Friday, 17 April 2020

Clevedon's Victorian Gun Battery


In the late 1850s a wave of anxiety swept through the British military establishment. The letters page of the London Times was awash with concerns about Britain's vulnerability to foreign invasion. The letter writers had a point - the British Army and the Royal Navy were sorely stretched in defending the Empire and were engaged in a series of colonial and foreign wars. Indeed in a single decade the British had taken on Czarist Russia, an Indian insurgency and most notably the Qing Emperor in China, a country with a population of 500 million. 


Clevedon Volunteer Artillery (Source Unknown)

Ironically, the concerns were centred on France who were, of course, Britain's coalition partner throughout this period. Some sixty years earlier the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed European geo-politics for ever. Those with very long memories recalled the last French invasion of Britain in 1797 (the invasion battlefield at Fishguard is the subject of one of my earlier posts). Much later, the coup d'├ętat by Louis Napoleon in 1852 induced a particularly acute bout of invasion panic and in the ensuing years a number of steps were taken to strengthen Britain's costal defences and raise a local militia who would backfill gaps in home defence.

Clevedon Pill - 1878 (Rob Campbell Collection)

The volunteer movement got underway in 1859 and the Clevedon Artillery Volunteers (initially known as the 1st Somerset Artillery Corps) were formally adopted into the 1st Artillery Volunteer Corps (Portishead and Clevedon) on 18th June 1860. At its' inception the Corps mustered nearly 45 men and almost a year later The Weston-super-Mare Gazette was reporting a roll of over 50. The unit was commanded by various members of the Elton and Trestrail families up until the point of its disbandment in 1908. 

Clevedon No. 9 Battery - May 1888 (Elton Archive)
Captain Sir Edmund H. Elton
 (middle seated row - 6th from the left)

The Clevedon Volunteers went through a number of iterations the most controversial one being their incorporation into the Gloucester Artillery Volunteer Corps as Battery No.9 in 1880. According to some secondary sources there was a strong local preference for the unit to be brigaded with any of the southern counties. Certainly in 1908 (18th March) the Western Daily Press reported that it had been hoped that the Clevedon Artillery would be united with Weston-super-Mare as a Somerset Corps and then made into the Horse Artillery or something useful. 

The Wain's Hill Battery - Recently Restored

The Clevedon Volunteers' gun battery overlooked The Pill, an area of coastline characterised by small creeks suitable for supporting an amphibious landing (the topography has changed since a pumping station was built in modern times). It was formally inaugurated on the 14th August 1860 when the Corps' two guns (landed from the Juverna) were put in position - one on the battery site and the other in the 'Drill Shed'. The Volunteer Service Gazette and Military Dispatch described the day as one of the gayest ever witnessed in Clevedon with flags flying from every church tower. Clevedon formed just a small part of the Bristol Channel picture. 


Clevedon Artillery Volunteers - Clevedon Pier - 1893

Around the same time a series of batteries were strung across the channel from Brean Down to Lavernock Point in Wales with two heavily fortified islands in between - Steep & Flat Holm. Since 2016 a local volunteer group - The Friends of Poets' Walk - have put in hundreds of hours of hard work into clearing the battery site near Wain's Hill (referred to as Battery Hill in a press report of 1878) - along with the adjacent 2nd World War era Home Guard depot. The Clevedon Civic Society generously donated resources and expertise in order to stabilise the remaining structures.


'Big Bertha' 1932 (Derek Lilly Collection)

What about the guns? I haven't examined many primary sources but by a process of deduction it is possible to work out the basic story. An edition of the Weston-super-Mare Gazette on 17th September 1864 tells us that the Clevedon Artillery Corps was originally equipped with two eighteen-pounders and these are referenced in press reports from the opening of the battery - as quoted above. In his book Clevedon: Places and Faces the late Rob Campbell mentions a  '64 pounder'. Indeed contemporary press reports reveal a 64 pounder was used in Heavy Artillery competitions between (at least) 1882 and 1889 at Wain's Hill. The original guns had in fact been replaced (or perhaps augmented) by the aforementioned RML (rifled muzzle loading) 64 pounder and a 40 Pounder RBL (rifled breech loader). In 1899 the two guns were, in turn, replaced by 40 pounder RBL's adapted with a side loading action. There are a number of photographs of at least one decommissioned 40 pounder RBL with side closing, still in situ at the battery but with the breech and vent piece removed. 


Clevedon Battery - Two 40 Pounder RBLs - (Ted Caple) 
The Left Hand Cannon - Close Up (Jane Lilly Collection)


The two side loading 40 pounder RBLs latterly deployed at Clevedon was the 'Land Service' version of the RBL 40-pounder Armstrong Gun. The naval version was mounted on an iron traversing carriage but the picture above shows the Land Service block trail carriage variant. 226 of these guns were issued to Volunteer Artillery Batteries in 1888-89. Clearly the remaining guns were rendered inoperable - and became tourist attractions - when the battery was decommissioned in 1908. In 1916 the Western Daily Press was reporting that influential residents had asked for the removal of the obsolete guns from Dial Hill (sic). It doesn't look like they were removed at that time but according to a Council Road Committee report they were 'dismantled' (probably deactivated). In June 1924 Clevedon Council approved the payment of 6d per annum to the Clevedon Court Estate so that the two obsolete guns could remain in situ - this despite 'other members' saying the guns were neither useful or ornamental. Rob Campbell has the guns being disposed of in 1940 so as to avoid the unwanted attention of the Luftwaffe. Local historian Jane Lilly says that one of the guns was offered to Sir Ambrose Elton as a decorative piece for his lawn and this is borne about by a 1924 report in the Western Daily Press which said that the two guns and the German howitzer mentioned below should be offered to the Lord of the Manor


First World War German Howitzer at Pier Copse (Rob Campbell)
Pier Copes - April 2020

In 1919 a First World War era German howitzer (with carriage) was placed in Pier Copse overlooking the entrance to the Pier. The gun had been allocated to Clevedon by the A.S.C. Transport Officer based in Exeter.The current whereabouts of that gun is unknown although at least one local person remembers playing on it as a child. So what happened to the three guns in the end? Well, thanks to Mike Taylor on Twitter, we now know that the two old guns (erroneously described as Crimean War relics) were put up for sale in 1938 having been moved and hidden during the Great War. The article discovered by Mike - Wells Journal, September 1938 - says that a relic of the last war, a captured Austrian howitzer, has already been moved from Pier Copse. (Clearly the point about the two older guns being 'hidden' prior to 1919 is contradicted by the Clevedon Council minutes for 1924 quoted above so there remains some doubt as to exactly when they were moved away from the old battery).

The artillery competitions at Wain's hill left a legacy though -  a popular local pastime in the 1950s and 60s was cannon balling. At low tide local teenagers would wade out onto the mudflats and retrieve bullets, cannon balls and other items of ordnance from the area in front of the old battery. In the 1960s the remains of an old target looking like a burst barrel was a prominent feature on the foreshore.

Cannon Ballers on The Pill in the 1960s (Derek Lilly Collection)

As with many topics, the snippets of information included in this blog post pose more questions than answers. 

What about the men of the Corps? Who were they and what happened to them? Well that story will have to wait for another day.