BEACONS AND COASTAL DEFENCES

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Hill tops have been used for keeping watch and giving warning by signal fires probably from prehistoric times. There is a close association between the barrows of the Bronze Age and the beacons of later times. The Romans had coastal watching stations, and there is evidence that at the time of the Danish invasions the Saxons used beacon fires to warn the people of Somerset to take refuge within the defences of the 'burhs' built by order of King Alfred. The danger of invasion by the French during the period of the Hundred Years War must again have brought the beacons into use, though there is no written evidence of this. It is not until the sixteenth century, when invasion was threatened during the wars against France and Spain, that the beacon warning system was brought into full operation. In a modified form this was again established during the long period of the wars against France in the time of the Revolution and of Napoleon.

Many hills in Somerset still bear the name Beacon Hill, and most if not all of these came into the warning system which was carefully planned and under the control of the Justices of the Peace to ensure that no false alarm and consequent confusion could take place. Evidence of this has survived in a document giving details of the arrangements made in the western parts of the county, in the Hundred of Williton and Freemanors, in preparation for defence against the possibility of a French landing in 1555, when Mary I was Queen of England. It appears that the coastal beacons (three are mentioned at Porlock, i.e. Selworthy, Cleeve Hill near Watchet and Beacon Hill on the Western end of the Quantocks) were each to have three beacon fires. These were probably of the usual pattern of thai time, a brazier or iron fire-basket on a large metal tripod, and were filled with dry combustible material, well soaked in tar or pitch, ready to blaze up when ignited, by flint and steel or by a burning match from a lanthorn. The signal code consisted of one fire as preliminary warning of danger, two fires for an imminent invasion, and all three as the final emergency when the enemy had landed. Collinson, the eighteenth-century historian of Somerset, describes the remains at Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, the highest point (1705 feet) in all Somerset, with 'three large fire-hearths about eight feet square and built of rough unwrought stones. The fire-places form an equilateral triangle'. The inner line of beacons in this area consisted of sites with two beacon fires and a code of signals depending on the coastal warnings.

Almost every outstanding hilltop could be used as a beacon, and many were ready prepared for use during times of emergency. At Crook Peak, on Mendip, the parish of Banwell maintained a beacon ready for firing long before the Armada sailed. The Churchwardens' Accounts for 1580 include a payment of five shillings for a 'load of wood for the Beaken and for carrying the same to Croke peke'. But beacons were dependent on fine weather for visibility, and one wonders how far away the fires could be seen at times when the weather was cloudy. This may account for the fact that in some parts of the county beacons were sited fairly close together. The range of the Quantock Hills, only about eight miles from end to end, included beacons at almost every high point, some not much more than a mile apart. At Ilminster, Beacon Hill to the north of the town is only 337 feet above sea-level, yet it must have served as a link in the main chain of communication by fire signal to give warning over the moors of West Somerset. Dundon, near Glastonbury. at exactly the same height as the Ilminster Beacon, commands a wide view of Sedgemoor and provided a link with the Mendip Hills at Beacon Hill above Shepton Mallet. From here could be seen the Dorset and Wiltshire beacons.


Map of Invasion Beacons

The beacons would be of little value if there were no defenders ready to resist the invaders. At this time there was no regular army and so preparations had to be made locally to have men trained. In 1547 an order was issued throughout the whole country 'to have ready a good number of able horse and foot, either for the annoyance of our enemies or the defence of the realm'. In the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I, when the threat of invasion was increasing, more detailed preparations were made. Commissioners were appointed for each county, those for Somerset including Sir John Wyndham, Sir George Speke, Henry Portman and John Horner who prepared a list of 'able' men not professional soldiers, but fit and ready to be trained to fight. Musters were held at intervals, as the danger of invasion increased, to check the numbers of the men available, the quality of their arms and their readiness for action. All owners of large estates had to provide horses and horsemen with equipment for fighting, in numbers depending on the size of their estate. The lists are long and include finally, just before the Armada sailed, 800 men with guns, 700 bowmen, 500 men with pikes or bills, and 1000 other armed men. A further reserve of 1000 men had also received some training. Coastal defences were prepared, and the possible landing places at Porlock, Minehead, Watchet, Bridgwater, Axbridge and Bristol, were specially protected with trenches and parapets. Pits were to be dug and ramparts built to 'empeach' a landing, all bridges and fords were to be guarded, and stores of gunpowder and arms were set up in the towns.

The success of the whole undertaking depended on the quickness of the response to the first warnings, and so the beacons of the coastal counties were of special importance. During periods of training there had been some confusion, but, in March 1588, the Muster Master could report before leaving Somerset for Wiltshire, 'I have viewed and trayned the numbers bothe of foot and horse twyce since my cominge into this Countie of Somerset and . ... .... .... I fynde them brave and verye well furnished especially the pickes and shott whereof there are manie musketes The trewthe is it is a moste gallaunte countrey for the men, armour and redines.' The 4000 men returned as trained were organised into five regiments of 800 men each. Each regiment had its complement of gunners, archers and billmen, as well as of heavily armed lancers and light horsemen. There were carriages for gunpowder, match and bullets, with pioneers in charge of them.

In addition to all this, Somerset, as a maritime county, was expected to help with the navy. All ships and mariners were to be 'impressed' in emergency, food was to be at hand to provision ships, and the larger ports were to send ships of above 40 tons to assist the navy. In Somerset, Taunton and Chard helped to furnish a ship from Lyme Regis; but only Bridgwater among Somerset ports was of sufficient size to send a ship, and the 'William' with 40 men was ordered to join Drake's division at Plymouth. Nothing is known of the part played by this tiny ship in the fight against the Armada. Nor was Somerset involved in the coastal warnings, for the Armada passed up the English Channel far out of sight of the watchers on the Devon and Dorset beacons. The first sightings were from the coast of Hampshire and the beacons were fired. From Dorset 3000 men marched into Hampshire to help to protect Portsmouth, and to replace them a similar number of men went from Somerset to Dorset. This, as far as is known, is all the county was called on to do while the enemy was actually in sight in the Channel. A further 4000 men were sent from Somerset to London, but little is known about them except the record of their return in August when the danger had passed.

So Somerset, like Devon and Dorset, was spared the alarm and action which came to the coastal counties from Hampshire to Kent. The greatest burden fell upon Kent and from Dover to Gravesend, every man was ready for action; but no enemy was either destined or allowed to land except as a prisoner.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France there was an ever-present fear of invasion, and the government in 1798 ordered the formation of a new defence force the Sea Fencibles. Its purpose was to provide a coastal flotilla and to man the coastal batteries. Somerset's force consisted of a Captain, 4 Lieutenants and 144 men to protect the whole Somerset coastline. The only fortifications built were some gun batteries at the mouth of the river Avon. At the same time the government decided that signal stations were not to be established on the Somerset coast, an indication of the fact that by this time the county was no longer regarded as being within the zone of possible invasion. Later, in the 1860s, the Severn was protected by a chain of forts across the Channel, the southernmost being on Brean Down, one each on Steep Holm and Flat Holm. and a fourth on the Welsh coast. The remains of these forts still survive.

In 1940, after the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, there was a serious threat of invasion by the Germans. Preparations were made throughout the country to resist any attempts at landings, by sea or air, of enemy forces. A national scheme of local defence volunteers was established. This force later became the Home Guard and was gradually trained and equipped with weapons of all types. The coastline of England, including that of Somerset, was protected by barbed wire defences, concrete 'pill-boxes', and obstructions on the beaches to prevent landings by gliders or shallow-draught barges. A 'stop' line was constructed from Highbridge in Somerset to Seaton in Devon, following rivers, canals and the railway lines. Obstacles to prevent enemy movement in the event of a successful landing were constructed, and bridges and towns were protected by 'tank-traps' of concrete and steel girders. The remains of some of these strongpoints still remind us of the last unfulfilled threat of invasion, during the Second World War.