Isles of Scilly, St Mary’s

Posted on October 19, 2020 / 13
Listing Type : Defended Commercial Port
Location : England

The Isles of Silly had been an important trading centre and and anchorage for many years.  Coastal defences were built from the 1590 onwards, with most of the work being done between 1740 and 1748 and reinforced during the Napoleonic War.  By 1840 there was a Master Gunner and a handful of other soldiers responsible for keep an eye on the fortifications and the old smooth bore guns scattered around the Garrison.  The Isle of Scilly were very much a backwater and given little importance. By the start of the 1890s the fortifications on the Isles of Scilly were largely out of service.

On the 31st of July 1882 the report of the Committee for the Defences of the Commercial Ports of the United Kingdom was published.  This Committee, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Morley, then the Under-Secretary of State for War, made a visit to the Scilly Isles and inspected the old fortifications on both Trescow Island and The Garrison on St Marys.  The Committee considered a 10-inch RML battery with four guns on the Garrison and tentatively a two gun 10-inch RML battery on Sampson’s Island.  In the end they rejected the Sampson’s Island Battery as too isolated and opted for a six-gun battery on the Garrison.  In their final report however, they made no mention of the Isles of Scilly having rejected the anchorage and harbour as being or minor importance and not wishing to divert attention from the more important locations such as The Bristol Channel, The Clyde and Falmouth.

On the 21st of February 1885 recommendations were made by the Royal Engineers Works Committee for new defences on St Mary’s Island.  These recommendations were endorsed by the Director of Artillery and the Inspector-General of Fortifications.  It was agreed at this point to build three 6-inch Mark VII BL Batteries on the Garrison at Steval Point, Woolpack Point and at Old Battery (or Porth Hellick Down).  At this point no funds were available and nothing was done.

In January 1897 the Scilly Isles, along with Berehaven, Lough Swilly, and Falmouth, were mentioned in a Bill for Military Works which proceeded through Parliament and received Royal Assent in April of the year.

The initial funding saw approval for two batteries, each with modern 6-inch Mark VII guns (introduced in 1989), which would be named Steval Battery and Woolpack Battery.  Both batteries were built along the Dispersed or Twydall profile model, the intention being to make to batteries hard to observe by maintaining a low profile and natural camouflage.  Each battery was oval in layout, about 85 metres (275 feet) by 40 metres (120 feet) with a dry ditch perimeter protected by barbed wire. The two-gun pits were located centrally, about 30 metres (100 feet) apart with underground magazines and shelters between them.  A Battery Command Post with DRF and telephone room, were built to the rear of the gun line.  A barracks and workshops were built at a separate location between the two batteries, and they were all connected by road.

The building work commenced in August 1898 and was completed by May 1901.  The project costs came in £200 under the estimated of £20,000.

The next improvement came in about 1902 when an engine room and two Defence Electric Lights were built to operate in conjunction with Woolpack and Steval Batteries.  In 1903, in order to combat Motor Torpedo Boats, two 12-pdr Quick Fire Batteries were approved, one at Steval Point and the other at Bant’s Carn.  The Steval Point Battery was completed in 1904 while the more remote Bant’s Carn 12-pdr Battery was completed in 1905.  Proposals were made to build Defence Electric Lights and a Directing Station at Bant’s Carn, but this never came to fruition.

Thus by 1905 the four modern batteries had been approved although the two 12-pdr guns were probably never mounted at Bant’s Carn.  In 1904 sole responsibility for Coast Defence strategy was transferred from a Joint Naval and Military Committee to the Admiralty.  On the 20th of December 1905 the Owen Committed reported on the Armaments of Home Ports and the Scilly Islands was removed from the list of defended commercial ports and anchorages.  This resulted in an immediate withdraw of the guns and decommissioning of these batteries.

The four Victorian Batteries on St Mary’s Island are valuable heritage sites because they remain little changed from when they were built having been decommissioned in 1905.  The four Batteries are:

The first three batteries had three Defence Electric Lights operating in their support and located just below the old Garrison Walls.  Woolpack or Greystone Barracks were built between Steval and Woolpack Batteries.  A two storey Position Finding Cell was built adjacent to the barracks.

In the Report of Committee on Armaments of Home Ports in 1905, they stated that the Scilly Islands did not require any fixed coastal defences and that no coastal defences were therefore considered necessary. (TNA CAB 16.1).  The coastal defence batteries were therefore largely decommissioned from this date.

The 111 page brochure on the following link provides a detailed history of the defences on the Isles of Scilly, see here.

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