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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The Breakwater Fort, Plymouth - the Palmerston battery at the mouth of the Sound

Listener's query
"The Breakwater Fort in Plymouth Sound - when was it built and what for was it for? Was it Napoleonic?"

Brief summary
Unless you have exceptional eyesight you can't make out much of Breakwater Fort from the Cattewater Harbour in Plymouth - it lies a couple of miles out to the mouth of the Sound. The fort is not Napoleonic but the breakwater, which is 30 metres beyond the fort, was built, or at least started, at that time. The breakwater, which protects the anchorage and is built across the mouth of the entrance to the harbour, is about a mile long, with a lighthouse on one end and a beacon - a refuge for stranded mariners - on the other. It was begun in 1812 and was a prodigious engineering feat, designed by John Rennie and Joseph Whidby. It was built at an enormous cost in both money and lives and it was years before it was finished. It is 200 feet wide at the seabed and 40 feet wide at the top, and rises to about 20 feet above sea-level along the whole of its length.

At least 3,000,000 tons of rock were quarried locally from a 27-acre site at Oreston bought from the Duke of Bedford. The breakwater cost 1,500,000 to build and more than 700 men worked on it. Neither of the two original designing engineers saw it finished: Whidby resigned and Rennie died and his sons continued the work. It was seen to be so important that it was known as the Great National Undertaking.

The fort, which is like an oval concrete island standing high out of the water, is much later. It is a Palmerston fort, built when Britain feared the ambitions of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). Although the French had been our allies in the Crimean War, Napoleon III had seen Russia and Austria defeated and there were fears that he might turn his attention to Britain. In particular there were concerns that the French were after naval supremacy. They were pressing ahead with constructing armoured ships and building an improved base at Cherbourg. Britain would feel especially vulnerable if ever command of the English Channel were to be lost. Britain never maintained a large standing army and Prime Minister Palmerston feared that once a landing was made then the way to London would be open - with Portsmouth as a supply base, and the Plymouth naval dockyard put out of action. It was thought better to spend money on defences, which as Palmerston reminded Gladstone, was much cheaper than a war.

Palmerston therefore set up a Royal Commission in 1859 to report on the defences of the United Kingdom. It reported in 1860 and many of its recommendations were acted on. There were concerns that, with technology changing rapidly, armaments might be become outdated, but the works were commissioned around the coast - especially in the areas near Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Bristol Channel and the Medway/Chatham.

Building work on the Breakwater Fort started in 1860 and went on until 1880. It was part of the ring around Plymouth, coming between Fort Bovisand to the east and Picklecombe Fort to the west. It had 2-foot thick steel armour-plating, and a gun hoist (still there) to lift the heavy armaments onto the fort. These were 14 x 12.5-inch and 4 x 10-inch guns, though at a later date they were replaced by quick-firing guns. The fort later became a signalling and semaphore station. In the 1890s it was painted with a yellow and black chequered pattern which is still visible. It was used as an anti-aircraft station during the Second World War - the wartime buildings have now been demolished.

Experts consulted
Maritime historian Chris Ware
Ron Overton of the Plymouth City Museum
Captain Tim Charlesworth of the Cattewater Harbour Board

Further reading
Andrew Pye and Fred Woodward, The Historic Defences of Plymouth (Cornwall County Council, 1996)
Fred Woodward, Forts or Follies (Halsgrove, 1998)
James Chambers, Palmerston - the People's Darling (John Murray, 2004)


The Plymouth Breakwater

Plymouth Data: The Breakwater

Castles and Fortifications of England & Wales: Breakwater Fort

A look at the Plymouth Breakwater

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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