History 1925-1969 – the Harman era

Martin Coles HarmanMartin Coles Harman bought Lundy when it was put up for sale in 1925. He had visited the island in 1903 when he was an office boy, and the family story is that he declared to a friend on leaving that he would buy Lundy one day. Harman – often referred to as 'MCH' – firmly believed that Lundy was, in his words, “a self-governing dominion of the British Empire recognising King George as its head”. He ran the island as his private kingdom, relying for the actual organisation on his agent (and childhood friend), Felix Gade. Felix and Rene Gade lived permanently on Lundy for many decades while Martin Coles Harman ran his businesses in London and visited when he could with his family.

As part of his vision of an autonomous Lundy, Martin Coles Harman introduced his own stamps, which were first issued in 1929. They are still going today, by arrangement with the Post Office, and the Lundy stamp covers the cost of U.K. postage plus the cost of ferrying it across to the mainland. Lundy has the oldest private postal service in the world.

Puffin and Half Puffin coinsThe stamps are denominated not in pennies but in puffins. Alongside the stamps, Harman had coinage minted for his kingdom in 1929 – one puffin and half-puffin coins, the same size and weight as the old pennies and ha'pennies. In this case, he overstepped the mark, because he had the coins struck with his head on them, not the King's. This led to a court case in the High Court in 1931 which he lost and the coins were withdrawn.

MCH may have had extreme ideas about Lundy's sovereign status, but he wasn't possessive about his domain. He enjoyed it hugely, and he wanted both his family and other people to enjoy it too. Since Victorian times, paddle steamers had criss-crossed the Bristol Channel, and they made regular visits to Lundy. Felix Gade, and especially his wife, Rene, set up facilities to welcome visitors to the island. The Manor Farm Hotel (now Old House) received staying visitors, and teas were provided for the day-trippers arriving on the steamers.

Rene and Felix Gade on the Landing BeachLundy had a surprisingly interesting World War II. Things weren't always easy, though the islanders were used to being self-sufficient. Three aircraft crash-landed on Lundy during the War – two German Heinkels and an RAF Whitley bomber. Remains of the two Heinkels can still be found – if you know where to look.

A touching reminder of World War II can be seen in one of the quarries on the East Side. John Pennington Harman, the eldest son of Martin Coles Harman, was killed during the Burma Campaign at the Battle of Kohima. He single-handedly attacked a Japanese machine-gun nest and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. A memorial to him was placed on one the granite slabs in the quarry which was one his favourite places to play when he was a boy. This spot is now known as VC quarry.

MCH died in 1954 and his three surviving children, Albion, Ruth and Diana, wanted to keep the island going as it had been. Inevitable wartime neglect and some bad storms had made things difficult, though they gradually restored and adapted buildings so that visitors could stay again. However, when Albion died in 1968, his widow, Kay, and his two sisters couldn't afford to keep Lundy. It still needed capital investment, and there had been another land slip in the slatey south-east corner which damaged the road from the Landing Bay. They put Lundy up for sale.

Alarming rumours circulated about who would buy the island – the mafia, the scientologists – and local Devon MPs got involved to help ensure a suitable sale. This all-party group consisted of the Liberal MP for Barnstaple, Jeremy Thorpe; David Owen, who was Labour member for Plymouth Sutton; and Peter Mills, the Conservative MP for Torrington. The man who saved the day was Jack Hayward – later Sir Jack – who also paid for the return of the SS Great Britain to Bristol. He bought Lundy for £150,000 and then immediately gifted it to the National Trust. Lundy had been sold for the last time, and its modern history began.

Text by André Coutanche

Earlier Lundy history    Later Lundy history

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