The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  21 January 2011 

Plymouth, being an important port on the south coast of England, had for centuries been in fear of invasion by the French.  There had been several attempts back in the 14th and 15th centuries and similar attempts by the Spanish in later years.  The French Navy were determined to strengthen their fleet and power.

A Committee of Harbour Defences was set up in 1844 and they recommended that at Plymouth three new batteries should be constructed, at Picklecombe, Staddon Point and Eastern King.

In 1846 the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, drew attention to the size of the French forces and their new steam driven warships and made what is even today a very pertinent remark that: 'If your dockyards are destroyed your navy is cut up by the roots'.  Three years later the defences mentioned above were completed.

But things just got worse.  In 1852 the French President, Louis Napoleon, made himself Emperor Napoleon and such was the alarm in England that a Militia Act was immediately passed to establish a territorial army.  The French enlarged their dockyard at Cherbourg, just across the English Channel, and the panic grew in 1859 when Napoleon declared war on Austria and also launched the world's first armoured-plated steam driven warship.

During the summer of 1859 the British Government passed a Volunteer Act, creating 24 Rifle Corps in the County of Devon and some 12 Artillery Corps, and set up a Royal Commission to examine the state of the country's defences.  By 1860 over 100,000 men had enlisted and the Royal Commission had reported its findings and recommendations.  These were backed up by two defence Acts in August 1860 and by the end of the year work had started on improving the defence structures at Picklecombe, Bovisand and Drake's Island.

In 1863 the works at Eastern king, Western King and Mount Edgcumbe Park were finished.  By 1866 the cost of this huge undertaking was beginning to be felt, though, and the contractor employed to construct the defences around Plymouth's north-eastern boundary went bankrupt.

A fort was being constructed just off the Breakwater and in 1866 it was decided that this should be finished off in iron rather than masonry.

On the eastern shore of Plymouth Sound were Bovisand Battery; Watch House Battery; Twelve Acre Brake Battery; Brownhill Battery; Staddon Fort; and Stamford Fort.  Covering the main western channel into the Sound were Cawsand Battery; Picklecombe Battery; and Garden Battery (Mount Edgcumbe), all of which were overlooked by Maker Barracks.

Plymouth Sound itself was defended by the Breakwater Fort; Drake's Island Battery; Eastern King Battery; Western King Battery and Mount Wise Battery.

Defending the landward side of Plymouth were, from east to west: Laira Battery; Laira Emplacement; Efford Fort; Deerpark Emplacement; Austin Fort; Forder Battery; Eggbuckland Keep; Bowden Battery; Crownhill Fort; Woodland Battery; Knowle Battery; Agaton Fort; and Ernesettle Battery.  At Stoke, overlooking "The Lines" surrounding Devonport, was Mount Pleasant Redoubt, otherwise known as the Blockhouse.

Lying in Cornwall, outside the coverage of this website, were Scraesdon Fort, on the River Lynher; and Tregantle Fort and Polhawn Battery on the coast, overlooking Whitesand Bay.

In 1870 the Prussian Army totally destroyed the French Army and Napoleon took refuge in England, an event that rendered the defence works redundant and they acquired the name of "Palmerston's Follies".




  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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