Early proposals for fortifying the Town Hill

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This article by William Davies was first published in the 1983 Annual bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

This article is concerned with a report prepared in 1787 regarding proposals to erect a monumental fortification on the Town Hill, St Helier, Jersey. A quarter of a century later the fortification became Fort Regent.

Acknowledgement is made to the Keeper of the Public Record Office for access to the archives, in this instance notably WO 55/1549, from which most of the information was obtained.

Fort Regent, built on Mont de la Ville overlooking St Helier and its harbour

20 years of planning

Although construction of the massive pile known as Fort Regent commenced in February 1806, proposals for fortifying the Town Hill had been under consideration for at least twenty years when work actually started.

In 1787 the Corps of Royal Engineers was formally embodied into the British Army. Previously, engineering matters in military terms were not co-ordinated in the manner they warranted, notwithstanding the existence of the Board of Ordnance which technically controlled them. This is not to suggest that Engineers were necessarily incompetent; far from it, but their direction hinged largely on the whims of the individual officer responsible for a particular station.

This was true in Jersey, but the situation changed markedly with the establishment of the Royal Engineers. The Engineer at that time was Captain Frederick Mulcaster, a colourful character who witnessed the Prince of Nassau's futile invasion attempt in 1779, and actually participated in the Battle of Jersey two years later. He was a most able Engineer, but in 1787 Mulcaster ceded his duties to Captain John Evelegh, the first Officer Commanding Royal Engineers (OCRE) in the island.

The Governor, General (later Field-Marshal) Henry Seymour Conway, took a keen personal interest in island defence from the moment of his appointment in 1772, which is more than can be said of most of his predecessors, or successors for that matter.

He had personally initiated and kept a watchful eye on the building of coastal towers, and in 1785 was investigating ways and means of fortifying not only the Town Hill but the South Hill, too - Le Mont de la Ville and Ie Petit Mont de la Ville respectively. The prehistoric dolmen, later presented to Conway, was discovered during these investigations.

OCRE's authority

All indications are that Conway and Mulcaster got on well together, with the security of the island improving daily under their joint direction, but when the Royal Engineers were formed, the OCRE was directly responsible to the Master-General of the Ordnance, not the Governor.

The Master-General was the Duke of Richmond, who tackled his duties with a dynamism that echoed throughout every military establishment in the realm. Soon after Evelegh's appointment as OCRE, His Grace ordered a "Report on the Works projected for the Town Hill of St Helier's, Island of Jersey". That report was submitted to the Chief Royal Engineer on 2 August 1787, and it generated a disagreement between the Duke of Richmond and General Conway that never was reconciled.

Thereafter, relations between these two important men, though civil, were strained, a fact that is all too evident in their correspondence. This was a sad state of affairs because Conway took his Governorship most seriously and achieved much. Prior to 1787 he had been more or less his own master, but no longer. He may have been the Governor of Jersey, but the Master-General ruled the engineering branch with a rod of iron.

The report was compiled by a committee comprising three Royal Engineer officers named Morse, Aubant and Evelegh. We need not concern ourselves further with Aubant, but as noted, Evelegh was the OCRE in the island, while Robert Morse himself later became Master-General of the Ordnance. Indeed, he held that office when John Humfrey was actually constructing Fort Regent between the years 1806 and 1814.

The committee was ordered to investigate the projected designs and observed: "Upon our arrival at Jersey, and after having carefully examined the Town Hill near St Helier's and the circumjacent country, we proceeded to trace upon the ground the two models sent by His Grace: the one for fortifying the North part of the Hill; the other the South part, in order to compare the relative merits of the two projects."

It is difficult to assess categorically whether the designs were Conway's own concept or that of his Engineer, but there is no doubt that he had a hand in them and certainly approved them, since he propounded their merits to the appropriate people in London.

Plan 1 (see text of article)

Committee of investigation

It is also evident that the Board of Ordnance recognised the need for a major citadel in the island and that the locality proposed seemed to be the right spot. It did, however, seriously doubt the necessity for two substantial works at that time. The disturbing fact was that General Conway was already erecting fortifications on the South Hill. It is likely that Captain Evelegh appraised the Duke of this soon after his arrival in Jersey, hence the appointment of a committee to investigate the respective merits of the two projects.

The committee carried out its investigations with commendable impartiality. It did indeed trace every bastion, curtain and face upon the ground and analysed each part individually, but it came down strongly in favour of the North Hill rather than the South. This, of course, was contrary to the programme General Conway had already embarked upon.

The simple facts were that if the major work was located on the North Hill, then some form of outwork protection was necessary on the South, and the same applied in reverse. However, the North Hill is not only more extensive in area, but also higher. Consequently, the outworks on the North Hill would of necessity have to be larger and stronger, because if an enemy gained possession he would command the major work on the South Hill, perhaps sufficiently so as to make it untenable.

The committee conceded that: "The advantages of the South part of the Hill for the principal works are its being but 1,400 yards from Elizabeth Castle, with which it might co-operate for the defence of the Little Roads", but this is all that was said in its favour. Yet Conway had started to build what promised to be a "principal work".

It is small wonder that he did not see eye to eye with the Master-General, and apart from some minor works, little happened on either hill for the best part of 20 years. Today, there is no evidence or indication of the works General Conway executed on the South Hill and certainly they did not form an important part in the final concept of Fort Regent.

Another interesting fact relative to the South Hill proposals is that apart from geographical weaknesses, they would apparently have been considerably the more expensive of the two. In 1788, the year following the report, Captain Evelegh prepared budget estimates for both schemes. He reckoned the cost "of the Projected Fortress on the North part of St Helier's Hill with the several Outworks to the North, East and West parts of the Fortress" together with two redoubts on the South Hill at £88,929 9s 10d.

Comparative costs

In a similar manner, Evelegh estimated the cost of the fortress on the South Hill at £115,779 3s 9d. But because the outworks required on the North Hill to secure the fortress to the south were necessarily more extensive, they were estimated at a further £14,257 6s. This effectively represented an additional cost of £41,106 19s l ld over the North Hill proposals for what, in geographical and strategic terms at any rate, was an inferior work.

After that interesting exercise had been concluded, it is patent that the Governor had no chance of progressing his scheme, regardless of whatever authority he had previously obtained to make a start. As mentioned, this created an acrimonious situation between Conway and Richmond which never was resolved: the Governor no longer wielded the autocratic authority he had previously enjoyed and exploited, though he maintained a close personal interest in local military matters right up to his death.

After 1787 all military works carried out in the island were firmly under the jurisdiction of the Board of Ordnance, though there was a curious anomaly perpetrated by the States in 1807. This was an Act which effectively bisected the island diagonally from the SW to the NE corners. The States were to be responsible for the cost of construction and maintenance of all fortifications north of this imaginary line, with Government responsible for those to the south. Even so, it was the Board of Ordnance that decided what was needed and where. John Evelegh remained OCRE, Jersey. until 1797, when he was succeeded for a short period by Benjamin Fisher, who in turn was followed by Captain Booth. Then, in 1800, came John Humfrey. He held office throughout the entire construction period of the main body of Fort Regent until his promotion to army rank on 4 June 1814.

In comparing Humfrey's ultimate design with the earlier proposals, it is helpful to refer to drawings, and Plan 1 is taken from the original sketches in the Public Record Office. It is perhaps unfortunate that the topography of the hill as it existed at that time is not indicated, since Humfrey altered it more than a little. Nevertheless, a study of the accompanying report, together with a reasonable knowledge of the hill today, makes it possible to locate the proposed building with fair certainty. This will be apparent in Plan 2 on which the 1787 proposals have been superimposed on to the ultimate layout as actually constructed.

Without question, John Humfrey deserves full credit for the design of Fort Regent as we know it, though it is a fact that much of the development south of the enceinte was executed in the 1820s, after his departure from Jersey. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that a lot of the preliminary thinking and appraisal of the hill as a strongpoint had already been done for him before he became OCRE in Jersey in 1800.

He was, perhaps, fortunate to have Lieut-General Morse as the Master-General of the Ordnance, because having been a party to the 1787 report, Morse obviously would be aquainted with the weaknesses that needed to be overcome. Indeed, he referred to this matter in a letter to Humfrey in 1803, when the OCRE was wrestling not only with design problems, but also the avaricious demands of the Procureurs de la Vingtaine de la Ville for the purchase of the land.

It was also fortunate that Morse and Humfrey were good friends and got on well together, as opposed to the acrimony that existed between the Duke of Richmond and General Conway several years earlier.

Plan 2 (see text of article)

Interim design

John Humfrey produced what is perhaps best called an interim design dated 14 May 1806, which is three months after work actually started on site. That drawing bears a close resemblance to the finished work, though there were later modifications - principally the substitution of a counter-guard for a ravelin in the southern fishtail - while, as noted, the Glacis was developed in quite a different form around about 1825.

Although at no time did Humfrey make mention of the 1787 report, it is evident that he studied it, since he went to immense efforts to plug the weak points of the initial concept. This is perhaps an appropriate place to refer the reader once again to Plan 1 in order to identify those weaknesses.

It will be observed on the plan that all the angles in the scarp of the Fort, as well as the outworks, are identified either by letters or numerals. This enables easy and accurate reference to be made between the report and the drawing. For instance, the report states: "AB. We see no objection to this line provided the rock in front of it be scarped away, so as to give effect to its fire".

Such remarks further enable a crude assessment to be formed of the topography of the hill at that time. As an example, it is noted that line 'Pl.' at the northern end passes over a quarry which was about twenty-five feet deep. Clearly this was later filled in, very likely by Humfrey.

There is no doubt that in general terms the Committee of Engineers found the proposals satisfactory, but there were two spots in the "circumjacent country" that disturbed them. One is referred to as "La Rocque Millais"; the other "La Hurette". It is infuriating to admit that neither position has been established with absolute certainty.

They do not appear on the maps prepared by Faden, Gardiner (Richmond), or Le Gros. Faden produced his map in 1783, only four years earlier than the report, while the Richmond map was surveyed at the same time as the report was compiled, yet neither provide the slightest indication of these positions.

Godfray in his masterpiece of 1849 indentifies "Les Monts Millais" which is a possible lead since the committee obligingly stated distances from given points in the projected design. Furthermore, those faces of the proposed works that were considered vulnerable to the named positions are also noted, so that with a little ingenuity and a modern map it is possible to pinpoint them, more or less.

La Rocque Millais almost certainly is the site now occupied by Victoria College; that is to suggest in the area of Les Monts Millais on Godfray's map. Mrs Joan Stevens has helpfully observed that the property called Mount Pleasant (Victoria College Preparatory School) was known as Le Clos de la Rocque in 1824.

La Hurette was clearly in the vicinity of the quarry flanking Clarence Road: indeed, a land transaction dated 1820 concerns a property called Les Hurettes in that road, and as 'Hure' means stony ground, that surely has significance. Additionally, the report asserted that the former was 23ft and the latter 46ft below the general level of the Town Hill, which these spots obligingly fulfil. At all events, the Engineers considered them to be serious dangers to the proposed fortifications if an enemy was able to place heavy artillery upon them.

Vulnerabilities

Referring to Plan 1, the faces specifically mentioned as being at risk from either or both of these positions have been emphasised by heavy lines for easy identification. It is obvious, though, that the whole of the east flank was vulnerable in some measure, with the risk growing proportionally as the works progress in a northerly direction up to the tip of the hornwork commanding Snow Hill. So, with this knowledge it is interesting to compare how Humfrey overcame these sensitive spots when he embarked upon his design. Reference must now be made to Plan 2.

Working from the most northerly point southwards, the first thing John Humfrey abandoned was the hornwork above Snow Hill, since that was to be an open structure which would have permitted an enemy to lob shot into its midst from either of the sites mentioned.

He withdrew the main body of the Fort by rather more than 200ft to lengthen the range and replaced the hornwork with two casemated redoubts at the northern tip. Then he excavated rock to form a ditch, thus concealing the northern re-entrant face of the enceinte, so that direct fire against the scarp was a problematical undertaking, particularly from a lower level. Humfrey then reckoned that his northern face was reasonably secure, with justification.

Neither the committee, nor Humfrey at a later date, were too concerned about the western side, since the only high ground of consequence was Gallows Hill (Westmount) which was considered to be too distant to make any impression on the fortification.

Consequently, Humfrey discarded Outworks B, C and 6, but nevertheless, being a cautious man, he made the curtain north of the West Bastion more than 20ft thick. It would have been a daunting task to have destroyed such a formidable structure, but even if that had been achieved it would have been of little advantage to an enemy, since the sheer cliffs prevent a direct assault to exploit the breach. With such conditions, Humfrey had every reason to feel secure on his west flank.

The eastern side, however, was another story altogether. In this respect the 1787 committee recommended that: "The walls of such parts as are exposed to the high grounds of La Rocque Millais and La Hurette, we would recommend to be covered by glacis or envelope, to whichever the ground may be most favourable, since thickening the profiles in these places might not prevent the ruins of the wall from forming such a slope as would be practicable to an enemy".

Counterscarp

Humfrey adopted the envelope treatment and constructed a Counterscarp the entire length from the north ditch southerly to beyond the Counterguard, where he turned it westwards to form a south ditch at the northern head of the Glacis. Thus he ensured that a foe had no direct vision of the Fort per se which was obscured to the north, east and south by the counterscarp. The west, as has been shown, was already considered safe.

However, the counterscarp alone was not sufficient to totally safeguard the east flank in Humfrey's judgement. So, he constructed the east outworks on a knoll in a manner that provided enfilading fire in a northerly and a south-westerly direction. The fire power covering the eastern flank northwards was further reinforced by guns in the casemated northern redoubts.

But Colonel Humfrey still was not content: he recognised that if the east outworks were taken it would be a serious breach of the Fort's defences at very close range. To overcome this risk he built two more casemated redoubts commanding artificial ditches which isolated the east outworks.

It always had been recognised that there was a weakness on the south face and the 1787 report noted that: “it will still be necessary to occupy parts of the South Hill to prevent an enemy gaining it by surprise from Havre des Pas. We have therefore traced upon the ground two rRedoubts taking advantage of the work already erected in masonry (by General Conway) upon which we would raise a parapet".

Humfrey built those redoubts, but as with the 'works already erected', there is no longer any trace of them. It has not been established when they were demolished, though the contours of South Hill were much altered by quarrying for the construction of the Victoria Pier in the early 1840s. By then the military importance of Fort Regent had waned considerably, and in those circumstances it is possible that Conway's earlier fortifications may well constitute a substantial portion of the mass of Victoria Pier.

Humfrey had no part in the formation of the Glacis and none of his drawings show it in its completed form. It would be unthinkable, though, to suggest that he had not recognised the desirability of such an arrangement: the fact is that he moved on to higher office once the principal work had been completed which, in any event, coincided more or less with the ending of the Napoleonic Wars.

The 1787 report reveals beyond doubt that the basic concept of Fort Regent was all of 20 years old when John Humfrey commenced this magnificent monument. It would be puerile to deny him the credit for that, but it would be equally unfair not to recognise the contribution of others: notably Field-Marshal Conway; the Duke of Richmond; Lieut-General Morse; Lieut-General Evelegh; Major-General Fisher and Major-General Mulcaster.

Senior officers

It is interesting to observe how all associated with Fort Regent reached the zenith of their respective careers with army rank: Lieut-General Humfrey, too, ended a long and distinguished military career as Commandant of the Corps of Royal Engineers. That possibly is some indication of the importance that was attached to Fort Regent, which undoubtedly is a very fine example of Napoleonic military architecture: it is second to none of its kind. Perhaps, therefore, it is fitting to end with a tribute to the stalwart local craftsmen who erected it.

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