The pre 1850’s Nothe headland was a very different place to the one we know nowadays, but it was still very popular with both locals and the visiting elite.
Joseph Russell Tompkins in an article from the Dorset Year Book of 1923 builds a wonderful early Victorian image of this headland; ‘the Nothe was quite free and open-no fort or seawall, no tree or shrub, except a few patches of furze. a coastguard station was there, the pilots and longshoremen had a Look Out cabin that they had constructed out of an old boat turned bottom up and propped against the overhanging bank, the sides roughly enclosed, and with a seat inside this formed a sort of snuggery when the weather was rough, but in warm summer weather they preferred sitting or lying on the grass.’
But this was all about to change when the Royal Engineers arrived on scene.
While writing about the story of the Nothe Fort and its accompanying constructions, I have researched the various comings and goings of those regiments who were involved in its design and completion, consequently it led to me compiling many a chart so I could check on their respective time lines as I wrote its story.
A couple of people who have read my book messaged me asking for more information on a particular regiment as they were doing family research, so I thought it might be worthwhile posting a few bits on here for any interested parties.
This one concentrates on the 18th corps Royal Engineers.
The Engineers, or sappers as they were know, have a very long history of design and construction, not only of military sites but also many of our famous public buildings such as the Royal Albert Hall in London and of course, Portland prison as shown below in a lithograph from the 1850’s.
During the period I was concentrating on for book I, mid to late 19th century, many a sapper arrived in Weymouth and was put to work on the Nothe, Verne Citadel, Portland prison or the breakwaters.
First on scene for these fortification works were the men (and families ) of the 18th corps under command of newly promoted Captain Robert Hawthorn (pictured below) a soldier who managed to looked somewhat wistful in every single photo.
The corps and their baggage arrived in Weymouth by train in May of 1859 ‘to be employed here in putting our line of coast in a thorough state of defence and erecting batteries and earthworks on the Nothe.’
Also arriving in Weymouth, in overall command as CRE was Major Charles Butler Peter Hodges Nugent
and Major P B Whittingham.
At that time simple sod batteries were the planned defences, but of course, for a variety of reason, things would soon change.
By September of 1859, local and national papers were reporting on ‘the erection of a chain of strong fortifications on the coast in that locality have made considerable progress in that undertaking, and, notwithstanding the comparatively short time they have been employed there, the men have completed the erection of a strong 3-gun battery which commands the entrance to Weymouth harbour. The Royal Engineers have since commenced the formation of a battery of large dimensions to sweep the entire coast between Weymouth and Portland. This battery when completed will mount 50 guns, all of which are to be the long range Armstrong cannon.’
Now this might just explain the image below that I have been pondering over for years, it was shown me by Bill Pinder, once the the Nothe Fort archivist. We couldn’t make it out at first because it didn’t fit with the solid construction of a later date, so had assumed it was a bit of poetic license.
But just maybe, going by their clothes, this dates from the 1850’s era, so could this possibly be an illustration of those early batteries?
The sappers continued to beaver away on the vastly unstable terrain of the Nothe peninsula, trying to form these earthen batteries, but a fierce storm in October of 1859 put paid to their efforts as the soaked land land slowly slid seaward. Local papers reported ‘the instability of the soil on the Nothe presents serious difficulties to the formation of the batteries in course of construction, the foundations having subsided very considerably during the late wet weather, thus showing little probability of their being able to support the additional weight of the guns.’
Undeterred, the sappers battled on with their digging, by now ‘a military road is forming from the barracks to the end of the promontory, where a large level circular flat has been carried away for a battery. Trenches have been made and earthworks have been raised in other parts.’
They also uncovered more than a few surprises while doing so on this history rich ridge top!
In May of 1860, the work of the 18th corps was finished.
All that was needed was a sea wall built in an attempt to stabilise and contain the fluid grounds and gun batteries above, this was done by the private construction firm of Jay & Goodchap.
(Not that this lasted much longer either…it too ended up sliding downwards!)
The men of the 18th corps left town under the command of Captain Longley and Lieutenant Peters, the Sherbourne Mercury of 8th May comments ‘During the time they have remained in Weymouth, their conduct has been highly creditable and praiseworthy.”
High praise indeed, especially when you read what some of the other less than ‘praiseworthy’ troops in town had been getting up to!
In September of 1861 Robert Hawthorn married local girl, Amelia Enderby Dow at Weymouth’s Holy Trinity church.
But Captain Hawthorn remained in Weymouth until July of 1862 when he was posted back to RE headquarters at Chatham.
A few more 18th corps RE details gathered from the BMD’s of their short stay in Weymouth, though not complete as some of the registers have gone astray.
23 Oct 1859; Mary MATHIESON (Born: 25 Jul 1859) daughter of James & Elizabeth Mathieson (Corporal Royal Engineers) (Abode-Weymouth Barracks)
23 Oct 1859; James MATHIESON (Born: 25 Nov 1857) daughter of James & Elizabeth Mathieson (Corporal Royal Engineers) (Abode – Weymouth Barracks)
August 21 1859; Alice Annie NOBBS; Charles & Louisa of Weymouth; Soldier; Private Royal Engineers
September 18 1859; John Aspey Daniel BELL; Thomas & Kate of Weymouth; Soldier; Sapper Royal Engineers
April 01 1860; James Fraser DUKES; William James & Margaret Ellen of Weymouth; Soldier; Sergeant Royal Engineers
April 01 1860; John Henry DRIVER; James & Sarah Ann of Weymouth; Soldier; Sergeant Royal Engineers
April 01 1860; Frank Frederick BOUCHER; Alfred & Catherine of Weymouth; Soldier; Sapper Royal Engineers
April 05 1860; Clarissa SMITH; Henry & Charlotte of Weymouth; Office Keeper; Royal Engineers
April 05 1860; Albert Edward SMITH; Henry & Charlotte of Weymouth; Office Keeper; Royal Engineers
September 10th 1861 Captain Robert HAWTHORN to Amelia Enderby DOW
An example of a mid Victorian Sod Battery.
Find out more about life in Weymouth and Portland with the military in town.
It certainly wasn’t dull!
Nothe Fort and Beyond is available from the Nothe Fort shop and Weymouth Museum.
Also available on Amazon at