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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.

Royal Engineers and Searchlight Displays on the Nothe

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 the water in their search for any 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 he would have talked about the sappers 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 were specifically trained 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.

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The Sidney Groves Memorial Hall stood down on the North Quay and was over the years 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 a few years later, during WWI (and again during WWII) but for now it was where the 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 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…

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.’

Soldiers, soldiers everywhere…Weymouth 1808.

Weymouth’s history with the military goes way way back.

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The further back you go it seems, the more troops there were stationed in our area.

So many men and regiments have come and gone from Weymouth’s Red Barracks or Radipole barracks.

Oh to have a tardis and travel back in time to witness their lives.

In 1808, the second battalion of the 53rd Regiment or the Shropshire Regiment of Foot set out from Shrewsbury and arrived at Weymouth’s barracks.

(Historical Record of the 53rd, or the Shropshire Regiment of Foot; Richard Cannon 1894)

The same year The Duke of Cambridge reviewed the troops in barracks and quarters at Dorchester and Weymouth consisting of two regiments of the German Legion, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the South Devon and 2nd Somerset militia, amounting altogether to 4,000 men…

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That must have been some awesome sight!

The Prince was mounted on a beautiful charger,most elegantly caparisoned, and was dressed in a superb hussar uniform. The troops performed their evolutions in a very capital style.

After the review, the Prince, Duke of Cambridge &Co., rode into Weymouth and dined with the General and Field Officers &c. at Scriven’s-The Earl of Cavan, Baron Linsingen, Major-General Wood, Lord Rolle and Lord Hinton were among the company. In the evening the Royal Brothers went to the Rooms, which were much crowded.

(Salisbury & Winchester Journal-Monday 29th August 1808)

But like most of army life, they are constantly on the move.

The two very fine corps, the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Light Dragoons of the King’s German Legion, have received orders to march from Weymouth for Falmouth, there to embark for Spain, with Gen Cotton’s brigade. The German cavalry brigade will  be commanded by that excellent officer Major0-General Linfingen; and it is but juftice to say that there are not, in the Britifh fervice two better equipped corps, or more fit for fervice, than the two now leaving Weymouth.

(Saunders News Letter Wednesday 7th December 1808)

 

The drastic demise of Private Jacob Damon; 51st Reg. 1869.

Another taster from my book Nothe Fort and Beyond…

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Life was brutal for the lower ranks in the Victorian army, they had much to endure.

One of their biggest issues was their soldier’s mental health and well being, but the powers that be cared little for that.

Sadly, a troubled troopers ultimate act was suicide, a problem that haunted the Victorian military.

So bad had the problem become that in 1869 a special order was sent out from the Horse Guards ‘ In future all service ammunition was to be removed from soldiers’ pouches and be placed under lock in the regimental expense magazines. The key was to be held only by a responsible person.’

Unfortunately, that order came too late for one fellow based in Weymouth’s barracks in the summer of 1869. Private Jacob Damon of the 51st Regiment ‘committed suicide by blowing out his brains’. (The Victorian press certainly had a way with words!)

His inquest held in the barracks revealed the life of a troubled soldier. Damon aged just 21 had been with his regiment for 3 years, he’d served in India for a while before returning to England. Jacob Damon was described by others as ‘a fine young young fellow’.

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For some reason though, since April of that year (1869) his character had changed, he was frequently found on the wrong end of his officer’s wrath.

The Defaulters Books reveal that in April he had been imprisoned at Gosport for 42 days for ‘sleeping at his post, when acting as sentry over some court-martialled prisoners’.

In May he was confined to barracks for 10 days ‘for obtaining a pass under false pretences’.

The following month Damon received ‘an additional seven days imprisonment for carelessness at defaulters drill’ followed by yet another ‘fourteen days for going a two-mile walk to Preston without leave’.

What ever ailed this troubled young man, it certainly preyed on his mind, it later came to light that he had been overheard saying ‘he would either do for himself or someone else’.

Things came to a sudden head one night in July, Damon ‘brought his kit to his comrade and gave it to him, saying he should have no further use for it’. He then ‘bade farewell’ to his friends.

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Unnoticed, the young soldier collected his rifle, ‘entered the water closet, bolted the door on the inside, and placing the muzzle to his ear, ledged the contents in his head’.

After having heard all the evidence, the jury passed their verdict, ‘deceased destroyed himself in a fit of temporary insanity, brought on by the excitement of severe drill’.

The sympathetic reporter ended his piece with some astute observations of his own ‘the wonder is that more more savage retaliations for the petty tyrannies inflicted on private soldiers are not heard of’.

Weymouth’s invasion by the Dorset Rifle Volunteers; 1867.

A taster of my book soon to be published The Nothe and Beyond…

Weymouth was about to be invaded. For the first time, in September 1867, it had been chosen as the training venue for the Dorset Battalion of Rifle Volunteers (DRV). This was the ‘citizen’s army’ hastily set up in response to the perceived threat of a French invasion a few years prior. Yet another prestigious event for the town. It would far exceed anything organised for Yeoman’s week. Mayor John Tizard was going to make sure of that. Weymouth was going to welcome the county’s volunteer soldiers with open arms and a whole load of foliage.

The week before the DRV’s arrival was one of frantic activity. Seen as a major scoop, they had to pull out all the stops to make it a memorable one. ‘Around and about and everywhere were emblems of festivity and rejoicing, triumphal arches being in great profusion, and flags and banners “thick as autumn leaves in Vallambrosa”’.

Flagpoles were erected along the esplanade, festooned with green garlands and the obligatory flags. The station alone was draped with an estimated 3 tons of foliage, ‘being gaily adorned with garlands of evergreens and floral festoons looped up between the pillars of the extensive station’. The main streets were bedecked in greenery. Esplanade buildings were bejewelled with colourful flowers and flamboyant illuminations. The highly detailed description of the day’s festivities covered three whole pages of the Dorset County Chronicle. (Great reading for anyone reasearching their Weymouth ancestors, the reporter must have knocked on virtually every door in the town!)

Weymouth station on that warm sunny autumn day spewed forth trainload after trainload of excited visitors, ‘an immense concourse of persons continued to emerge from this thoroughfare’. In amongst the throng, arriving by train came groups of soldiers from their respective towns. As each town’s corps arrived and clambered out of their carriages they were greeted by a heaving mass. Once officers had gathered men and kit together, they were formed into ranks and marched up King Street towards the esplanade, then paraded past the cheering mob towards the King’s Statue. Here a massive raised dining platform had been constructed for them.

Having been stood down, the soldiers jostled to find space on already crowded tables. Being seated ‘the gallant riflemen were regaled with bread-and-cheese and beer’. Once all soldiers had been duly paraded, cheered, fed and watered, they and their officers, followed by a heaving throng of civilians, proceeded en masse to Lodmoor, the venue for their grand review. A reporter remarked ‘the attendance to-day exceeded anything we have previously seen’.

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 Seven hundred and fifty Dorset Rifle Volunteers (eighty-four from Weymouth) were here to take on the might of the local blue jackets, aided and abetted by the Boscowen boys. The objective of this sham fight was to capture Bowleaze Cove coastguard station. An exhilarated crowd watched agog as this mock battle demonstrated those skills of the volunteer regiments, from formations in fighting through to combat techniques. The deep rumbling of the ‘ten-gun brig’ out in the bay only added to the already highly charged atmosphere, while thick, smothering smoke drifted across the tranquil waters. Regulars were drafted in from the Nothe to launch a surprise attack on the volunteers.

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The action-packed day was rounded off with the customary grand feast. A large marquee had been set up in the Rings (Alexandra Gardens) where over 1,100 local and visiting soldiers were wined and dined that evening. Drinks flowed freely, ‘The brewers of the town came out most handsomely to meet the requirements of the men’. Flagons of beer had been donated by Devenish, Eldridge, Groves and Mason. Such festivities wouldn’t have been complete without the obligatory fireworks later in the evening. Still chock-a-block with soldiers and civilians, people had to stand wherever they could find space. As September light faded into darkness, so the night sky filled with a cacophony of sound and colour. Weymouth had done their band of brave volunteers proud and put on a spectacular welcome that would be the talk of years to come.

Naughty Naughty…Knocker Nickers.

Throughout its history, Weymouth’s Red Barracks and Nothe Fort have seen various troops come and go.

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Some good, some bad, some just plain bored and a few high spirited.

Their boots marched through the town on parades, they wooed and (sometimes) wed the local girls, or maybe snatched a sneaky bit of feminine fun when they could from those who more than willingly obliged, their money filled the inns and beerhouse coffers.

But  for a few of them, their names became immortalised in the columns of the local papers.(Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 26 Feb 1868)

Such was the case in February of 1868.

                                                                         Knocker Wrenching.

Weymouth folk were being plagued by night time mischief makers, namely the amusement of wrenching knockers from off  the doors of inoffensive citizens.

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Who ever the serial offenders were, they were like invisible “bogeys” and were not to be seen.

As the problem persisted, for those poor old residents who did their damnedest to be sleeping quietly in their beds, it had become very much a case of  like it or lump it for some weeks past.

Despite  the local policemen’s best efforts to apprehend these young ragamuffins, seemingly thwarted at every turn by their elusive late night knocker nicking, it was a still a case of  great numbers of people have been obliged to submit patiently to the annoyance.

Indeed, the problem had gotten so bad and residents so enraged that complaints showered down upon the heads of the policemen.

That was until one cold dank night in February.

Weymouth’s P.C. Apsey had been busy patrolling the town’s streets that night, a bitter easterly wind whipping up through the deserted roads, muffling any sound of his approaching footsteps.

Then, in the distant gloom, his eyes were drawn to the sight of something that piqued his interest, a group of young lads acting more than a bit suspicious.

After a brief chase, P.C. Apsey finally collared an offender, and surprise, surprise, the lusty lad was found to be with a veritable iron knocker in his pocket.

Stood rather nervously before Mayor Ayling in the courtroom next morning was Arthur Denny, Lieutenant of the 13th Regiment, he was charged with stealing a door knocker.

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Denny was not alone though, several brother officers were also present, they had arrived in court  to ensure fair play, of course, unwilling for their fellow man to take the whole blame, they endeavoured to come to some compromise.

High jinks by a few bored soldiers maybe..but maybe not everyone felt quite so jolly about the whole sorry saga!

Also stood shoulder to shoulder in the courtroom that day, to make sure their got their pound of flesh were several victims, indignant at the manner in which they had been treated

Found guilty that morning, Lieutenant Arthur Denny not surprisingly, received a sound dressing down from Mayor Ayling. He accepted his penance by paying the value of all the knockers that had been wrenched from off the doors for the past three weeks. (Put down at a value of £3.00)

It was also firmly suggested he should  give a subscription to the Infirmary to the amount of £2

Sensing the growing anger amongst the courts occupants, the soldiers quickly dug deep to make sure that amounts and costs were paid.

The good old Weymouth folk weren’t going to leave it at that though, they were going to make sure that they voiced their disapproval, the defendant left the hall amidst the jeers of those assembled.

I bet any future extra curricula activities were restricted to within the barrack confines after that.

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Weymouth’s WWI wounded

Not until I started researching the Nothe Fort had I realised just how much involvement our town had during WWI.

The Nothe Fort itself was manned by the men of the Coastal Artillery, but they saw no action during the war from its ramparts. Instead it seems to have ended up as a training ground for enlisted men and volunteers, many of whom were later sent to the Front.

That left behind men deemed too old, too young or unsuitable for service abroad, they remained to defend our shores, though thankfully the battles lines never reached them.

But Weymouth also played another role.

She took in many of the wounded from the fierce fighting in France.

A piece in the Western Gazette of Christmas Day 1914 gives a glimpse into the world of our not so long ago ancestors of Weymouth, many of whom helped in some way or another.

The article headlines proclaims

                                 MORE WOUNDED ARRIVE AT WEYMOUTH.

The week before Christmas, a hospital train had arrived in Weymouth filled with over 70 wounded men. They were taken straight to the Princess Christian Hospital where they were cared for.

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These battle weary soldiers had been ‘conveyed straight from the Front with as much expedition as possible’.

 WWI; Pushvillers, France; wounded soldiers on a trolley Wellcome V0030779
The reporter elaborates on their pitiful condition, ‘they bore  conspicuous signs of not only hard fighting, but also the severity of the weather experienced in the northern part of France’. Indeed, several of the wounded were suffering from severe frost bite.

Dr James Macpherson Lawrie met the hospital train that Friday morning, he was the senior surgeon at the hospital. (Scottish born Lawrie was also the man who had set up Weymouth’s Princess Christian hospital at the start of the 20th century by means of fundraising in the local grand houses and communities.)

Also there to transport the wounded were members of the British Red Cross, led by Commandant F J Bath.

The majority of the wounded were relatively mobile and were helped into a fleet of waiting cabs and motor cars. The more serious cases were stretchered into ambulances.

Once all and sundry had been transferred to the Princess Christian Hospital, ‘the patients were made as comfortable as their circumstances would permit’.

During that terrible period of conflict, many a wounded soldier found himself cared for within the walls of Weymouth hospitals,

‘They represented many regiments and several have records of having distinguished themselves in the field’.

 

1886; Guy Fawkes night on Portland leads to riots!

VICTORIAN TALES FROM WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND

The forbidding Verne citadel stands atop of Portland, built originally as part of Lord Palmerston’s coastal defences. Nowadays it hold prisoners serving their sentence for crimes to the community, but in the Victorian era it contained the might  of the military.

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The soldier’s billeted within those strong walls came and went, some companies had better reputations than others, some were downright lethal!

In November of 1886, the 1st Dorset were based in the fort. Normally not a problem, but their ranks had recently been greatly swelled by means of a recruiting drive, attracting men who wanted to take the Kings(or rather Queens) shilling. Now the army in those days was renown for not always attracting the best of characters, many of the men who joined, joined for all the wrong reasons, getting away from family, capture by police, or as a means of escaping poverty and a life of crime…

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1870; The Queens Own Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry week at Weymouth.

VICTORIAN TALES FROM WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND

Weymouth down through it’s past history has quite a link with the military.

In the late 1700’s The famous Red Barracks that sits up on the Nothe, its Georgian built accommodation blocks towering above the quayside cottages below, were built, first to house the cavalry troops, but then later converted to house infantry troops.

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The Nothe fort that was constructed in the mid Victorian era was to become  the home of the Coastal Artillery, built to protect our shores in response to a threat of invasion by Napoleon and France.

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Not only did we have the static soldiers that were based here, but Weymouth also became a favoured destination for those voluntary troops, such as the Militia, Rifle Volunteers, and of course the glamorous dashing young men on horseback, the yeomen, or to give them their full title, The Queens Own Regiment of Dorset Yeomanry Cavalry.

So important were their yearly…

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