Earliest Times

A river estuary, sheltered from the worst sea winds, would be ideal for the post Ice-Age/Middle Stone-Age (Mesolithic) nomadic hunter/gatherers, who moved northwards after the ice receded. Such a place was provided by the place where the River Neb enters the sea. Stone tools found on St Patrick’s Isle give us evidence that some of these people settled there and on the northern end of Peel Hill, where delicate flint scrapers, cutting blades and sharp barbs for wooden spears are still to be found. There is a large area of blackened earth at the latter site, indicating a place where there were fires for a very long period. This site would have been at the shoreline at the time, about 10m (30ft) above present sea level. It is likely there would have also been a similar site on the Town side of the river, possibly somewhere near today’s Market Place.

Later Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers also settled in the Peel area. Pottery sherds and stone axe heads have been found, including one fine example, which was discovered in Peel Castle, incidental to the 1980s archaeological dig. At The Kew, about 3km (2m) east of Peel lies the so-called Giant’s Grave, the remains of a Neolithic burial cairn. The people of the Bronze Age, c2,000 – 500BC, buried their dead, possibly important people, in what are now low mounds in prominent places on Peel Hill.

The 1980s excavations on St Patrick’s Isle uncovered post holes of circular dwellings, dating from possible 650BC until about 600AD, the period referred to as the Celtic Iron Age. One of Peel’s claims to fame is that the earliest known British Isles human flea was found during the excavation of a granary dating from between 700 and 450 BC.

It was about 550AD that a Celtic type monastery was established on St Patrick’s Isle, it is thought by monks who came from Ireland, more than likely disciples of St Patrick.

After settlement by the Norsemen around 800AD, the Isle of Man remained subordinate to Norway, even after this Island was linked with the Hebrides, to form the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, whose capital was on St Patrick’s Isle. Signs of a superior standard building there, a possible ‘royal palace’ were found in the 1980s excavations.

Meanwhile, the Neb estuary was used as a sheltered haven for the Norsemen’s longships, as recorded in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles, when in 1228, King Olaf had his fleet beached for the winter in the upper reaches of the inlet. (This area was known as The Lake until 1873, when it was filled in to make Peel’s railway station, now the site of the heritage centre, the House of Manannan). Olaf’s fleet was attacked and burned by his dissident half brother and rival, King Reginald. Dissidence came to a head in 1266, when the Manx Norsemen clashed with the Scottish Norse at Largs on the Firth of Clyde. This battle saw the collapse of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, with Mann coming under Scottish suzerainty.

As Mann at that time was the key to strategic control of the Irish Sea, the Island became a pawn between Scotland and England which were vying for supremacy. This was finally resolved in 1333, when Edward III handed Mann over to William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. After passing on to various other English aristocrats, in 1405 it was granted by Henry IV to Sir John Stanley, whose descendants were to rule for over 300 years, as Earls of Derby.

Peel Castle remained a seat of government jointly with Castle Rushen until the mid 17th century, when St German’s Cathedral continued with its ecclesiastical control. Finally, after years of neglect, the Cathedral was abandoned towards the end of the next century.

In 1736, the island passed to the Duke of Atholl, who succeeded as Lord of Mann, at a time of prosperity for some in Peel – those involved in the importing business. Goods could be imported into the Island directly from Europe on payment of low customs duties and then taken across to remote inlets in Britain or Ireland, avoiding the much heavier duties normally payable there. Gradually, the Isle of Man became a staging post in a widespread business, whose notoriety was not well received at Westminster. Various goods such as tea, fabrics and liquor were involved, some in large quantities such as 3,793 gallons of West Indian rum and 100 tons of brandy. At one period, a million pounds of tobacco, split into much smaller amounts were in store. While London held the monopoly of importation of tea from the Far East into the British Isles, one of the leading Manx businessmen, Sir George Moore, sidestepped this by purchasing tea in Amsterdam. He had this conveyed directly to the Isle of Man, risking confiscation and possible more serious consequences.

The end came in 1765, with the Revestment Act, in which sovereignty of the Island, handed to Sir John Stanley in 1405, reverted to the monarch, as Lord of Mann. Financial control was taken over by the British Government, who paid the Duke of Atholl the sum of £70,000, as a fee for control of the island’s customs and excise. Thus a stop came to what Britain considered to be smuggling, but the Manx regarded as legitimate business. The Island’s economy went into decline, with much financial hardship, particularly in Peel, one of the depots for the cargoes evading the official rules.

Later, in 1821, the feelings of the Manx public were upset by the proposed imposition of a tithe on the potato crop by the Island’s bishop, a nephew of the Duke, and in the 1840s by reform of the Manx currency to conform with the English twelve pence to the shilling, unlike the Manx fourteen pence. Public unrest resulted in street riots in Peel at both these times, with consequent government retribution.

During this time of unease, many Peel people decided to look for a better life abroad in the new lands opening up in North America, Australasia and South Africa. Gradually, the Island’s economy improved as a lucrative source of income became apparent – the exploitation of the herring shoals which migrated around the coast of the Island.