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Photographs shown above © Nigel Sprowell

The island’s history

Seventy years ago the island was a thriving commercial osier bed, providing work for many residents of St Ives. Men traditionally carried out the practical management of the willow beds, the harvesting of the crop and making the baskets. Women were employed during the first two weeks of May to strip the willow to create white willow.

The island was visually very different. It was remarkably flat and you could see from The Waits across to the water meadows. The willow trees were planted in neat, tidy rows and interspersed with fruit trees that provided easy snacks for the workers!

Barges moored alongside the island to transport the prepared willow to workshops where they were made into baskets, notably large post office baskets. The “ridge and furrow” appearance developed because of the osier bed. The ridges formed as alluvium was brought down by the river by the winter flooding, while the furrows were maintained for drainage. These ridges and furrows can still be seen today near the entrance to the site where we have planted new osiers.

 

Video by courtesy of Xcopter Aerial Media

Originally the island was used for producing willow for basket making. Osier beds took up much of the island and willow wands were cut and transported across the river to be worked on by employees of Harrison's. Willow was cut between November and March, then soaked in troughs in the river before being taken to a warehouse and woven into baskets. Reed for thatching was also harvested from the island.

The Harrison family grew willow and wove baskets in the town for over 200 years and had an open air workshop at Filbert's Walk, where some of their workers lived. The houses were pulled down many years ago since they were subject to flooding. In the early 20th century, with the importing of cheaper willow, Harrisons ceased trading.

In 1913 an outdoor swimming pool was opened on the island and proved popular. It was closed down in 1949 because the town's medical officer declared the river water feeding the pool was contaminated. Today it is used as a small marina by the Sea Scouts, who occupy the western part of the island.

The 'Ingle' part of the island's name commemorates George Wright Wright Ingle, who gave the island to St Ives Town Council in 1934. George's adopted father had a real rags to riches upbringing, his mother found by travellers in labour by the roadside. They took her to the workhouse, where she died after giving birth. The baby boy was named Wright Ingle after two attendants, Wright and Ingle, gave permission for their names to be used. Wright Ingle returned to St Ives and bought property, having made his fortune in London. Aged 60 yrs, he still had no heir and decided to adopt a son. He made an arrangement with the local miller to adopt his son, christened George Wright. The adopted son became George Wright Wright Ingle.

Originally plans were for the island to be made into a riverside park. Locked up for many years, ownership passed to Huntingdon District Council in 1974.