The Defensible Barracks - a Victorian wonder

Wednesday 15 February 2012, 08:30

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Contrary to what many people believe, the west wales town of Pembroke Dock was never a naval town like Plymouth or Portsmouth. It was a dockyard town, a place that built ships, launched them into the waters of Milford Haven - and never saw them again once they had sailed off to duties in many other parts of the world.

Pembroke Dock at Sunset

Pembroke Dock at Sunset (Photo:William Hart)

Dockyards have to be protected, however, and if it was anything, Pembroke Dock was a military town. Barracks, forts and gun towers proliferated in and around the place, many of them being still in existence although, these days, long out of use.

Chief amongst these military fortifications were the Defensible Barracks, a huge renaissance style fortification based on an early 16th century design. The barracks still sit - although now in a deplorable state of disrepair - on the top of what is known locally as the Barracks Hill, dominating the town and the site of the old dockyard that they were originally built to protect.

The barracks covered an area of some 6,000 square yards, offering fields of fire to landward and out to sea. Its walls were many feet thick. The purpose of the barracks and fort was the defend the dockyard from landward attack and to this end there were rifle loops in the walls for nearly 700 muskets. In addition, the barracks were equipped with 16 24-pounder cannon. It was originally designed to be garrisoned by eight officers, seven NCOs and 240 other ranks.

Local legend - possibly an urban myth - declares that the Defensible Barracks were completed in just 12 months. Certainly the contractor, Thomas Jackson, handed over the finished product to the military on 25 November 1845, having begun work on them in the late summer of 1844. As official records state:

"Possession was taken at three o'clock in the afternoon and was officially indicated by the hoisting of Her Majesty's flag amidst deafening cheers from the hundreds of spectators. A substantial dinner with a liberal quantity of double strength Welsh ale was given to the workmen."
Vernon Scott : PD Days

Given the size of the barracks, the workmen certainly deserved their "double strength Welsh ale" and if the work really was completed in just one year then it was an amazing feat of engineering and human enterprise. Other sources, however, state that work began in 1841.

It is likely that preparation work, digging out footings and so on, did commence in 1841 leaving just the construction of the walls and buildings to be completed in 12 months. Even so, the mammoth effort required to bring building material to the site and then erect it in such a short space of time was nothing short of miraculous.

The place was first known as Treowen Barracks, after the nearby road, although the original intention was to call them The Prince Albert Barracks, in honour of Queen Victoria's husband. In the end, the name Defensible Barracks was adopted and it stuck.

The first occupants of the Defensible Barracks were the Royal Marines of the Portsmouth Division, transferring from their cramped and draughty quarters on the old woodenwall 'Dragon' which had served as their base for many years. They were soon joined by two companies from the West Yorkshire Regiment.

Over the years many fine and famous regiments were based in the barracks. These ranged from the Pembrokeshire Artillery to the Royal North Gloucestershire Regiment - and, in particular, the 24th Foot, better known as the South Wales Borderers.

In the early days the deep moat surrounding the Barracks was not fenced in. Several soldiers, returning from a night in one of the town's many beer houses, fell into the open moat and were either seriously injured or killed.

It was a fate that also befell Dr Sumpter from the town - returning home late one night after treating a patient in nearby Pennar, he plunged into the darkened moat. The shock to his nervous system and several physical injuries were sufficient to kill him within a few days of the accident.

The most renowned victim of the unprotected moat, however, was an otherwise unremarkable Private in the Royal Marines, one John Harding. He pitched head first into the chasm in October 1850, his gravestone in the town cemetery recording his demise with the following words:

"Except the Lord direct our feet
And guide with gracious care;
At every step we danger meet,
In every path a snare.

Then reader pause, who e'er thou art,
As thus my grave you view;
Remember, thou from life must part -
Perhaps as quickly, too."

The twice daily firing of a blank charge from the barracks cannon became an essential part of the town's customs, alerting those residents without watches when it was noon or 9.30 at night. The 9.30pm gun soon became a signal marking the curfew for those local girls "out courting."

Over the years many famous soldiers served at the Defensible Barracks. None of them was more renowned than the famous Gordon of Khartoum who, although stationed at the barracks, was afforded the privilege of living out "in digs" in the town.

When he left Pembroke Dock to serve in the Crimea it was 1855 and he apparently remarked "I have received my death warrant." In fact Gordon did not die in the Crimean War but had to wait another dozen or so years before meeting his maker at the defence of Khartoum.

Arthur Lowe as Captain Mannering

Arthur Lowe as Captain Mannering

Another famous resident of the Barracks was the actor Arthur Lowe who later found immortality as Captain Mainwaring in the TV show Dad's Army. He served there during the World War Two with the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry.

The barracks were the scene of a major tragedy on 28 April 1942. Nineteen men were killed while practicing to disarm mines, four of them from the Royal Engineers, four from the King's Own Scottish Borderers and four serving with the Pioneer Corps. An officer who had been in the room moments before escaped death when he left the room to answer a telephone call.

When the military left Pembroke Dock in the mid 1960s, the Defensible Barracks were abandoned to their fate. They have subsequently served as a Council Depot and as the clubhouse for the South Pembs Golf Club.

Now, however, they are empty and forlorn. Although they are officially classified as a Grade II listed building, they are privately owned and are slowly crumbling into dust. It is a tragic state of affairs for a wonderful and historic old building.

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    Comment number 1.

    I've seen the old barracks many times so it's good to put some history to the place. I did enjoy the epitaph or whatever you call it on Private Harding's gravestone. Either his friends must have had a damned good sense of humour or somebody was trying to make a political point. Do you know how long after his death it was before they fenced in the moat?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    In my youth Phil, I must have walked past Defensible Barracks hundreds if not thousands of times. It has particular significance for me, since if it were not for Defensible Barracks I wouldn’t be here! As well as eminent soldiers like General Gordon and ‘Captain Mannering’ being stationed there, my father was posted to Defensible with the Royal Artillery in the 1930s. It was when he was stationed there he met my mother, they married, hence me.
    Like you Phil, I am appalled at the state this building has been allowed to get into and dread the day when it is declared ‘unsafe’ and is pulled down to make way for blocks of flats. I have heard a rumour that some work has been done on it recently, let us hope that is true.
    I’ve never seen a date for the fencing of the moat Noreen, but it had certainly been fenced by 1905 when Mrs Mary Peters wrote her book on the history of Pembroke Dock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Hi Noreen. Like Roger I don't have a date for the fencing in of the moat. Remember, historically all moats would have been open - that's why they were there and protecting people from falling in was not high on the agenda of military planners. Think of castles, all with open moats. I should imagine the moat around the Defensible Barracks would have been fenced some time after the death of Dr Sumpter - soldiers falling in and killing themselves was one thing, respected local professionals doing the same was something else. So, perhaps some time in the 1860s/1870s? I have a print of the Barracks, circa 1890, and it seems to show some type of paling around the moat - whether that was permanent or not I don't know.

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    Comment number 4.

    Hi all

    My name is Doug Jones and I am the current owner/guardian of the Barracks along with my wife Lynne. Just found this blog site and would like to update you on the progress of the works currently being undertaken. We are currently refurbishing the 5 apartments in the East wing to be more in keeping with the original design of the building and trying to put back as much of the character as possible. The East wing was converted in the 80's and the 90's and much of the work was of such a poor standard that we have had to strip out and start again. We have had a lot of support from many towns people with a positive response to the works so far in spite of the deliberate hindrance from one particular councilor. The remaining sections of the site will be refurbished over the next few years and we hope to open a coffee shop and museum to the general public later this year.

    For those interested there will be a memorial ceremony held at the Barracks on the 28th of April to mark the 70th anniversary of the 19 soldiers killed in a mine explosion accident that at the time was hushed up for morale purposes. All are welcome and any interest should be directed to Martin Caveney and John Evans of the Sunderland trust Pembroke Dock, who are organising the event.

    As an aside if the gates are open it would be appreciated if people would be kind enough not to just wander in as this is a dangerous structure and works are ongoing.


  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Doug, that is wonderful news and confirms the rumours I’d heard. Strength to your elbow and shout it to the rooftops, since the best way to preserve a building is that it should be used. I hope you get full support from CADW and planners for sympathetic refurbishment and restoration work.


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