The following article entitled ‘Notes on Sandsfoot Castle’ by T. S. Groves is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 3 published 1879.
Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 before restoration in 2012 © DCM
“This prematurely ruined structure, described by Leland in his well-known itinerary “as a right goodlie and warlyke castle, having one open barbicane,” dates from no further back than 1539, the year when Henry the VII. compelled the surrender of the larger monasteries, and when consequent on the vigour of his assaults on Popery, he began to fear a coalition of Catholic sovereigns against his kingdom.
Portland Castle, on the opposite side of the bay, had been built a few years previously, the two being mainly intended to provide protection from foreign cruisers for English ships frequenting the “Roads,” and prevent the assembling of hostile navies therein with a view to invasion.
A ground-plan of Sandsfoot Castle was published in 1789 by Delamotte, of Weymouth. It appears to be authentic, but from what source he obtained it I am not aware. No good elevation of the castle in perfect state is known to exist, nor is there any adequate description of it in that condition.
As a ruin it has been often engraved, but the artists have usually shown themselves more desirous of attaining picturesque-ness of effect than accuracy of detail.
Grose, who wrote during the latter half of the last century, gives, in his “Antiquities of England,” the best verbal description we have of it.
The Royal Coat of Arms, carved in stone, was removed from the castle and now is over the south door of All Saint’s Church, Wyke Regis. © DCM
He says, ” The body of the castle is a right angled paralellogram, its greatest length running from north to south. At its north end was a tower on which were the arms of England, supported by a wivern and an unicorn. (These arms, carved in stone, were many years ago removed from the gateway of the castle and affixed to the north wall of the chancel of Wyke Eegis church). The north part seems to have been the governor’s apartment, and is all vaulted. Near its south end is a lower building, said to have been the gun room; this being broader than the other part of the edifice, forms flanks, which defend its east and west sides, and on the south the front is semi-circular; before there was formerly a platform for cannon. On the east and west sides there are embrazures for guns, and below them two tiers of loopholes for small arms, the lowest almost level with the ground. The north front is nearly destroyed, but the remains of an arch or gateway show that the entrance was on that side.
The whole edifice seems to have been cased with squared stones, the walls were thick and lofty, and the buildings, though small, were not inelegant. Since the «’ restoration ” it has been neglected and suffered to fall to ruin. The north, east, and south sides were, at a small distance, surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart, through which, on the east front, was a gate faced with stone, part of which is still remaining.”
In this description there are several inaccuracies. The lower building on the south side is not semi-circular, but octangular, its eighth side forming the southern end of the main body of the castle. The ground-plan I have referred to shows that five of the sides were pierced for embrazures, three of which pointed seawards, the other two covering respectively the shore to the right and left. The sixth and seventh sides are not fully developed, and were not pierced for cannon; the flanking effect must, therefore, have been produced by loopholes for small arms in the upper story, of which indeed indications are given in Buck’s engraving (date 1733).
There is reason also for objecting to his description of the east and west sides of the main building. The lowest tier of apertures on the west sides are evidently those of windows for lighting the cellar of the castle ; the tier next above these are, or rather were, loopholes, but the facing stones having been removed the contraction of the openings that originally existed is no longer apparent. The uppermost tier is simply a range of windows—the places where the iron bars were inserted being plainly visible.
From the east side the cellar received no light, consequently there is one tier of perforations less. On this side was a doorway and four loopholes on the ground floor, and four windows above. I doubt very much whether there were on either the east or west side embrazures for cannon. The ground-plan certainly gives a figure of what appears to be a cannon lying in one of the eastern openings, but it must I think be an error, as at the point in question, immediately behind the supposed embrazure is the head of a staircase leading to the cellar. The castle on the land side was in fact very weakly fortified. It relied perhaps for defence in this direction on its ditch and rampart, the latter doubtless furnished with cannon, especially at . the bastions at its east and west angles.
The “open barbicane” mentioned by Leland is not visible. He must, I think, have inaccurately applied the word to the gun-room at the southern end. The term is rightly employed to indicate a port in advance of the main building for the purpose of protecting the entrance gate and drawbridge, if any.
Grose omits to mention the grooves in which slid the portcullis, and which are still visible at the north and principal entrance.
The interior of Sandsfoot Castle after restoration in 2012 © DCM
The arrangements of the interior will best be understood after actual inspection, I will, therefore, refrain from describing them. It is evident that a very large portion of the octagonal gun. room has fallen owing to the sea having undermined its foundation. A large block is now lying on the rocks below, undergoing the gradual disintegration by the action of the waves that has in my time dispersed many still larger fragments. In my father’s time, sixty years ago, a carriage could be driven between the castle and the cliff, and in 1859, if an ancient map may be credited, the castle, surrounded on all sides by a moat, stood in the centre of the field.
The dilapidated (a word here most correctly applicable) condition of the outer walls is said to have been occasioned by the stones having been torn from their places and carried to Wey-mouth for building purposes. Two houses in St. Thomas street have been pointed out to me as having been mainly constructed out of the spoils of Sandsfoot Castle. One is half inclined to wonder how such a thing could have happened seeing that the building has never passed out of the hand of the Crown. But there were giants in those prae-reforrm days—at peculation and robbery!
It seems that round shot of stone were used, at least occasionally, for the service of the guns. Some schoolboys, playing about the castle, crawled into one of the large drains that opened on the cliff, and found there a stone shot of some six inches in diameter. A similar shot was found at Portland, and brought to Sir John Coode, who had the curiosity to know whether it was really a shot or only a natural concretion. He therefore placed it under a steam-hammer, and gave it a blow so judicious that it cracked into two exactly equal pieces, when lo ! in the centre was found a perfect specimen of a petrified Cardium of some sort. The split shot is to be seen at the Engineer Office, Portland. There can be no doubt I think of the stone being really a shot—its perfect sphericity would seem to prove that— but there is reason to suppose that in order to save labour the ancient artificer had selected a stone already partially rounded, a concretion in fact founded on the shell of the Cardium.
Sandsfoot Castle can scarcely be said to have a history. It must have changed hands again and again during the Civil Wars, but existing records make no mention of any siege whatever—a fact which strengthens my argument that the castle was indefensible on tho north or land side. Probably it followed as a matter of course the fortunes of the neighbouring fortified town of Weymouth and Melconibe Regis. The names of some half-dozen of its Governors are known, but no interest would attach to their enumeration.
The same must be said of the references, few and far between, to the existence of the castle and its garrison, in the borough archives—archives which are alas in private hands, and probably about to suffer dispersion to the four winds of heaven under the very noses of a body of men whom I fear I must characterise as indifferent to the history of their borough, and more antiquarian in their notions than in their tastes.”
The follow-up article entitled ‘Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth’ by W. C. Norman is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 41 for 1920, published 1921
“I have recently read with considerable interest T. B. Groves’s “Note on Sandsfoot Castle, which appeared in Vol. III. (pages 20, &c.) of the Proceedings of our Club. This to a great extent is accounted for by the fact that my school days were spent at Weymouth, and naturally I was well acquainted with this ruin.
For this reason, and because of what is related further on, I thought I might, without presumption, add a few remarks on the subject.
My earliest recollection of the Castle reaches back to a period of over 60 years, and is, that it was then on the edge of the cliff. Indeed, most of the gun-room was gone, and its south-eastern and south-western walls projected over it considerably, as a result of being undermined by the disintegrating action of the sea.
An old postcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens
At this time there was no way round the Castle and the sea cliff outside it, except the dangerous one of climbing round the overhanging ruins, which afforded a very precarious foothold, and from which to the rocks below was a sheer drop of 40 feet.
There was a large fall of masonry from the south-front in 1835, and there have been others at various times since.
I will briefly refer to Mr. Groves’s remarks in passing.
From a plan of Sandsfoot Castle dated 1789 (in my possession) and which I was, many years ago, (by the courtesy of an official) allowed to copy from one in the War Department Office, on Bincleaves, the dimensions of the Castle are there given as :— length, 100 feet; width, 50 feet.
The east, north and west sides still have the protection of the ditch and rampart, and it is fair to assume that similar works defended the south side; but all traces of these must have been obliterated more than 70 years ago, by the occasional subsidence of the cliff into the sea.
Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 © DCM
That the opening in the east rampart was a gateway or entrance is, I think, open to grave doubts. On a map and plan of the Castle which I saw more than 50 years ago, and which was then in the keeping of the War Department at their Office on the Bincleaves, that opening is described as being a magazine. Years ago there reposed in the ditch, directly behind the so-called u gateway,” a massive door jamb of stone. The upper end of the jamb was turned, so as to form half of the head of a semi-circular door arch. When the corresponding jamb was in position it would accommodate a door measuring 3ft. by 4ft. 6in. in the rabbet formed for this purpose. A door of this size, although suitable for a magazine, would be totally inadequate for the general purposes of the Castle. When I last saw this jamb, it had fallen from the ditch on to the undercliff below. I searched for it in June, 1918, but could not find it. Possibly it was hidden by the rank growth of weeds, or had sunk in the soft earth.The grooves in which the portcullis moved are clearly in view, also the stone stairway leading to the chamber (over the main entrance) in which was the machinery used for raising or lowering this.
There were two entrances to the cellars, one at the northeast angle of the Castle, the other a few yards to the south of this, When a school-boy, I, with three boy friends, resolved to clear the steps of the last-mentioned entrance from the earth which, in the course of very many years, had accumulated there. We devoted a half-holiday to the object. We began at the top, and had nearly reached the bottom, when I found a small coin, which proved to be a Rose farthing of Charles I., 1635. This type is similar to the Harringtons’, the difference being, that these bore the Rose on the reverse, in lieu of the Harp, which distinguishes the Harringtons’.It is evident that the old map showed the Castle as it was at some early date of its history, and not as it stood in 1859; as, at this time, not only had the rampart, ditch and intervening land between them and the Castle entirely disappeared, but also a considerable portion of the building itself had fallen into the sea.
As I was one of the school-boys referred to in Mr. Groves’s paper (Vol. III., p. 23) I feel quite qualified to give a few details relating to the finding of the stone shot.
About the year 1855 I was walking, with two other boys, on the sea-shore under Sandsfoot Castle, when we “spotted” the opening of a drain which a fall of the cliff had brought to view.
It was directly under the south-west angle of the Castle, and about 30 feet above the shore. The opening was almost closed with earth. We had a strong desire to investigate ; but how ? It was not an easy matter at that time, as the cliff was then nearly perpendicular. I was deputed to make the ascent, and, by the aid of my pocket-knife and a pointed piece of wood, foot-holes were cut in the face of the cliff, and the upward journey began.
At length I reached the drain, and cleared its mouth. Inspection revealed the fact that its bottom was covered by a few inches of earth, and that it extended about six or eight feet in a direct line, when it appeared to be choked by fallen masonry. This ended the first introduction to the drain; but we arranged to pay it daily visits in order to carry on the work, and, in order not to interfere with our school duties, these visits had to be made in the early morning. So, for some time, we rose with the lark, and reached the scene of operations at 7 a.m. This gave just an hour for work, before we had to start for home, breakfast, and school.
‘The Poisoned Cup’, a short novel by Joseph Drew set in the reign of Elizabeth I has Sandsfoot Castle as its backdrop. © DCM
As our operations were carried on in semi-darkness, lying prone, and in a very confined space, our progress was not rapid. The earth had to be loosened and scraped forward; then the worker wriggled backwards, drawing the earth forwards until the outlet of the drain was reached, when the result was sent over the cliff. As the clearing progressed, the one working in the drain was occasionally quite hidden from view. One morning, when I was at work, and nearing the obstacle, I came upon something which for a time defied my efforts to remove it; but at last I loosened it, and took it from its bed, where it had probably been resting for centuries. I wriggled back to daylight with my unknown prize, when it was seen that it was a hollow cylinder of iron, open at one end, and closed at the other. There was a handle on one side. What it was I knew not then; but the heavy burden was cheerfully borne as, with light hearts, we trudged back to breakfast. Another visit sufficed to clear the floor of the drain of accumulated earth and rubble, and to enable us to see clearly the nature of the obstruction. I should state that in the roof of the drain and about six feet from the outlet, a perpendicular drain joined it; and down this had fallen a rectangular piece of stone measuring about 2 feet x 10in. x 10in., which was firmly jammed at the angle formed by the junction of the perpendicular and horizontal drains.
To remove this was both difficult and dangerous. The working space was cramped; the prone position of the operator most uncomfortable. Moreover there was the knowledge that when the obstruction moved it would come with a rush; and then it would be a case of stand clear, or be crushed. The obstruction was at length removed without mishap, and when it came down into the drain, I found to my great joy, that three stone shots, which had lodged behind it, were now released. These I drew towards me, and wriggled back to the outlet with them. They were received with shouts each took one. We were a happy trio as we wended our way homewards.
A few years later I found an iron shot, about 3in. diameter, 18 inches beneath the surface of the gun-room floor.
Some years after this, when visiting the Tower of London, I found that the iron cylinder was a breech chamber of a 15th Century cannon in which the charge of powder was placed. It was then inserted in an aperture in the cannon and pressed forward in the direction of the muzzle, and secured in this position by a bar of iron which passed through holes in the sides of the gun and rested against the end of the chamber, thus preventing it from moving. There was a touch hole in the chamber. The shot was then inserted in the muzzle and rammed home, and the gun was ready for action.
Formerly there was a tradition that when Henry VIII. built Sandsfoot Castle, he used some of the material which he obtained from Bindon Abbey (which, like so many other religious houses, fell a victim to his rapacity) for its construction; but there appears to be no proof of this. However, a close inspection of the Castle walls show that there are, among the rubble, many fragments of worked and carved stone, including two archaic corbel heads which evidently came from some ecclesiastical building. This appears to give a little colour to the report; but it is too slight for anything but the merest conjecture.
My three “finds” at Sandsfoot Castle referred to in the foregoing pages, viz., the breech-chamber, stone shot and iron ball, are in the Dorset County Museum.
In writing the above I merely desired to place on record circumstances which are in my personal knowledge, and which otherwise might have been lost sight of.
Loading the Cannon Pierrier © DCM
N.B – Since this paper was written I have received information from the Royal United Services’ Institution, Whitehall, to the effect that this early breech-loading weapon, known as the cannon pierrier, was much used in the early part of the Sixteenth Century for throwing stone shot from small castles. The accompanying sketch, from a drawing by Grosse, in the Royal United Services’ Institute shows the progress of loading the cannon pierrier. The small stone or iron balls were apparently inserted at the breech. (See middle gun).
The large stone balls, 6in. diameter, which we found, would be used not in a pierrier, but in a howitzer.”