Maybe it is the sea air why, over the years, Brownsea Island has had so many colourful and eccentric owners. Originally called Branksea Island, its name was changed because so many visitors left the train at Branksome by mistake.
Among the early owners was William ‘Mad Benson’ (1682-1754) whom Poole people believed dabbled in black magic and cavorted with a coven of witches. Once when he stood for Parliament in Shaftesbury he only received four votes. Out of spite, ‘Mad Benson’ cut off the town’s water supply.
Next eccentric owner was Sir Augustus John Foster (1780-1848) who had been a diplomat. In fact, he was the last Briton to declare war on the USA back in 1812. While living on Branksea, Foster suffered from bouts of depression and committed suicide by cutting his own throat.
Then there was Colonel William Petrie Waugh who purchased the Island for £13,000 for a money making scheme. He mistakenly believed there were valuable clay deposits from which expensive porcelain items could be made. Waugh was supported by his wife in this belief because she was an amateur geologist. It was said the previous owner had planted a sample of high quality clay to encourage the former Indian Army officer to proceed with the purchase. Waugh borrowed large sums of money from the London & Eastern Banking Corporation, of which he was a director, for his projects and to support his expensive lifestyle. Much of this borrowed money he spent lavishly on the Island. When his bank failed due to his ill-advised spending, both he and his wife fled to Spain.
Mary Florence Bonham Christie bought Brownsea Island in 1927 and was a keen supporter of the RSPCA. When viewing the Island before purchase she noticed a canary in a cage. Immediately, she declared as potential owner she would not allow any bird to be caged nor any animal or bird to be killed. Wanting Brownsea to become an animal sanctuary, she evicted nearly 200 residents. She employed security guards whose job was to turf unwelcome visitors off the island. Among these guards was a glamorous, tall, Danish physical training expert named Bertha Hartung Olsen. Her exploits were so talked about that they even made the pages of the national newspapers. Mrs Christie was unpopular with the locals because of her actions and became nicknamed the ‘Demon of Brownsea.’ In 1934, there was a fire on the Island which she blamed on boy scouts which she thereafter banned. Many rumours spread about the reclusive owner. It was said that Brownsea was infested by rats and she was a German spy as she had once employed a German butler. Despite Brownsea Castle having many rooms she lived in just one large room heated by a single stove and mainly she ate boiled eggs. In 1957, millionaire Sir John Ellerman expressed an interest in buying the island because he believed it was infested by rats. Apparently, he had spent a lifetime studying these rodents. Mrs Bonham Christie refused to sell but offered to let him stay in a cottage. Mary Florence Bonham Christie died in April 1961 having turned Brownsea into an island for nature rather than humans. Although Brownsea Island became heavily overgrown it did enable the red squirrel, whose numbers elsewhere had dropped, to survive there. After her death the Island passed to the nation in lieu of death duties.
Few towns and villages in the county of Dorset have been associated with such eccentric and colourfiul characters as Brownsea Island.
(Illustration: Mary Florence Bonham Christie.)