Written by: D Evans

The fortifications are designed

The Berry Head promontory has been the site of coastal defences from prehistoric times to the Second World War. Lysons mentions the existence of an earthwork [2] and Donn's map of 1765 'Ruins of a Danish Castle'. The site was subsequently used by the Romans - coins have turned up in the area, but as far as is known no further defensive works were undertaken until the War of American Independence.

In 1779 the risk of a French invasion was very real, and it was decided to establish coast defence batteries around Torbay. At the time the commanding Royal Engineer at Plymouth, with responsibility for the whole of the Western District, was Lt.Colonel Dixon. He wrote to the Board of Ordnance on November 1:

"Foreseeing a difficulty to arise in the execution of the batteries in Torbay, by depending solely on the inhabitants of the Country to Work ; and being of Opinion they now benefit more by pursuing their Fishery than they would benefit by being employed and paid at the usual stipend of Labourers....I intreat the Board to make an application to the Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Forces, to order for this duty two Companies of Militia, one Company to be quartered in the Town of Brixham for the two batteries intended for the South West side, and one Company to be quartered in the Village of Tor Quay and its neighbourhood for the two batteries intended for the North East side ; by which arrangement of Men, the four batteries may be carried on at the same time.

The first work to be done in the four positions, where the batteries are to be made, is to erect Guard-houses, to serve as a shelter for the men, against the uncertainty of the Weather, in places so much exposed.

As these batteries are intended to cover and protect Ships of War, as they lay at Anchor on each side the bay, I may reasonably suppose the commanding Captain of the Ships would send Seamen ashore to arm the batteries, and to furnish them with Powder; for which reason, I have now in contemplation the making of two Ammunition boxes to be mounted on low wooden Trucks for each battery, to contain no more than twenty rounds of filled Cartridges Per Gun, instead of erecting Magazines to lodge a Quantity of Powder in barrels...."[3]

He requested £500 to pay the men engaged in erecting the batteries. The Board directed him to proceed as rapidly as possible, within his estimated cost of £988.[4] It proved to be necessary to erect a proper magazine; probably the expected naval co-operation was not forthcoming, the relations between the generals and the admirals at Plymouth at this time being very bad indeed.[5] Work began on February 21, 1780. The requested £500, however, had still not been sent by March, and Dixon was forced to write:

"Permit me to remind the Board of an Imprest of £500 not yet granted for the Batteries at Torbay; and as that Service is now in hand; I beg the Board will be pleased to grant the enable me to carry on the batteries with dispatch. I may venture to assure the Board the batteries on the Berry head will be compleated by the time the Swedish Guns with their proper proportion of Stores and Ammunition are sent from Woolwich." [6] Twenty-five 20 pounder guns and carriages were sent in May, followed by two 8" howitzers in June.

Dixon wished the land on which the batteries stood to be purchased, but the Board did not consider that this was necessary for temporary batteries, except in cases where the land could not be obtained any other way. The Lords of the Manor of Brixham applied for compensation for the financial losses caused by the installations; in June the Board approved the suggestion that the sum be decided by arbitration - this matter was to drag on for years before a final settlement was made.[7]

On November 9 Dixon was able to report that "The Batteries on the Berry head, Hardy's head, Old Castle, and Fishcomb point, with their Magazine, guard house and Storehouses, as described by the Plan and Sections which accompany this report, are now compleated agreable to the Board's Order; but the batteries proposed by me to be erected at Paington [sic] red bank and the North east side the bay, will not be entered on, until the Arbitrators have settled a compensation for taking possession of the proprietors lands." [8] The plan has been preserved; it shows the locations of the batteries with sections through each position. [9] The largest was placed at the tip of the headland, with a square magazine behind it, and a howitzer battery positioned on the Torbay side of the tip. The other batteries, Hardy's Head, Castle and Furzdon, became part of the later defences. The map shows not only the associated structures of two storehouses and a house, probably a guardhouse, but also, spanning the neck of the headland, the "Ruins of a Roman Wall". This appears to be the only plan which preserves an apparently accurate record of this now destroyed feature. It is not shown on the 1781 map of Torbay published by the Hydrographical Office, "Tor-Bay surveyed by Lt.Murdoch Mackenzie" which does show four of the batteries, with the exception of the Howitzer battery. [10] During the construction of the present defences some Roman masonry was noted in the earthwork. [11]

£150 was requested for the works in July 1781, and after the second winter some remedial work was necessary. Sergeant Bayne, in charge of Fishcombe battery, wrote to Dixon on February 1 1782 "I am sorry to Inform you that there is about four yards of the sods of the foundation of fishcomb battery on the Northwest side fell down, and some More likely to go the Same Way as it Bulges out very Much." [12] £500 was requested that month; apart from the repair work, preparations were being made for the Torquay batteries. Dixon informed Sir Robert Palk on March 17 that the Board had ordered them to be erected on Palk land, and asked for an estimate of the damage. [13] The peace negotiations of the summer, however, probably prevented any work from taking place. In January 1783 the estimate of the compensation due for Berry Head was sent in; it was claimed that six quarries underneath the batteries had been rendered useless, which used to produce annually eighty-six boat loads of limestone. This was worth five shillings a boat load to the proprietors, a total of £21 10s. They also wished to charge two guineas a year rental for the land occupied. [14]

That autumn the Inspector of Artillery, Major Blomefield, surveyed the coast defences, and as a consequence it was decided in November that all the guns at Berry Head, with the exception of those at Fishcombe, were to be removed to Plymouth, together with all the materials from the buildings. The Hanoverian troops stationed at Brixham were ordered to furnish working parties for this purpose. [15]

The batteries had been dismantled, but the matter of compensation was still not settled. Dixon wrote to the Board in September 1786 about the matter, and arbitrators were finally agreed upon on December 9. [16] By then the Colonel had retired through ill-health. His successor was Lt.Col. Andrew Mulcaster, who reported the final settlement of this affair to the Master General of the Ordnance, Charles Lennox, the third Duke of Richmond. It appears that inflated claims had been made, for "The Estimate of the Annual Damages of £23.10, Sustained by the Lords of the Manor of Brixham, Your Grace will find was very lamely supported for instead of that sum the Gentlemen from the Evidence produced in support of the Claim, thought the Sum of £5 a Year an ample Compensation; and which accordingly has been Awarded them, the time this Ground was in Possession of the Ordnance was four Years." [17]

On February 1 1793 the French Republic declared war on England, and the coastal defences so recently dismantled were now urgently required. Berry Head was earmarked for reactivation, on a much greater scale, this time as a permanent fortification. On April 8th, 1794, the following letter from the office of the Master-General, the Duke of Richmond, was sent to the new Commanding Engineer at Devonport; Lt.Col .Alexander Mercer had only been promoted the previous month. He was to become Major-General in 1796, Lt.General in 1803, and, after leaving Plymouth, full General in 1813, dying at Exmouth on November 10 1816. -

"I am directed by The Master General to desire you will go to Torbay and form a Plan for Fortifying the Berry Head, that is, in the first place, for Erecting such Batteries on that Hill as shall best protect the Shipping and the Entrance to Torbay

2dly. To enclose these Batteries, so that an Enemy landing Infantry in the Neighbourhood may not get possession of them without being obliged to break Ground, and erect Batteries.

3dly. To have Barracks for 600 Men to defend these Batteries, which Barracks may be sent ready framed from London and will then only require putting up, Brick Hogging, Plaistering and Building the Chimneys. Each Barrack is 100 feet long by 22, from out to out, and will contain 2 Officers and 60 Men. The Men are not to dress their Victuals in the Barracks but Cooking Places are to be put up for that purpose according to the Plan which has been tried and found to answer for similar buildings at Hythe, on the Coast of Sussex, which Captain Twiss is to Explain and a Copy of his Description will be sent down to you, as soon as possible.

4thly. If there is no Water in the space proposed to be occupied by these Works, a Tank must be made to receive the Water from the Buildings. These Buildings may be covered with Slate which can be got in the neighbourhood.

The Master General thinks the Ground you are likely to want belongs to the Duke of Bolton, but wishes enquiries to be immediately made, a Survey taken and as much Ground Demanded as is necessary, in which His Grace desires that you will take care to have a sufficiency in front of the Works so that at no time any Buildings may be Erected to incommode them.

The Master General further desires that you will take care that the Works are no where Commanded, altho' this should give the Works somewhat more Extent." [18]

This letter gives a clear explanation of the purpose of the fortification. Coastal defences were usually taken by a coup de main from the landward side by troops which had been landed further down the coast, and the defensive works had to be very strong on that side. In the case of Berry Head, the precipitous cliffs formed a perfect defence on the seaward side. The purpose of fortifications was to delay the enemy whilst reinforcements could be brought up; the fall of a fortress was usually certain, with a competent engineer in charge of the siege, but the operation took time and could not be rushed.

Mercer's plans were ready by July 14, when three sections through the proposed works were sent to the Drawing Room of the Board of Ordnance to be copied. [19] These original drawings do not survive. However, two sets of plans drawn up in 1803 are preserved. One set is Mercer's Autograph, and the other is a fair copy from the official Drawing Room. They are identical except in the degree of finish: the official draughtsmen were Compton and Holberton. The original design, which was executed for the most part, is the sheet dated Feb.24, 1803, captioned "Plan of the Works at the Berry Head as Projected by His Grace the Duke of Richmond" Like its companion drawings, it is an accomplished drawing in ink and watercolour.

General Mercer's design solution, as executed, protects the area of the tip of the headland set aside for two batteries, barracks, stores, parade ground etc. by a revetted wall and dry ditch spanned by a drawbridge. This is redoubt No.3. A separate redoubt, No.1, placed in advance, flanks the approach to No.3, and would need to be taken first in a separate operation by attackers, as its fire, if left unsuppressed, would take them in flank. No cannon embrasures are provided on the side facing No.3, it being assumed that it would be adequately protected by fire from No.3. The masonry revetments are of the same type as those of Redoubts 4 and 5 on Maker Heights, which were largely built according to the Duke of Richmond's designs, the earthworks being completed in 1783 and the revetments applied in 1789-1790. There is no means of providing enfilade fire down the ditch from a secure position. The ends of the ramparts are angled back to provide some measure of enfilade fire being delivered, though at great risk. However, the alternative plans drawn up show that a much more effective design was in fact proposed. Plans of the proposed works, as well as those actually executed, were made by official draughtsmen of the Board of Ordnance in February 1803 from Mercer's originals (which also survive.) These are titled respectively

1) Plan of the Works on the Berry Head as Projected by His Grace the Duke of Richmond. (Signed Tho.Compton, Feb.24, 1803 )

2) Plan of the Works at the Berry Head, with a Couvre Port to the Line no.3, and without the Demi Bastion No.2 and Line No.4. (Signed Tho.Compton, Feb.23, 1803 )

3) Plan showing the proposed Couvre Port [ Plan and Section ]

4) Plan of the Duke of Richmond's Casemates in the Flank of No.2 Demi-Bastion

5) Sections of the Duke of Richmond's Casemated Work of No.2 Demi-Bastion.

6) Plan of the Casemates, in the Flank of No.2.Demi-Bastion with a more Contracted Passage, to obviate the Groined Arches, in the Original Plan. (Signed R.R.Holberton, Feb 24 1803)

7) Section of the Casemated Flank of No.2.Demi-Bastion with the Contracted Passage. (Signed R.R.Holberton, Feb 24 1803 ) [20]

The Duke of Richmond's design adds a third principal work, a polygonal redoubt, No.2, surrounded by a ditch on all sides, in advance of both the other works. This is a strong work with casemated barracks in one of the faces. Behind it another work, No.4, much simpler and not separately defensible, protects the Castle Battery. ( All the old positions of 1780 were re-occupied, on a more permanent basis.) Acting with No.l, these two works would afford a vastly improved protection for No.3.

The other design, with the "Couvre Port" as it is not specifically ascribed to the Duke of Richmond, may be assigned to Mercer. This shows the work as executed, save for the important addition of a ravelin in front of the entrance to No.3. This should have solved the problem of enfilading the ditch of No.3, but quite extraordinarily the ravelin has been made too small for the purpose. Its ditches are swept by the fire of the work behind it, but it has no command over that of No.3. It makes, however, a considerably stronger defence than that actually provided.

Why was such a relatively ineffective fortification erected after all this? The answer probably lies in the disputes and quarrels which the fortification plans of the Duke of Richmond had provoked. In 1785 and 1786 his elaborate schemes for the defence of the dockyards of Portsmouth and Plymouth had been sponsored by Pitt, but had been defeated in the House of Commons after bitter debates and a minor pamphlet war, much of the opposition being on personal grounds rather than military considerations. Following this defeat he had not resigned his office, but contrived to salvage as much of his cherished plans as possible, erecting Fort Cumberland (or rather initiating it: construction dragged on until 1811) under cover of modifying an existing building at Southsea, and revetting two of the redoubts on Maker Heights. Now, at the beginning of the war, he was involved in a quarrel with the Duke of York which would prove fatal to his career at the Ordnance. They had been on very bad terms in 1789 when York had engaged in an abortive duel with Richmond's nephew, and the conduct of the war provided ample opportunities for renewed friction between the two men.

After York had been appointed commander of the British forces on the continent, the Duchess of Richmond wrote in February 1793 to her husband "The Nation must be ruined now that Master Frederick may have a plaything that I doubt he does not know how to manage..." [21] and again in April, (after Richmond had severely criticised the conduct of the war) in a letter which also indicates that the Duke's concern for the defence of England had not abated - "I am much hurt at your fatiguing yourself, for the whims of a foolish Boy....I cannot but fancy your Kentish & Sussex Tour of some little importance for there's no knowing what the French will not attempt, & I need not observe how much hurt you would be at their gaining the most trifling advantages by any neglect of yours - so do pray my Dear Husband consider if that is not more Essential Business for you than what can be done by others." [22]

The capture of Dunkirk was intended, and the planning began after the Duke had gone to summer camp with his militia, leaving the Ordnance in the hands of others. Through some kind of administrative confusion the required guns were never sent for the operation, which was a failure. The Duchess foretold the outcome: "I am happy to hear that you can prove them in the wrong that reflect upon you; i let me intreat you to be guarded on this occasion, for every Body has not the honest fair way of proceeding that you have, & they certainly will try to shufle the fault upon you, partly to save themselves, & perhaps to get rid of you; to be sure it would be quarrelling with their Bread & Butter to do so, but great Genius's now & then overshoot themselves. It seems very odd to me that they shou'd put Artillery Men in Boats without your knowledge; I suppose they will say that your being at Camp was the reason, but I think it none at all as they by Express coud communicate so soon with you. You must insist upon the Kings hearing you, & take every Public Manner of making the merits of the case known in the fewest words possible, for long stories lay one open." [23] Despite being duly made the scapegoat, He remained in office, though confined for some time to his Goodwood estate by gout. His removal from office in February 1795 was to follow from the appointment of the Duke of York to the post of Commander-in-Chief.

Richmond over the years had antagonised people both in the Office of Ordnance and the Royal Engineers, and schemes which he had promoted were perhaps now not favoured. Also economy, always a (not perhaps unreasonable) obsession with the Board, certainly had a part in the acceptance of this mutilated scheme of defence.

Perhaps a deeper reason lay in the lack of training of British engineer officers in the science of fortification, which itself was caused by the British Army's lack of experience in Continental warfare. In the words of perhaps the greatest practical expert on fortification and siegecraft that England has produced, Major-General John Jones (1783-1843) "The happy insular situation of Great Britain, and its maritime superiority, have ever caused but little attention to be paid to land defences at home, or to the service connected therewith.." [24]

Jones was the engineer at many of Wellington's Spanish sieges, the conduct of which he condemned; and, indeed, there was much to condemn. Bravery was used in place of professional skill; men were wholly ignorant of the art of sapping and the infantry were quite uninstructed in the importance of entrenching and consequently unwilling to undertake it, great and unneccesary loss of life being the result.

Not only were British siege tactics defective, but the designs of the forts of the celebrated (and highly successful) Torres Vedras Lines were faulty too. Some of the early ones were star-shaped, which had great deficiencies in providing useful fields of fire, and an amateurish approach was shown in other respects as well: "Many of the redoubts were placed on very elevated situations on the summit of steep hills, which gave them a most imposing appearance ; but it was in reality a defect... for the fire of their artillery on the object to be guarded became so plunging as to lose half its powers ; the musketry could not be made to scour the face of the hill sufficiently… The domineering situation of the redoubts, however, gave confidence to the young troops which composed the garrisons, protected them from a cannonade, and screened their interior from musketry, unless fired at a high angle, and consequently at random. These considerations perhaps justify the unusually elevated sites selected for most of the redoubts on the lines, though they cannot induce an approval of them as a general measure." [25] It is against this background that the Berry Head defences have to be seen.

2 Samuel & Daniel Lysons, History and Antiquities of Devonshire. London, 1822, vol.1 pp.cccxi, cccli.

3 PLY O/1/3

4 PLY I/2/5

5 M.M.Oppenheim, The Maritime History of Devon. Exeter, 1968. p.115.

6 PLY O/1/3

7 PLY I/2/5

8 PLY O/1/3

9 PRO WO 78 MPHH 126

10 PRO WO 78 MPHH 692/2

11 BH pp.9-10.

12 PLY I/2/6

13 PLY O/1/3

14 PLY I/2/6

15 PLY I/2/6

16 PLY O/1/4

17 PLY O/1/5

18 PRO WO 44/12

19 PRO WO 55 2281, Register of Drawings. The Berry Head drawings were nos. 79 & 85 ; they do not survive.

20 PRO WO 78 MPH 381 5/6/7/8/9/10/11

21 Quoted in Alison Olson, The Radical Duke… Oxford, 1961, p.95. See chapter 6 for a brief account of the circumstances surrounding Richmond's dismissal.

22 Goodwood Papers 228. April 24 1793.

23 Ibid. Sep. 10 1793

24 J.T.Jones, Journals of Sieges carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington in Spain between the years 1811 and 1814. 2 vols, London, 1814. p.xii.

25 J.T.Jones, Memoranda relative to the Lines thrown up to cover Lisbon in 1810. Printed for private circulation. London, 1829. pp.87-88.

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