Wednesday, 1 February 2017

91 Mumbles Head battery

91 Mumbles Head battery

Beside the blue plaque to the Ace Sisters near the entrance to Mumbles Pier, steps lead down to the beach, for when the tide is out one can cross over to two small islets - the middle head and the outer head.  On the outer head stands Mumbles lighthouse, built in 1793/94 to a design of William Jernegan, “The Architect of Regency Swansea”, and on the west side is Bob’s Cave, which is accessible with care when the tide is out. 

Around 1791, when threat of a French invasion loomed large, a battery - a fortified position for heavy guns – was erected on Mumbles Hill rather than on a tidal islet, though quarrying curtailed its use to only a few years.  The threat of invasion was real enough - 1,400 French troops were landed near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, only to surrender three days later.  Many readers will have seen the 30-metre long tapestry embroidered for the 1997 bicentenary.

Coastal batteries as at Mumbles were integral to Britain’s defences during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.  Britain’s strength lay in the superiority of her Navy, but the second line of defence left much to be desired.  In 1844 the Duke of Wellington first drew attention to the poor state of coastal defences.

The international situation had deteriorated in 1852 when Prime Minister Palmerston alerted parliament to the danger of a French invasion, following Louis Napoleon’s coup, when Bonaparte’s nephew became Emperor of France.  In Swansea the authorities petitioned for a battery to be sited in Mumbles, and it was considered that there was space for one on the outer islet near the Lighthouse.  After the lease had been negotiated with the Duke of Beaufort, work commenced in 1859.  A fortified position for heavy guns was erected by the lighthouse in 1860 to combat any invasion, and five 80-pounder 5-ton guns were installed, two in vaulted casements with three above.  There was accommodation for a staff-sergeant and 21 NCOs and artillerymen, though some tension between the soldiers and local people was prevalent: a magistrate cautioned the commanding officer not to permit groups of eight or ten men to be away from their quarters late at night.

To facilitate the landing of supplies and equipment, a timber platform was constructed against the cliff on the north side of the islet.  Like other batteries around the coast, the battery was dubbed one of “Palmerston’s follies” since the invasion never materialised - which might however demonstrate the success of the batteries as a deterrent!

In 1978 a diver discovered a five-ton twelve-foot long naval gun from the 1860s embedded in rock and sand beneath the battery.  Swansea Sub-Aqua club members enabled it to be recovered and towed six miles to Pockett's Wharf in the Marina.

Development in weapon technology meant that the cannon on the headland were considered obsolete by 1877.  Mumbles battery was scaled down and retained as a practice battery for volunteers, manned by just a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners.  This was the situation when the Prussian barque Admiral Prinz Adalbert was wrecked near the lighthouse in 1883, along with the lifeboat Wolverhampton, inspiring the poem “The Women of Mumbles Head” which cast an unwarranted slur on the efforts of the artillerymen to assist with the rescue. 

With further development of armaments and the adoption of breech-loading guns, in 1899 the 80-pounder guns were removed and sold.  Two of the redundant cannon were acquired by Swansea Corporation and now stand on the terrace of the Mansion House.

In 1901 four new guns were installed, so the battery remained in operation throughout the First World War, with soldiers guarding the fort housed in the original Bristol Channel Yacht Club, augmented by additional accommodation constructed at Limeslade.  In 1959 the Mumbles battery and subsequent installations were de-commissioned.  We trust 1797 in Fishguard will remain the date and place of the last invasion of Britain.                                          

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