Seaview, Isle of Wight
J.E. Caws Boot maker, Madeira
Road, Seaview, Isle of Wight
Spotted by David Gaylard on a visit to the island in summer 2021, this
wall advertisement appears at 2nd floor level on the side wall of the
former boot-maker's premises.
courtesy David Gaylard
At first sight this lettering bore all the signs of having been
quite old and recently repainted (such things happen). However, this
company ceased trading as recently as 2010. The following article tells
us more about the Caws family; we are reprinting here in full just in
case the Island
Life web-page becomes unavailable.
An Island dynasty
Known as an upmarket destination and a retreat for second
homers, sought-after Seaview would never actually have existed had it
not been for one larger-than-life family – the Caws
For over 275 years, the colourful Caws have been known as sea pilots
and strongmen, they’ve owned and run the Seaview hotel, the post office
and the shoe shop.
Now there’s just one Caws left in Seaview village – William Gerald,
otherwise known as Will – and he’s the go-to storyteller and historian,
a fund of family tales and local legends. Jackie McCarrick caught up
He happily admits to never having been academic – in fact he couldn’t
wait to leave Netherston School at 15 – but builder Will Caws has
made himself something of an expert when it comes to local history.
Names and dates roll effortlessly off his tongue as he talks about his
ancestors, the 18th century founders of Seaview village, and his
knowledge brings visitors and geneologists from all over the world
wanting to research Caws family links.
“It’s always easier to find things out when your family has lived in
the same place for a long time”, he says. Willy’s historical researches
have benefited from the fact that his great-grandparents were avid
diarists, meticulously keeping notes of the most mundane of events and
incidents – from the weather to their food or somebody taking a tumble
on the ice – that prove fascinating to the modern reader.
“My dad had no interest at all but I kept all the papers and love
reading about it all” he says. His interest in local history was
sparked very early, at the age of five or six, by a piece of family
legend that said the great Admiral Lord Nelson used to row to the
Seaview Hotel for a beer.
“It probably wasn’t true” he laughs, “but it somehow sparked my
interest in all this”.
Now a member of the Nelson Society, Will recalls attending a supper on
HMS Victory a few years ago, and poring over the ship’s log looking for
reference to a member of the Caws clan who is mentioned in the family
diaries as having received a prize whilst serving on the great ship.
He was baffled not to find the Caws name – but then realised it was
probably an in-law, probably one Henry Matthews who was married to
Regularly asked to give talks to local groups, Will has also been asked
to take people around Seaview village, to point out notable buildings
and detailing their history.
He can trace his family back to 1740 in Seaview, and then back beyond
that to 1600 and even 1200.
The Seaview connection – and the fact that his ancestor Anthony Caws
essentially founded the village – is what fascinates people the most,
particular in an age when families are more fragmented and rarely stay
in one area even for one generation.
Strong arm tactics
The undisputed “grand daddy” of the Caws clan was Old John, who
came as bailiff to the St Helens Priory in 1740, from Kingston in
John’s main claim to fame was his extraordinary strength.
Apparently double-jointed, he could lift extraordinary weights and it
was said that if a wheel came off the back of a hay wagon, he could
lift it single-handedly. He also had the ability to lift a barrel of
ale and drink from it! Naturally, such claims attracted pugnacious
challengers, including a ‘stout’ prize fighter from Portsmouth, who
crossed the Solent to take him on, ridiculing him for his size and
However, it turned out to be a short-lived contest, as mighty little
John shook hands with the champion so hard that the blood dripped from
his fingers – and then promptly threw him onto a blackthorn hedge.
John was also known for his large family of 12 children. As many
of them grew into adults, the local vicar decided that the family was
‘too noisy’ for its increasingly overcrowded place at Fairy Hill, so in
exchange for their property, they were given the Old Fort field on
which to build a house for every child. Will jokes: “Not much has
changed there – we’re still a noisy lot. Or should I say, we are
not exactly shy!”
It’s not known what became of all of old John’s children, but one son
was famously poisoned by mistakenly eating hemlock, whilst William
built the large house that became the Seaview Hotel. It was John’s
grandson Anthony who went on to become the father of the Caws family
that settled in Seaview, and became sea pilots. They were quite famous
sea pilots too, says Will, who treasures a model of one of his
ancestor’s boats, the Neptune.
“I have a great admiration for what they did, bringing all those boats
through at a time when there were no lights in the Solent – it must
have been quite hairy”.
Will also has a soft spot for another ancestor, Frank Caws (brother of
his Great Grandfather). Frank was a noted architect who built the old
Seaview Pier, which lasted for 100 years, and then moved to Sunderland
where he was involved with the shipyard and started a boys’ home, as
well as designing several prominent buildings.
Call of the sea
With all these tales of his ancestors filling his head, it was no
wonder that the young Will originally planned to “go into the Navy and
see the world”. In preparation, he took a job at the J.S. White
shipyard at Cowes but found he didn’t enjoy it. Then it was on to
Woodnutt’s at Bembridge, which unexpectedly closed halfway through his
Then aged 19, he went to work for a builder, and realised there was
good money to be made on the land!
By1974, and with over a decade of experience in the trade, he went into
partnership with Rob Herman and the pair built a successful building
business employing 38 men at its height. Even the building work links
back to Will’s fascination with history, however. He loves doing
renovations and uncovering clues to the past. One such find was made
when he was renovating the old Rose Cottage in Seaview and uncovered a
priest hole under the floor of the kitchen. In fact it had not been dug
out for a priest, but for Old John Caws, as a hiding place when the
Press Gang came a-calling. Will, now 72, seems to have inherited the
infamous Caws strongman gene, and shows no desire to give up the very
physical building work.
His partner Rob Herman retired a few years ago and Will also gave it a
try but says: “I got bored and decided to come back on a small
scale.“I couldn’t be completely retired so I just pick my jobs these
days and still enjoy what I do. “I’m never still – you’d never find me
sitting watching TV.”
As well as being the local historian and giver of talks and tours, he
also sails and fishes regularly in the summer and shoots in the winter.
He used to run the Mumwall Shoot on the Oglander Estate, but is now
shoot captain for the smaller Kern Shoot. Apart from that, he is a
passionate gardener – an interest that comes directly from his father,
who was a prize-winning horticulturalist.
Will gardens and runs an allotment, and his greatest love in the flower
world is sweet peas, for which he has won prizes. Another passion is
for wildlife, which he indulges at a piece of land he owns at Knighton
Gorge, and which he leaves to the nurture of wild flowers, rare orchids
and snakes. Much as he’s steeped in Island history, Will also enjoys
spending time on the mainland, and the north of England in particular.
The link is his wife Mary, about whom he jokes: “She came to the
Island from Durham in 1974 and got captured, never went back! Not
surprisingly, on their trips north, Will has searched out all the best
museums and he rates Beamish as among the best, with its recreated
Victorian town – a real haven for a builder.
Of course there’s nowhere quite like home, and particularly when the
fabric of your family is woven into the bricks and cobbles of a
village. It seems though that Will is likely to be the last of the
direct-line Caws in Seaview: he has four daughters, and his brother
Jim, for many years owner of the seventh generation Caws village shoe
shop (formerly bootmakers), retired and moved to Ryde a couple of years
ago. Will is pleased that at least some of the old boot making
equipment went into the Brading Waxworks museum for safe-keeping and
posterity. “Seaview is very much a second-homer place these days. If
your parents die here, you tend to sell the property and it gets bought
up quickly… not that I’m complaining. As a builder I’ve done well
Article by Jackie McCarrick, Island Life Magazine 1.6.2016
Incidentally, this building is next door to the large former
Watson Brothers Seaview Stores which has painted-over lettering all the
way round into High Street.
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