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NOTHE FORT AND BEYOND…

Ever wondered what life was really like for those who lived in a Victorian fort or barracks? Or for those townsfolk who lived side by side with soldiers and their families.

And the Band Played On; Music from the British Royal Navy

Someone once asked me why I write posts about the navy when my blog and book were entitled Nothe Fort and Beyond.

 ‘Beyond’ maybe gives a clue because the Victorian fortifications weren’t built as a stand alone defence. They were not only designed to protect our south coast from invasion but to protect the naval fleets that moored within the nearby bases, Portland Roads was one such base.

Like the resident military, when these men of the sea arrived in port their musical services were swiftly snapped up to entertain the local population and tourists alike in the nearby bandstands such as Alexandra gardens shown below and in local theatres.

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I came across this interesting article written in The Navy & Army Illustrated magazine of 1899 and added it here because I thought some might enjoy this snippet of naval history.

MUSIC AFLOAT

Everyone who has served on board ship will testify to the value of a good band, or even of an indifferent one rather than none at all. Sailors appear to have  a natural turn for music; there are few ships in the navy, even of the smaller ones, which are not allowed  band, where some sort of attempt is not made at a “squeegee,”  as described in a former number.

1.4 mb title band of the caledoneon army and navy 1899 1All large vessels are allowed a certain proportion of bandsmen as part of their complement, and flag-ships are very properly accorded a greater number. The pay allowed by the Admiralty instructions is not always liberal enough top secure the services of first-rate me, but a large number of lads are now qualified as band boys in the training ships, and are rated as bandsmen when they attain a certain age, provided they are proficient, and its possible for them to obtain eventually the rank of bandmaster.

Ships’ bands like those of regiments are usually looked after by one or more officers, elected as band president, or band committee; and small sum is subscribed monthly by each member of the ward-room mess to provide music etc., and to supplement the pay of some of the men, and especially of the bandmaster.band of the powerful army and navy 1899In former days-and not so very many years ago-very meagre provision was made by the authorities in this respect, but some ships especially in the Mediterranean, had very “swagger” bands, maintained by the officers at considerable expense. The flag ship in China, thirty years ago, had a band of about forty performers which would have put many a military band in the shade.

Small craft which are not allowed bandsmen, are, however, permitted to carry a “musician” a distinction which appears at first sight somewhat invidious!

The band usually assembles on deck a few minutes before the colours are hoisted in the morning, and plays “God Save the Queen” as they go up, all on deck respectfully uncovering. Some lively airs, marches, etc., are played before and during morning inspection.

In the evening there is always music during dinner, the bandmaster bringing down the programme to the mess president, and being frequently invited down to have  glass of wine after playing “The Queen.”1.1 band of the impregnable frameless army and navy 1899 3The training ship “Impregnable” has, as will be noticed, a very numerous band, chiefly consisting of aspiring young musicians, and the “Caledonia” stationed at Queensferry, in the Firth of Forth, went so far as to organise a small band of youthful pipers, greatly to the delight, no doubt, of the Scotchmen.

Weymouth and Portland of course had its own resident naval training vessel, H.M.S. Boscowen moored in Portland Roads.

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(For further information on these vessels above moored in Portland Roads click on the link below)

http://britishphotohistory.ning.com/photo/photo/show?id=2680769%3APhoto%3A13211

In January of 1892 the Boscowen band was summonsed into action upon the death of H.R.H Prince Albert Victor.

The whole of Portland, Weymouth and Melcombe Regis was in mourning, tradesmen were requested to shut up shop by 2pm on the day of his funeral, many of them having boarded their windows in black.

St Mary’s rang out it’s mournful toll with muffled bells, joined by those of St John’s and Holy Trinity churches.

Every organisation was represented that day, the Army and Navy, Civil Service, Oddfellows, Foresters, Good Templars and Rechabites to name but a few.

The principle contingent was furnished from H.M.S Alexandra and Boscowen, about 250 officers, men and boys representing the Royal Navy, who arrived in launches on the quay shortly after quater-past two, and to the music of the Boscowen band, marched to church.

Not only did their band have the honour of leading in the naval procession but they also played  a major role  in the church service.

Mr H.A Hurdle, A.R.A.M organist of St Mary’s, [presided at the organ with great ability, being assisted by the band of H.M.S Boscowen.

 

 

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Nothe Fortifications and the 18th corps Royal Engineers

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.’

© NOTHE FORT AND BEYOND-2

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.

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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.

© Nothe Fort and Beyond

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

Charles Butler 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?

© NOTHE FORT AND BEYOND-3

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.

Snip20180331_19But Captain Hawthorn remained in Weymouth until July of 1862 when he was posted back to RE headquarters at Chatham.

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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.

CHRISTENINGS

ST MARY’S 

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)

HOLY TRINITY

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

MARRIAGES

HOLY TRINITY

September 10th 1861 Captain Robert HAWTHORN to Amelia Enderby DOW

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An example of a mid Victorian Sod Battery.

 https://www.blighty-at-war.net/lunette-battery.html

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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.

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

Also available on Amazon at

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothe-Fort-Beyond-Weymouth-Portland/dp/1977592686

Military Tarts.

Bev Allen’s Military Tarts. I bet the soldiers on the Nothe would have scoffed these quicker than they could have fired a shell, probably washed down with a quart of ale from the Nothe Tavern. 😁 those down,

https://kentishmaid.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/military-tarts/

WEYMOUTH WWI WARTIME HUMOUR 1915

Like most institutions, the army developed their own sense of humour.

During one of my night time rummages through the online auction sites I came across this little cracker from WWI and my finger just inadvertently hit the ‘buy’ button.

It is a tongue in cheek magazine for those soldiers stationed in the Weymouth & Portland barracks in 1915.

A Christmas number no less.

Straffe Magazine

It is not only full of military humour, but also of fascinating snippets of their actual lives while stationed here.

Straffe Magazine ConcertI’m still working on some of their initialisms!!!

Answers on a postcard please…

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Book 1 is now available in the Nothe Fort shop and Weymouth Museum.

Or on Amazon at £9.99

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothe-Fort-Beyond-Weymouth-Portland/dp/1977592686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1510219710&sr=8-1&keywords=nothe+fort+and+beyond

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

1856 1st Devon Militia arrive in Weymouth.

During the Victorian era, Weymouth & Portland saw the military men come and go, there seemed to be no rhyme and reason as to their movements.

Some stayed  merely weeks, some managed a few months, a couple even wangled a couple of years…but military life was lived pretty much on the move.

Come the summer of 1856 and in marched the men of the 1st Battalion 11th North Devonshire Regiment, though maybe ‘march’ was not quite the right word for their arrival.

Devon Militia uniform 1855

On the 11th June, under the command of Major Rattery the Regiment boarded the steamer Germania in Cork, Ireland, they were Weymouth bound.
Their journey onboard the steamer was not without its many trials and tribulations. Travel aboard a troop ship was extremely unpleasant, from severe overcrowding to the constant threat of disease running through its closely confined passengers.

Of course add to that the natural dangers from being at sea and any adverse weather conditions that came their way.

Such was the case for the Weymouth bound Devon Militia.

‘On passing the Land’s End a dense fog set in, which entirely obscured the shore and just as the ship entered the dangerous passage between the Long Ship’s Light-House and the mainland, the vessel had actually got among the rocks in Jenning’s Cove.

Only a hail from the shore’ gave them the ‘first intimation of danger and at that moment, as if by a direct interposition of Providence, the fog lifted and showed the perilous position in which the ship was placed, in a small bay filled with rocks amongst which the passage was so extremely intricate that the slightest confusion on board must have resulted in the utter destruction of the ship’.
Someone must have been watching over them that day. Not a single soul on board made a sound as two local fishermen and their captain worked together, weaving their tortuous route through the lethal jagged rocks.

Every man woman and child must have held their breath as their vessel slid within inches of a watery fate time and time again.

‘The lives of 600 to 700 persons hung on this fearful moment’.

Finally, they were safely through and heading for the safety of open waters, but with that ‘the thick fog swiftly shrouded them once more. ‘
Old Father Neptune, not content with nearly sinking them then decided to throw in a bit of atrocious weather into the mix.

The Germania finally arrived at Weymouth on the 14th. Her passengers must have thanked their lucky stars to see terra firma on the horizon at last.

It wasn’t going to be that easy though, due to high seas and strong currents, the by now violently rolling vessel couldn’t even enter the harbour.

They managed to get one tender ashore, but that journey had been so treacherous that a decision was made to leave the rest of the regiment and their families on board until the wind had dropped, which wasn’t until the following day.

One journey I bet none of them forgot.

True to form though, the men soon rallied and began unloading their gear from the boat down onto the quayside.

Of course, arrival at any destination needed an announcement befitting their status, so bandsmen gathered their musical equipment together, donned their drums, ready to lead the way up the slope to their new abode.

A rousing rendition of ‘the Old Folks at Home’ was just the tune to raise the spirits.

The troops and their families were heading for the Red Barracks, the Nothe Fort was nothing more than a mere sketch on a parchment of paper at that time.

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While they were stationed at Weymouth the Devon men were presented with their new colours, something that delighted the crowd of enthusiastic spectators.

From the Weymouth Journal 18th July comes a blow by blow account of the  somewhat lengthy proceedings.

‘The presentation of colours to the 1st Devon Militia took place on Tuesday afternoon last. 

“The spot selected for the presentation was most delightful-it being no other than the Nothe. The prospect there-from was most charming and varied.

Weymouth mid 1850's as viewed from the Nothe Weymouth © NOTHE FORT AND BEYOND-2
Weymouth mid 1850’s as viewed from the Nothe Weymouth before the fortifications were built.

The gradual declivity rendered the sight easily to be seen by all. A view of it could also be obtained from the Pier and from the Esplanade. The number of persons gathered together was very great, and amongst them were many of the elite of the town and neighbourhood as well as several of the Officers of the Dorset Militia, attired in regimental dress.

Ferguson Davie Lieut-colonel 1st Devon Militia 1858 67

Shortly before three o’clock the Regiment left the barracks and proceeded to the Nothe, headed by their excellent band, playing in a spirited manner the Parade March ‘Minnie.’

On arriving at the ground the whole of them formed in a  line two deep and then three sides of a square.The small drums were then piled around the large one, the Colours resting on them. The Colours are two in number; they were manufactured by Hawkes & Mosley, of London. The Queen’s Colour is a beautiful one; it is a Union Jack with the words “The First Devon Militia” inscribed in the middle.

Devon Militia colours 1856-1888

The other colour is still more beautiful; encircled by flowers is the Castle of Exeter, under which is the motto “Semper Fidelis,”round both of which are the words “The 1st Devon Militia”.

to proceed however to our task of describing the ceremony

During this interval the crowd was eager to get admission into this square and frequently broke through the lines intended to keep them back. a number of coast-guards men of this station under the command of Captain Lucroft, kept the ground, their services were very much brought into requisition in “arresting” the onward progress of the multitude.

Hugh Earl Fortescue K.G. Colonel 1st Devon Militia

The Right Hon Earl Fortescue KG., and Colonel of the Regiment.

The ceremony of consecrating them was performed and a prayer was offered by the Rev D Cottle.

The Earl of Fortescue then proceeded to inspect the Regiment which now reformed into line; the band during the time playing the National Anthem. The Colours having been saluted by the Battalion, three hearty cheers were given for Her Majesty.

The Ceremony of Trooping the colours next took place, the band playing the British Grenadiers. The escort for the Colours then “stood fast” and the Colours having been carried to the opposite corner of the field by the two junior Lieutenants, Drewe and Halifax, the escort proceeded there, headed by the band performing the Grenadier March.

Major-General F E Drewe Lieut-Col 1st Devon Militia 1856 58

On arriving where the Colours had been placed, the band again played the National Anthem.

The Lieutenants bearing the colours  and the escort then marched past the Regiment, preceded by the band performing the Parade March.

The escort for the Colours having retaken their positions, the whole Regiment formed into four divisions, marched, in review in slow and quick time, past the noble and gallant Colonel, the band being situated just opposite him.

The officers, as they passed, saluted the veteran Colonel, who frequently acknowledged the compliment by waving his cocked hat, with its white plumes of feathers.

The Regiment then formed a line and gave a general salute, the band playing ‘God Save the Queen.’

Having formed into rank and file of four deep, they marched to the barracks, preceded by the band playing a quick march.

‘Such a scene has not lately taken place in the neighbourhood of Weymouth’

The Devonshire Boys

All these wonderful images and much of the information are taken from the book Historical records of the 1st Devon Militia (4th Battalion … Walrond, Henry, 1841-1917. freely available to read on Hathi Trust Digital Library.
https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008592614 and local newspapers of time.

Badges 1st Devon Militia

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Oh to be able to travel back in time and have witnessed these wonderful scenes.

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http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/cultures-of-brass/military/diary/career.htm

Weymouth’s Nothe Guns, Gardens and Graveyards;

Here in Weymouth and Portland we are blessed with a bevvy of beautiful parks and gardens, all embracing their own special identity.

Unbeknown to many people visiting Weymouth, one hidden gem holds a fascinating history, that of fighting men and fearsome artillery.

Though it stands right next to the harbour,  it’s secreted beneath a solid green canopy.

sam_3695

Up on this tree covered peninsula are Weymouth’s well-loved, if not slightly, ‘ragamuffin’ Nothe gardens.

Don’t get me wrong…I really do mean that in the nicest sense possible.

After all, I spent an awful lot of my childhood charging around them with my friends and still love visiting them with my grandchildren.

They always had that slightly wild, wonderful unkempt feel to them, wonky paths, foot-worn steps, steep slippery slopes, but that only made them so much more appealing.

Snip20180128_1

Where better to play a boisterous game of hide and seek or chase me Charlie? (Thankfully, that still holds true for todays youngsters)

Going back centuries, the Nothe peninsular had always been viewed as an open public space as far as the town and its residents were concerned.

P1010280

From here early 19th century local pilots watched out for incoming vessels, spy glass in hand, sat snug inside their makeshift cabin, a rickety upturned wooden hull.

old sea dog and telescope

Victorian coastguards set their sights firmly on the far horizon, guarding our shores from anyone who was less than welcome, possible smugglers or would-be invaders, all came under their steady, watchful gaze.

Wealthy tourists of the day, would meander upon it’s windswept top, keen to inhale that health giving breeze.

Artists came and perched, paints and easels at hand, ready to capture Weymouth’s Bay of Naples beauty.

Snip20180128_3

Then during the 1850’s and 1860’s this land was requisitioned by the War Office and despite a series of futile protests from the town’s corporation, the Nothe became a full blown military site

With Napoleon supposedly rattling his sabres on the not too far off shores, it was deemed sensible to start building a series of coastal fortifications…just in case.

By the 1870’s all construction work was completed, the Nothe Fort now stood proud and strong at the tip of the ridge.

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Weymouth’s corporation, keen to reclaim the use of this popular piece of land again, approached Colonel Belfield, CRE (Commander  Royal Engineers) the man charged with constructing the Weymouth and Portland coastal defences. (Sat to the right of this dashing trio.)

Colonel Belfieldthumb

Once all negotiations were completed between the War Office and Weymouth Corporation,  for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year, Weymouth inhabitants and their lucrative tourists could once more enjoy the stunning views from atop its ridge.

School of art from nothe

Eager to make a start,  paths were laid out and a variety of seats put in place…but it was still very much a military site, consequently, certain restrictions were made on those earlier plantings.

nothe gardens

Directions were given that no trees or shrubs should be planted that obstructed the firing line of any of the great guns that now dotted this headland.

The top was to be kept open and clear, for this was to be used for visiting troops and their tented camps, of which there were many.

IMG0687

No military camp exclusion zones existed then, no great forbidding barbed wire fences or guarded gates separated soldiers and their territory from civilians. the two fractions mingled quite freely.

Indeed locals would frequently find their way up the slope to partake in some of the soldiers benefits, using their smoking and reading tent to catch up on world events, or to listen to the bandsmen rehearsing for their next performance.

There was even a sad case reported in the local papers of a family of five starving young children who went from tent to tent begging the soldiers for scraps of food.

(Their parents were reported and taken to court.)

The gardens became a place for one and all to enjoy, from smartly turned out soldiers to delicate ladies and their twirling parasols.

Over the following years, folks continued to enjoy its blossoming gardens, as more paths were laid out, rockeries built, additional trees and shrubs added.

True to Victorian pleasures, a bandstand was added, where local and visiting musicians would play, many of them being resident or visiting military bands.

Nothe gardens

The sweet notes of their tunes floating out over the bay’s waters would draw people up the slopes from far and wide.

The steep  harbourside cliff face eventually sported a series of narrow, criss-crossing footpaths, slopes and steps, that as a child were great fun to hare along…

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…that is until you came a cropper and ended up  tumbling down the muddy slopes only to face your parent’s wrath when you crept in the door at the end of the day,  clothes torn, hands and knees scraped and caked head to toe with mud.

But then, that was simply childhood in those days.

The gardens were still part of a bustling military site at the start of the 20th century.

Numerous postcards captured fleeting moments of those long gone military men, such as the one below, depicting soldiers of the Royal Garrison Artillery Volunteers stood to attention on a Sunday morning, ready for inspection before they set off at a quick march to that morning’s church parade.

rga v church parade.

Spectators were still free to wander up to watch such going-on’s.

Come WWII and the vital defences of our shores brought the Nothe Fort and its gardens into military action once more.

A heavy anti-aircraft battery was set in place on the top near the fort,  their guns manned by men and women of the Artillery division. A set of temporary huts housed those troops serving their time on this windswept ridge. (These were also used afterwards to house many of the Weymouth families who lost their homes during bombing raids.)

A powerful searchlight was set atop the sea facing wall, its blinding beams sweeping across the bay and raking the skies for any approaching enemy.

Sadly, a massive landslide in the 1988 saw the tall sea wall and its searchlight housing swept downwards and into the sea.

P1130034thumb

A line of massive Portland stone blocks now hug the shoreline, attempting to retain this notoriously unstable ground in its place. (Unstable ground was something that the Victorian Royal Engineers also had to contend with  while constructing the Nothe Fort.)

These beautiful gardens still remain very popular with many locals, their spacious open top no longer houses the heavy canvas shelters of soldiers but picnic rugs and BBQ’s.

The air is nowadays more likely to be filled with the laughter of excited children as they race  around and play than that of belligerent drill sergeants with their sharp tongued retorts.

But the Nothe also holds another hidden delight…The Peace Gardens, which once used to be the Friends Burial Ground.

Their fascinating story will be for another day.

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Book 1 of Nothe fort and Beyond is now available in the Nothe Fort shop and Weymouth Museum.

Or on Amazon at £9.99.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothe-Fort-Beyond-Weymouth-Portland/dp/1977592686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1510219710&sr=8-1&keywords=nothe+fort+and+beyond

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

Royal Engineers and Searchlight Displays on Weymouth’s Nothe Fort

Sometimes it’s odd where childhood memories pop up from.

I have a few as a small child of watching searchlight displays from Weymouth beach. I am almost sure that they had been based on the Nothe and maybe over towards White Nothe?

I recall watching as these powerful beams moved out across the waters of the bay and then that feeling of excitement…fear almost as their piecing light swung landwards and crept slowly along the shoreline ever closer to where we were sat.

It didn’t take much imagination to feel the apprehension any approaching  foe would have experienced, praying desperately that those all-exposing rays wouldn’t pick out his vessel during their sweeps to and fro in their search for intruders.

searchlight display from naval boats

Anyway, I digress, I was rummaging through the old newspapers looking for something completely different when I came across a few articles in 1934 about the Royal Engineers, or sappers as they are known, working upon the Nothe with their searchlights, (which of course, is what jogged those childhood memories.)

Searchlight display from battleships in Weymouth Bay and searchlight practise by the Royal Engineers at Weymouth Nothe attracted hundreds of sightseers, few of whom realised what is going on in  the ships or at the Nothe to cast the great beams across the sky’

(Western Gazette 9th November 1934)

Soon after the impromptu night time illuminations, Major R M Dawes gave a talk at the Weymouth YMCA on the role of the Royal Engineers in defending our coast. He pointed out that one of their jobs was to man and maintain the powerful searchlights and that it took as much electricity to light a single searchlight as would be needed to illuminate a large village.

When Major Dawes gave his lecture in 1934 his talk would have described the sapper’s role at the Nothe Fort during WWI, little knowing that a mere five years later, they would be back in service defending our coast and ever more valuable because this time the war would be brought  to our very shores.

When I dug a bit deeper into the history of these searchlights I recalled that I had already written a piece about them in my manuscript for book II of Nothe Fort and Beyond…

‘Other arrivals on the Nothe in August of that year (1912) was the Dorset Fortress Light Company Royal Engineers. These soldiers specialise in the skills of installation and maintenance of electricity, communications and searchlights.

The Nothe Fort possessed two powerful lights, their brilliant beams raking the waters of the bay during the hours of darkness.

This small but specialised division (137 men in total including officers) been set up in 1908 to concentrate on those skills necessary to maintain the coastal fortifications.

The 1909 Territorial Year Book showed the nearby Sidney Hall was listed as the headquarters of the no 1 Electric Light Company Dorset Fortress RE.

P1010726

The Sidney Groves Memorial Hall stood down on the North Quay and over the years was used by numerous sections of the military.

The Year Book of 1909 revealed that ‘the building includes a drill hall for the church Lads’ Brigade, 102 feet long by 60 feet wide, officers rooms, reading room, library, caretaker’s house & c.; at the west end of the main building are the head quarters of the Dorset (Fortress) Electric Light Co. (Royal Engineers), including officers’ and sergeants’ rooms, armoury & c.’

The Sidney Hall would also become a military hospital during WWI (and again during WWII) but for now it was where the early 20th century sappers congregated at the start of their fortnights training.
Once the men of the Royal Engineers Corps were all present and correct, had gathered their equipment together and loaded it onto the waiting wagons, they formed into ranks. Led out of the hall by the rousing drum beats of the military band the soldiers marched along the harbourside and up onto the Nothe, where they settled into their tented accommodation for that fortnight.

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Their Corps was divided into three working sections.

The electricians who attended lectures on the principles of electricity, dynamos, circuit tracing and light running.

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The engine drivers who were trained in the theory and practical work of mastering and maintaining the running of the Hornsby Ackroyd engines that they used.

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Last but not least were the telephonists, communication was vital for any fighting force, this  had moved on in leaps and bounds from the Victorian era.

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These men were taught the skills of receiving and sending messages and the vital testing and repairing of any faults in the cables laid either on our shores or on the battlefields.

Once again the Royal Engineers found themselves at the forefront of emerging technology.’

The Engineers of course payed a major role in construction of the Nothe Fort itself during the latter part of the 19th century, but that’s for another post…

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Book 1 is now available from the Nothe Fort shop and Weymouth museum.

Or on Amazon at £9.99

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothe-Fort-Beyond-Weymouth-Portland/dp/1977592686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1510219710&sr=8-1&keywords=nothe+fort+and+beyond

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

Weymouth welcomes French Troops 1940 WWII

An extract from my forthcoming book Nothe Fort and Beyond II…

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Next to arrive in town were the men of the French army. This little known operation was run along side the more famous Dunkirk evacuation.

On the 31st May 1940, Weymouth town mayor Mr Goddard received a phone call from the War Office. He was given the news that soldiers were being evacuated from the French coast, Weymouth and three other destinations had been selected to receive the retreating army. According to War Office figures, Weymouth’s expected number of arrivals during this retrieval was 12,000 troops. Was Weymouth up to it? You bet your bottom dollar we were.
Plans were speedily put into place. Schools and colleges closed, teachers were seconded into the organisation of the scheme. Even General Charles De Gaulle himself arrived in Weymouth to meet with the Mayor and Town Clerk at the Gloucester hotel, keen to view the facilities put in place to deal with his incoming French soldiers. How ironic really, having spent centuries and millions of pounds building fortifications trying to keep the French army and navy from our shores, yet here we were welcoming them with open arms and that is exactly what we did. Vans with loudspeakers toured the districts advising people of what was about to happen, asking for help. They needed willing folk to billet some of the returning French troops, and many people did just that.

One family who welcomed the exhausted soldiers unreservedly were the Critchells of Westham, pictured below outside their house with three of the French soldiers. The men were billeted at the Central Boys School on Cromwell Road, but found themselves welcomed warmly into the family home in Corporation Road. One of the daughters even found time for a brief romance with one of the handsome soldiers while they were based here, but their stay was only fleeting.

The Recreation ground, (known locally as the Rec,) had been covered in tents of all shapes and sizes, hastily gathered from any source possible. One of the younger members of the Critchell family, a lad called Walt, who attended the Central School remembers himself and his school friends helping to put the tents up.

The local Gas Company played their part, suppling the means for feeding the army of ravenous men.

People, who only minutes before, had been sat enjoying a film at the Regent cinema were suddenly asked to leave mid performance, the theatre was needed to house yet more arrivals.

Once those that could be rescued from the French coast were safely installed around the area and being cared for, plans were hastily made to repatriate them to their home country.

The following Wednesday saw the French troops on the march once more. Walt Critchell recalls quite vividly watching the men leaving, moving towards the harbourside to board the vessels that would return them to their war torn country and the fierce battles. One of the soldiers passing the curious boys who had gathered to watch them go handed his battle scarred helmet to the young lad, commenting wearily ‘what do I need this for?’ A much-treasured possession for a young lad, and one that remains along with its wartime tales in the family to this very day.

weymouth-baggage-shed-and-pavilion-2-1945      Not long after, a letter was received by the town council from the French Embassy, communicating their thanks for all the help they had received in their time of need.

‘We have been deeply moved by the manner in which the municipality and the population have received us. Our officers and men were very tired by three weeks of hard fighting. They found at Weymouth their first rest, and its worth was increased tremendously by the generosity and the kindness of all the inhabitants. On behalf of all the officers and men I express to you our deep gratitude, showing that in all these events the solidarity of our two countries which is essential for the final success.’

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Book I is now available

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nothe-Fort-Beyond-Weymouth-Portland/dp/1977592686/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1510219710&sr=8-1&keywords=nothe+fort+and+beyond

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

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