The combined population was 16,925 in the 1991 census, a figure that is easily doubled during the regatta in early August (see below). Each town comprises a civil parish.

Cowes is renowned for sailing, Cowes Castle being home to the world famous Royal Yacht Squadron, which ranks amongst the world's elite yacht clubs. The town gives its name to the world's oldest regular regatta, Cowes Week, which occurs annually in the first week of August. Later on in the summer, powerboat races are held.

East Cowes is the site of Norris Castle, and Osborne House, the former summer residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Prince had a major influence on the architecture of the area, for example on the building of St Mildred's Church in Whippingham, East Cowes, which features distinctive turrets imitating those found on a German castle. Both towns' architecture is still heavily influenced by the distinctive style of ornate building which Prince Albert popularised.

Transport and links to the mainland

Cowes and East Cowes are gateway towns for the Isle of Wight. Travellers to Southampton are served by a high speed catamaran passenger ferry from West Cowes and a vehicle ferry from East Cowes. Visitors arriving at East Cowes find it hard not to notice the world's largest Union Flag on the hangar doors of the building used originally by Saunders Roe and then by successive marine and aerospace manufacturing companies. From Cowes Pontoon (the Red Jet terminal) Southern Vectis buses take travellers on to other Island destinations.. In the summer, the open-top bus route "The Medina Tour" serves East Cowes. For the more athletic, Cowes is often considered the start of the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.



There are two theories about the origin of the name:-

  • Cowes and East Cowes derive their names from the time of Henry VIII, when fortifications called cowforts or cowes were built on the east and west banks to dispel a French invasion.
  • Cowes and East Cowes were named after two sandbanks, one on each side of the River Medina estuary, and recorded in 1413 as Estcowe and Westcowe, which were named after a supposed likeness to cows (that is, the bovine creatures).

Early history

In earlier centuries the two settlements were much smaller and known as East and West Shamblord; the East then being more significant settlement. The settlement of Shamblord at East Cowes was first recorded in 1303. The Isle of Wight had been a frequent target of attempted French invasions with some notable incursions. The west fort survives to this day, albeit without the original Tudor towers, as Cowes Castle but the east fort disappeared in the eighteenth century and should not be confused with East Cowes Castle built subsequently by John Nash.

Royal patronage creates a yachting centre

It is believed that the building of an 80 ton, 60 man vessel called Rat O'Wight on the banks of the river Medina in 1589 for the use of Queen Elizabeth I sowed the seed for Cowes to grow into a world renowned centre of boat-building. However, seafaring for recreation and sport remained the exception rather than the rule until much later. It was not until the reign of keen sailor George IV that the stage was set for the heyday of Cowes as 'The Yachting Capital of the World.' In 1826 the Royal Yacht Squadron organised a three-day regatta for the first time and the next year the king signified his approval of the event by presenting a cup to mark the occasion. This became known as Cowes Regatta and it soon grew into a four-day event that always ended with a fireworks display.

Great houses

In Cowes the 18th century house of Westbourne was home to a collector of customs whose son, born there in 1795, lived to become Dr Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School.

Northwood House was the home of the Ward family. It was donated under trust to the town in 1929, the grounds becoming Northwood Park. William George Ward was a close friend of the poet Tennyson and in whose memory the poet wrote six lines.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, who made her summer home at Osborne by acquiring and rebuilding Osborne House, East Cowes was the subject of planned estate of grand houses, groves and parks. The scheme, not finding the finances it needed, was folded, but a few residences built in the early stages still survive to this day such as the former Albert Grove residences of Kent House and Powys House on York Avenue.

In East Cowes Norris Castle was designed in the Norman style by James Wyatt in the late eighteenth century. The building survives and today remains a private home. In 1798, the architect John Nash, began building his home, East Cowes Castle, where he later entertained the Prince Consort and other prominent guests. East Cowes Castle was notable for its Gothic towers and turrets, and elaborate castellation. Nash died in 1835 and is buried in the tower of East Cowes Church which he also designed. East Cowes Castle was demolished during the 1960s, although the ice house remains and is visible in Sylvan Avenue.

West Cowes and East Cowes became a single urban district in 1933.

World War II and the Blyskawica

Its industry and proximity to Southampton and the Royal Navy's home at Portsmouth made the Island a frequent target of bombing during World War II. The shipyard of J. Samuel White was badly damaged by air attack in early May 1942 but, when rebuilt, innovative ship construction methods had been introduced. The first warship completed by the renewed yard was HMS Cavalier. During the air raid, the local defences had been fortuitously augmented by the Polish destroyer Blyskawica (itself built by White's), which put up such a determined defence that, in 2002, the crew's courage was honoured by a local commemoration lasting several days to mark the 60th anniversary of the event. In 2004 an area of Cowes was named Francki Place in honour of the ship's commander.

To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Queen's coronation in 1977, the main hangar doors of what was then the British Hovercraft Corporation (a successor to Saunders Roe) were painted with the world's largest image of the Union Flag, which can still be seen today.


Local industry in both Cowes and East Cowes has always centred on the building and design of marine craft and materials associated with boatmaking, including the early flying boats, and sailmaking. It is also noted as the place where the first hovercraft was tested. East Cowes was also once home to the manufacturer Saunders Roe, who built the flying boat The Saunders-Roe Princess, as well as the Black Knight rocket and the Black Arrow satellite carrier rocket. Major present-day employers inclde BAE Systems Integrated System Technologies (Insyte), which occupies the site of the old Somerton Aerodrome at Newport Road, Cowes; and GKN Aerospace in East Cowes. The former Saunders-Roe factory at Venture Quays- which still boasts the world's largest Union Flag now produces wind turbines, which can be seen laid on the quay for shipping out. Due to local objections no wind turbines have been allowed to be erected on the Isle of Wight.

East Cowes

East Cowes has been more characterised by industry than West Cowes in which yachting predominates, which some would argue has produced a cultural rift, leading to East Cowes being referred to derisively as Narnia by the West, due to the alleged eccentricity of its inhabitants.

Famous residents

Quotes and jokes

The name of the town has led to many jests and puns over the years. Here are some examples, which are best read out loud to be fully appreciated.

  • "I used to introduce my act by saying things like "Hello, London", or wherever else I was performing. Then I got into terrible trouble when I played a Ladies' Night in Cowes..."
    - attributed to Bernard Manning
  • Q: What's brown and smelly and comes steaming out of Cowes backwards? A: The Isle of Wight ferry.


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