Over the years there have been occasional concerns about possible acts of aggression wrought across the seas onto our local Dorset shore.
In February we considered the Grand Old Duke of York with King George being prepared for possible invasion at Weymouth around 1800. Earlier, in 1690 an attack almost happened, nearby, when a galley of the French Fleet approached Lyme and was fired on from the fort there. These galleys were rowed by criminals or slaves and were troop carriers. They had already defeated the English and Dutch at the Battle of Beachy Head under their commander Tourville, for Louis XIV. The French flagship, the “Soleil Royal”, carried an English pilot, a Catholic from Bridport, who had advised his commanders that : “Landing will be easy, with no resistance, no walls or gates. There are two large streets and one Burgess is worth 7 or 8 hundred thousand francs. There are many Catholics in the neighbourhood of the town, near where the Duke of Monmouth landed”. Despite this advice the French only went on to attack Teignmouth, which they sacked and burnt. This was recorded by C.Wanklyn in Notes & Queries, 1930-32.
Returning now to Napoleon’s plans to invade, Rebecca Thompson (nee Stephens) wrote of her parents recollections of the war as “Bridport being on the south coast it was considered necessary to plant cannon on the cliffs and I have often listened to the tales of alarms that the “Fierce French” were near upon landing”. The Stephens family had a drapery shop at 13 East Street.
Another writer to use family recollections of the period was our renowned local author Thomas Hardy. I came across one of his short stories recently in Wessex Tales which was new to me so possibly this volume was issued in various forms. This particular short story is entitled A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four. Remember it is only fiction. It starts with the possibility of an invasion of England through a Channel tunnel, widely discussed later in Victorian times and partly commenced. But this had not begun in 1804 when a number of men were sitting in the chimney corner of an inn and in particular Solomon Selby. His was the only voice, no doubt provided with plenty of lubrication by his friends.
Solomon began his tale with “My father, as you mid know, was a shepherd all his life and lived out by the Cove four miles yonder…Of all the years of my growing up the ones that bide clearest in my mind were eighteen hundred and three, four and five…Bonaparte was scheming his descent upon England…On the other side of the Channel… the French army of a hundred and sixty thousand men and fifteen thousand horses…were drilling every day.. … Bonaparte had been three years a-making his preparations; and to ferry these soldiers and cannon and horses across he had contrived a couple of thousand flat-bottomed boats….A good few of ‘em were so made as to have a little stable on board each for the two horses that were to haul the cannon carried at the stern…O ‘twas a curious time !”.
It has been suggested that “the Cove” close to the shepherd’s cottage was Lulworth Cove, now an attractive tourist area, but it is easy to imagine such events happening. Solomon continued “Every morning Neighbour Boney would muster his multitude of soldiers on the beach…practise ‘em in the manoeuvre of embarking, horses and all….My father drove a flock of ewes up into Sussex that year, and as he went along the drover’s track over the high downs thereabout he could see this drilling actually going on….Where would my gentleman land ?…one of the little bays inside the Isle of Portland—and for choice the three-quarter-round Cove…out by where we lived, and which I’ve climbed up with two tubs of brandy across my shoulders on scores o’ dark nights….I used to help my father, keeping an eye upon the ewes while he was gone home to rest. Every night I was at the fold, about half a mile…from our cottage”.
Solomon’s Uncle Job came to visit and they went together to the fold and settled down in a heap of straw and dropped off to sleep. Then Solomon awoke. “I looked out from the straw, and saw what it was that had aroused me. Two men, in boat-cloaks, cocked hats, and swords, stood by the hurdles about twenty yards off. They spoke in a tongue that was not ours—in French, as I afterward found”. He woke Uncle Job quietly and said “Two French generals…Come to see where to land their army!”
Then suddenly one officer sprung a dark lantern open on a paper, and showed it to be a map. They had a consultation and they pointed here and there. When they rose the light flashed upward … “What is it – Uncle Job? – Boney!…The Corsican ogre…. Slipped across in the night-time to see how to put his men ashore”….A boat came out from the Cove, and they jumped in”.
Uncle Job was in the army. When he went back to camp he told his officer, and that was the end of the story and Bonaparte did not return. Remember, Hardy wrote fiction!
Some years ago John Bithell gave a talk about the Nothe Fort near Weymouth, which stands on a southern promontory of the Ferry Port. A map of 1539 showed a beacon and blockhouse on the “Nose”. When King George III came to bathe in the sea at Weymouth he was aware of the possible invasion by Napoleon, so a small battery of 3 or 4 guns was installed, followed by six 24 lb. guns in 1803/4. Later the French built “The Glory” a steam propeller and sail warship of wood with iron cladding. Lord Palmerston set up a commission in 1859 to investigate our sea defences, which resulted in the construction of the Nothe Fort . This was completed in 1872, basically circular in plan, with 10ft steel clad walls encircled by a 30ft ditch. Royal Engineers completed the fort with a tier of 24 guns. The Army left the fort in 1956 and now it is a visitor attraction.
Since Napoleon I do not think anyone has seen any aggressive foreign leaders, real or imaginary, on our shores. However a number of supposed sightings of possible spies were noted on the coast signalling to imaginary submarines during the First World War, but without uniforms heavy with medals.
Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 10th April to learn from Mark Forrest of Dorset History Centre about the “Development of Dorset Harbours in the 15th Century” at 2.30 pm in the Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon. President, Bridport History Society.