Geology Revealed: Coastal Heritage Risk by Professor Robin McInnes

Lyme Regis, Dorset by G Hawkins. Aquatint Engraving, c 1830. This view looks eastwards towards Black Ven and Charmouth. Rapid erosion and coastal landsliding is a feature of this frontage. © Private Collection

Lyme Regis, Dorset by G Hawkins. Aquatint Engraving, c 1830. This view looks eastwards towards Black Ven and Charmouth. Rapid erosion and coastal landsliding is a feature of this frontage. © Private Collection

Come and join us on Wednesday 22 February for a talk on Coastal Erosion by Professor Robin McInnes. The presentation will explain the results of a major study, ‘CHeRISH’,  commissioned from Coastal & Geotechnical Services by Historic England. The project has been examining the potential for historical images (1770-1950) to support  understanding and improved management of risks to coastal heritage sites in Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

Robin McInnes is a geologist, coastal scientist and art historian. He read geology at Southampton University and gained his PhD at Portsmouth University in Coastal Zone Management. He was technical chairman of the Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coastline and chairman of the Coastal Groups of England & Wales between 1995-2009. He was appointed OBE for ‘Services to Flood & Coastal Defence’ in 2006. Robin was Visiting Professor at the School of Civil Engineering & Environment at the University of Southampton from 2010-2014. In 2007 he established his consultancy Coastal & Geotechnical Services specialising in coastal zone and landslide risk management; he has been an advisor to the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, The Crown Estate and numerous other clients in the UK and overseas.

Alongside his technical publications Robin McInnes has a special knowledge of British coastal art and he wrote the standard reference work on this subject in ‘British Coastal Art 1770-1930’ in 2014. His has a particular interest in illustrating how art can support many aspects of coastal planning and management.

This lecture will be held in the museums’ Victorian Hall on Wednesday 22nd February 2017 at 7.00pm (doors open at 6.30pm) and is FREE although a donation of £3 is encouraged to cover costs.

For further information contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on www.dorsetcountymuseum.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

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Evening Talk & Book Launch: ‘A Freezing Horror’, the Wreck of the Halsewell East Indiaman

The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the HalsewellOne freezing night in January 1786 a shocking and dramatic shipwreck on the Dorset coast stunned the nation. Local author Philip Browne’s talk at Dorset County Museum sheds fresh light on the career of Captain Richard Peirce of the East India Company and the wreck of his ship, the Halsewell.

On Wednesday 2nd December at 7.30pm at the Dorset County Museum, Philip Browne will draw on original research to explore the factors that led to the shipwreck and will examine the impact of the disaster on Captain Peirce’s own family and the response of society to this horrific event. Come along and find out the answers to the questions who was Captain Peirce, and was he to blame for the loss of his ship and the deaths of his own daughters?

Signed copies of Philip Browne’s book ‘The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell’ will be on sale after the talk.

The talk is on Wednesday 2nd December 2015 : 7.00pm for 7.30pm and is FREE, although a small donation of £3 is requested to cover costs. For further information and other forthcoming events contact the Museum on on 01305 756827 or check the website on www.dorsetcountymuseum.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Jurassic World – Come and see the World’s Biggest Bite!

Jurassic-WorldJurassic World has been released this weekend – and if you’ve enjoyed the film, now come and see the enormous 150million year old skull of the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur at Dorset County Museum!

The fossil bones of this pliosaur skull were recovered by amateur fossil collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008, as they were washed out of a landslide on the coast in Weymouth Bay. The largest piece weighed over 80 kg, and the skull itself is a massive 2.4 metres long. Featured recently as one of National Geographic’s Top 10 Biggest Beasts, the pliosaur was the ‘T Rex of the ocean’, an 18metre long ferocious predator of the seas. Known as ‘The World’s Biggest Bite’, the Weymouth Bay Pliosaur would have been capable of biting the biggest great white shark alive today clean in half.

The Dorset specimen is one of the most complete and best preserved skulls ever found, and as a result it has provided new insights into our understanding of how these enormous animals evolved.

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Since its discovery, hundreds of hours have been spent carrying out a detailed analysis and cleaning away the rock to expose the detail of the fossil underneath. Alongside this conservation work an intensive programme involved the Jurassic Coast team and Dorset County Museum working together to produce an exciting, interactive display showcasing the fossil with the theme ‘The World’s Biggest Bite’. Mounted dramatically on a specially constructed plinth that shows the jaws in an awe-inspiring open-mouthed position, the story of the fossil is interpreted through a series of film presentations accompanied by a life-size model of the pliosaur’s head.

Dr. Jon Murden, Director said “It’s amazing to see this skull up close in the Museum – standing next to it you can really appreciate its enormous size, and get a feel for the terrifying predator it once was.”

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Recording Wartime Shipping on the Thames: The Dazzle Paintings of John Everett by Gwen Yarker.

Lepanto by John Everett

‘Lepanto’ by John Everett, c. 1918

John Everett was one of the few official war artists of the First World War. He worked for the Ministry of Information on paintings connected with seaborne commerce, using his experience as a deep-water sailor to give his work a sense of unqualified realism. He specialised in the interpretation of the military’s use of ‘dazzle’ – a colourful camouflaging technique used to disguise ships at sea. Nothing revealed to the landsman better than Everett’s work the beauty that camouflage – through grim necessity – brought to wartime shipping.

Dorchester-born John Everett produced a remarkable and unique body of work centred on Atlantic convoys. On his death he bequeathed all remaining maritime works in his possession to the National Maritime Museum which now holds the most important collection of his paintings in the world.

Gwen Yarker MA, FSA, FRHistS, is an independent art historian, formerly art curator at the National Maritime Museum, specialising in British art and the life and work of John Everett. On Friday 23rd January 2015 she will give a lecture at Dorset County Museum about Everett’s paintings of the Dazzle ships on the Thames.

All are welcome to this event which is FREE although donations are welcome to cover costs. The lecture will start at 7.30pm and doors are open from 7.00pm. For more information phone 01305 262735 or visit www.dorsetcountymuseum.org.

Effect of Gale on Beach East of Weymouth 1899

Fig.1 - General view of beach looking towards Preston Coastguard Station in the Distance. Sea on right, Lodmoor (Flooded) on left. Road entirely covered by shingle in storm of Feb. 13th, 1899. Photo Feb 16th 1899 © DCM

Fig. 1 – General view of beach looking towards Preston Coastguard Station in the Distance. Sea on right, Lodmoor (Flooded) on left. Road entirely covered by shingle in storm of Feb. 13th, 1899. Photo Feb 16th 1899 © DCM

Here is an article written by Nelson M. Richardson, B.A., F.E.S. from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 20,  1899 entitled ‘Notes on the Effect of Gale on February 11-13, 1899, on the Beach to the East of Weymouth’ 

During a violent south-westerly gale which blew from February 11th to 13th, 1899, the tides were unusually high and much damage was done in many places in the South of England. At Weymouth Harbour the tide was stated to have been higher on the morning of Monday, February 13th, than had been the case during the past 20 years. Some damage was done in Weymouth and a ship was driven across on to the rocks at Osmington Mills from her anchorage in Portland Roads.

Fig. 2 - View of lodmoor side of beach, showing damage to road and shingle promontories washed into Lodmoor © DCM

Fig. 2 – View of Lodmoor side of beach, showing damage to road and shingle promontories washed into Lodmoor © DCM

One of the most striking effects of the gale was in connection with the beach and road which run from Greenhill to the Preston Coastguard Station. This ridge of beach is, like the neighbouring Chesil Bank, raised a few feet above high-water mark, though not to the same extent as the latter, and is somewhat over a mile in length and about 40 yards in breadth, including the road. At about a quarter of a mile from Greenhill Gardens it begins to widen, and gets wider as it approaches Weymouth. The height at the old Gatehouse is about 7 feet above high-water mark, and at the point represented in Fig. 3, about a foot lower, the height falling gradually towards the Coastguard Station, near which point the ground rises suddenly and the beach entirely loses its peculiar character, becoming an ordinary sloping sea-beach. This also occurs where the ground rises at the Weymouth end. On the inner or land side lies Lodmoor, a marshy and very low tract of land which is generally flooded in the winter. The road to Preston from Weymouth runs along the land side of the beach, which rises 5 or 6 feet higher between it and the sea, whilst on the sea-side, near the Preston end, are still to be seen, at about the same level as the present road, portions of concrete, which formed the road many years ago. From this we may infer that the beach has been moving inland at a rate possibly approaching 2 to 3 feet in a year, but there do not seem to be sufficient data for accurate measurement. It would also seem probable, considering the effect of the storm of February last, that much, if not the whole, of the movement was caused by large steps in previous storms and was not the result of any gradual process, as except in very rough weather the waves do not nearly reach the top of the beach.

Fig. 3 - Men cleaning shingle from road about half way between old gatehouse and coastguard station after storm of Feb. 13th, 1899. Photo Feb 16th 1899 © DCM

Fig. 3 – Men cleaning shingle from road about half way between old gatehouse and coastguard station after storm of Feb. 13th, 1899. Photo Feb 16th 1899 © DCM

During the gale, an immense quantity of shingle was thrown over on to the road, covering it for the space of about half a mile of the Preston end to the depth of some feet ; in one place it is stated to have amounted to 6 ft., but usually the depth was about 3 feet. On the side of the road adjoining Lodmoor much damage was done in places by the scooping out of large hollows in the road, and down these hollows masses of shingle were poured, forming promontories projecting into Lodmoor. This is well shown in Fig. 2, where the lady (Mrs. Richardson) is standing at the middle of the road. This photograph was taken from the edge of one of the shingle promontories. Preston Coastguard Station is seen in the distance, and about midway lies a very long shingle promontory.

Fig. 1 is taken from the top of the beach and gives a general view of the whole, the road being quite invisible. In the distance is the Preston station, with the sea to the right and Lodmoor flooded to the left. Far away on the left of the beach are the men, about 80 in number, employed to clear the road.

Fig. 4 - Men cleaning shingle from road (nearer coastguard station than Fig.3). Shingle 3ft. deep or more over road.

Fig. 4 – Men cleaning shingle from road (nearer coastguard station than Fig.3). Shingle 3ft. deep or more over road.

Figs. 3 and 4. show the men employed in clearing away the shingle. Fig. 3 is taken at a spot about midway between the old gate house and the Coastguard Station, where the shingle was about 2 feet deep. Fig. 4 at a spot nearer Preston where the shingle was about 3 feet deep. It shows a bank of about 6 feet high thrown up on the sea-edge of the road, with the sea just visible over the top.

The whole of the movement of shingle and destruction of the road is said to have taken place early on the morning of Monday, February 13th, and to have been accomplished in the short space of half-an-hour. This may have been the case, considering that the full effect of the sea would only be felt whilst the tide was at its greatest height. No similar covering up of the road by shingle has occurred for many years, if ever, and the present one is confidently ascribed in many quarters to the erection of the new breakwater. In the absence of direct evidence on this point, it would seem that the very high tides and violent S.W. gale coming together might have been amply sufficient to cause the disaster, had the new breakwater not existed.

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Jurassic Coast Champion at Dorset County Museum

Professor Denys Brunsden at the Pliosaur unveiling 8th July 2011

Professor Denys Brunsden at the Pliosaur unveiling 8th July 2011 © DCM

Professor Denys Brunsden OBE is a well-known geomorphologist specialising in landslides and coastal erosion.

As the first Chairman of the Dorset Coast Forum he proposed the Jurassic Coast for World Heritage Site status and worked tirelessly with other experts to achieve a successful outcome. In 2010 he was awarded a prize by the Geological Society for his work on the project. Professor Brunsden also wrote the very popular “Official Guide to the Jurassic Coast: A Walk Through Time”.

As part of the Museum’s Geology lecture series, Denys Brunsden, who is also Emeritus Professor of King’s College, London, will give the first talk of 2014 entitled Tales of the Deep. He will discuss the use of modern imaging techniques to map and visualise the sea floor in order to understand deep sea processes and hazards.

This lavishly illustrated lecture takes place at Dorset County Museum at 7.00pm on Wednesday 8th January 2014. Entry is FREE and the doors are open from 6.30pm. A donation of £3.00 is encouraged to cover costs.

For further information contact the Museum on 01305 262735 or check the website on www.dorsetcountymuseum.org

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The History and Finds of Weymouth’s Sandsfoot Castle

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

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.

Tudor Coat of Arms All Saints Wyke regis

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.

Inside Sandsfoot Castle

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 ostcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens

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

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 by Joseph Drew

‘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

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.”

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Trafalgar Hero – Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy

The Hardy Monument

The Hardy Monument on Blackdown Hill, west of Dorchester, was erected to the memory of the admiral © DCM

On the summit of Blackdown Hill, near Portesham is the Hardy Monument.  Standing 22m (72ft) high, this tower, that resembles an upright cannon, is a memorial to Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, not the novelist as most people assume. Erected in 1844 on the highest point of Blackdown, the foundation stone was laid by Hardy’s daughters on the 39th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.  During the Napoleonic war, this spot was the site of a beacon to give warning of French invasion.

Thomas was born at Kingston Russell House, Long Bredy in the heart of the beautiful Bride Valley in April, 1769. The family moved to Portesham in 1778 and this village in West Dorset was to remain close to his heart until he died. After schooling in Crewkerne he joined the navy as captain’s servant to Captain Francis Roberts on the brig Helena. His career was successful from the start and included a close friendship with Lord Nelson which lasted until the latter died on the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. At Trafalgar, the combined French and Spanish fleets were beaten by the smaller British fleet, but Nelson was mortally wounded.  As Nelson lay dying he said the famous words ‘Kiss me Hardy’.  At this, Hardy bent and kissed his dying friend on the forehead.

Thomas was Captain of H.M.S Victory at the time and he went on to become a full admiral, First Sea Lord and Governor of Greenwich Hospital. He died on 20th September 1839 at 70 and was laid to rest in the mausoleum of the old cemetery belonging to the hospital. His home in Portesham is still a private dwelling.

Below are extracts taken from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 42,  1921 xxxv-xxxvii’ of an excursion to Thomas Masterman Hardy’s House at Portesham on 16th September, 1920.

“The last of the summer meetings, which was held at Portesham on Thursday, September 16th, proved most interesting, and was attended by about 80 members. By the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. W. Hardy Manfield, who now occupy Portesham House. The ancient home of Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy was thrown open for the inspection of the members, who were thus enabled to see the remarkable collection of relics of Nelson’s trusty and favourite flag captain.

In the garden is a picturesque sundial, dated 1767 and bearing the name of Joseph Hardy. A considerable amount of interest, too, was shown in the collection of fossils. With respect to these the President said that the fossil tree stumps came from beds corresponding to the Portland beds, nearly all being portions of fossilised coniferous trees. Up in the quarry at Portesham was what the men called a “fossil elephant.” In reality it was only a large tree coated with a deposit. The so called “fossil bird’s nest” was a cicad such as could be seen at Portland growing out of dirt beds.

Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy - from the painting by Robert Evans, at Greenwich Hospital. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy – from the painting by Robert Evans, at Greenwich Hospital.

The attendance was so large that the members of the Club had to be conducted in parties over the house, which for many years was the home of the great seaman who was flag captain to Nelson on board the Victory at the crowning battle of Trafalgar. It was immediately after the battle of the Nile that Hardy was invited by Nelson temporarily to fill the place, on the flagship Vanguard, of his flag captain who had been sent home with despatches. It was then that the long and intimate association of these two bosom friends began. Hardy served his idolised chief on no fewer than six or seven ships. He afterwards became Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, and ended his life as Governor of Greenwich Hospital. Some number of the articles comprised in this unique and priceless collection of Nelson and Hardy relics are usually deposited for security in the strong room at the Bank, but they had been brought out in readiness for the visit of the Club, and were set on tables, or hung on the walls of the house, for convenience of inspection.

Thomas Masterman Hardy Writing Box

Writing box of Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy: inscribed “Capt.T.Hardy : H.M.S Victory : Jany 4th 1805”, The writing box has not been altered nor conserved, but has lost much of the internal furniture, pen-racks, ink bottles which may have been removed as popular souvenirs; the rod-lock to the draw and key are missing and the central brass lid-plate is not engraved.
Playing cards: two incomplete French-suited packs of English block-cut traditional design of the George III period, 1760 – 1820, by “GIBSON & GISBORNE”; found in the sea-chest of “Capt.T.M.Hardy : Portesham”. Rules for Cards were established by Edmond Hoyle, published 1742. © DCM

Perhaps earliest in date was the will of Thomas Masterman of Kingston Russell (1763). It was from him that Hardy got his two Christian names; and it was in the fine old manor house of the Bedford family at Kingston Russell that he was born in the year 1769; and not, as is so often wrongly stated, at Portesham, though his family removed there afterwards. Amongst the pictures on the walls were contemporary engravings of some of the famous engagements in which Captain Hardy took part, including three of the battle of the Nile. Amongst the most interesting objects exhibited might be noted miniature portraits of Hardy; his Nile medal; his shirts and ruffles; his buckskin breeches; his Prayer Book; pieces of old cabin furniture; printed playing cards; a ship’s lantern from the victory; some number of his letters, in one of which, dated August 18th, 1805, a little more than a month after the battle of Trafalgar, he writes “We fancy ourselves very unfortunate, after so many anxious moments, to have missed the combined squadrons.”

Thomas Masterman Hardy Mourning Brooch

Mourning Brooch inscribed with the date of Thomas Masterman Hardy’s Death, with strands of his hair encased within the brooch © DCM

Then there was a beautifully executed painting in profile of Nelson as Duke of Bronte with the corresponding portrait of the King of Naples. Hardy’s portrait by R. Evans was accompanied by a richly-illuminated vellum conferring upon him the freedom of the City of London, on January 30th, 1806, and a sword of honour for which 100 guineas had been voted. This was dedicated “as a testimony to the high sense which this court entertains of his excellent behaviour on Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory on the 21st October, 1805, at the memorable defeat and capture of the combined fleets of France and Spain off Trafalgar.” On one of the tables was laid a copy of the special edition of the Times, of Friday, January 10th, 1806, which contained a full descriptive report of the funeral of Lord Nelson, in which solemn pageant Hardy bore a very prominent part. Perhaps the most touching of the exhibits was the thin lock of Nelson’s hair placed under a glass, given by Lady Hamilton to the Prince of Wales. There was also on view the patent conferring the Baronetcy upon Hardy.

Like the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy once fought a duel. It is thus recorded in Bells Weekly Messenger of June 18th, 1816:- “Affair of Honour. – Yesterday afternoon, in consequence of a dispute at the Opera House on Saturday night, a meeting took place between the Marquis of Buckingham and Sir Thomas Hardy. After an exchange of shots the seconds declared that enough had been done to satisfy the honour of both parties, and the affair concluded.”

When the members had reassembled on the lawn the PRESIDENT expressed the warm thanks of the Club to Mr. and Mrs. Hardy Manfield for their great kindness in allowing the members to visit their interesting home and to view their rare collection of Hardy and Nelson relics. For himself it had been a revelation, as no doubt it had been to others. He had no idea that there was such a wealth of these objects in their possession, and he heartily congratulated them upon being the possessors of such treasures.

Below are extracts taken from the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 45, 1924 p5-11 of Notes on Exhibits in the Dorset County Museum relating to the Napoleonic era, A.D. 1793 – 1815 by Captain J. E. ACLAND, M.A., F.S.A. (Read December 13th, 1923).

“The Dorset County Museum during its life of nearly 80 years has acquired from time to time many exhibits connected with the Wars of Napoleon, and the expected invasion of England. They have been noted in the Annual Reports as they were received, but their value and interest will be more easily realized by treating them as one collection related to the same historical period.

The Naval and Military events to which they refer left a deep impression on the people of the South of England, and perhaps especially on the districts of Dorset near the coast, which, as Mr. Hardy says, “had echoed with rumours of invasion in their intensest form while the descent threatened, and was animated by memories and traditions of the desperate military preparations for that contingency”

War was declared between England and France in 1793, and in the following year a Regiment of Yeomanry was raised with the name “Volunteer Corps of Dorset Rangers” to “provide for the security of the country against any attem which might be made on the part of the enemy”

The Museum has been entrusted recently with the care a large number of original documents dealing with the formation of this Regiment, which owed its existence to the ability of Lord Milton (Earl of Dorchester). It is interesting to note that the first appointment of Officers to their respective ranks was made by ballot, the Captains being W. Churchill of Henbury; Lionel Darner, of Came; T. Weld, Lulworth Castle; J. Frampton, Moreton; R. Erie Drax Grosvenor, of Charborough; F. J. Browne, of Frampton; Richard Traver of Up-Loders.

There is a case in the Museum containing four Yeomanry helmets showing how the uniform changed from time to time the earliest being one of the original “Dorset Rangers,” date 1794. Two swords which belonged to members of the Regiment hang close by. One belonged to Sir Henry Oglander Bart., of Parnham, Dorset, dating probably about 1835, and the other, recently given by Col. E. G. Troyte Bullock, C.M.G. was the property of Mr. E. Roberts, of Silton, Dorset.

In the Library, in addition to the three volumes Record of the Dorset Yeomanry, are some interesting MS. maps of the County dated 1801 and 1803, by W. Jennings of Evershot showing in detail the preparations for defence, and for removing to places of security all stores and live-stock which might be of use to an invading force.

A system, or chain, of Signal Beacons was also arranged, by which news of the anticipated invasion could be speedily made known throughout the whole county, and as far east as Winchester. Readers of Mr. Thomas Hardy’s works will remember the characteristic description, both in prose and poetry, of the Beacon Watchers on “Egdon Heath.” The position of the Beacons, eleven in all, is shown on the map, besides what are called “Signal Posts.” The Beacons, taking them in order from the west of the county, were on Pilsdon, Orchard Hill (near Chideock), Shipton Gorge (east of Bridport), Blackdown, Puddletown Heath (Rain Barrow), Milton Abbey, Woolland Hill, Woodbury, Melbury Hill (near Shaftesbury), Lytchett Heath and Badbury. The Signal Posts were on Golden Cap, Abbotsbury Castle, Portland North and The Bill, White Nose, St. Aldhelm’s Head, Swanage, and Ballard Down.

An interesting document relative to those stirring times (shown in the Museum) is a facsimile reproduction of a scheme for the concentration of troops, both Cavalry and Infantry, between Weymouth and Dorchester, issued by King George III, in his own handwriting, when residing at Weymouth, in 1804. The original belonged to Mr. A. M. Broadley.

Another reminiscence of those bygone times is brought to our notice by a printed form dated 28th May, 1801, exempting persons serving in the Dorset Volunteer Rangers from the duty on hair-powder certificates. It is signed by James Frampton, commanding the 2nd troop, in favour of George Roberts.

The last exhibit to be referred to here which deals directly with the Yeomanry Cavalry is due to the fact that in 1922 the Regiment was converted into two Yeomanry Artillery Batteries, after 128 years service. It was found necessary to dispose of much of the property of the Officers’ Mess, and we were asked to accept “on loan ” a magnificent cigar-box, possessing much historic interest. It was presented to the Officers in the year 1885 by Captain Montague Guest, M.P., and measures 1ft. 10in. long, by 1ft. 2in. wide, 7½ in. high. Every portion of the box both inside and outside is ornamented with coloured sketches by D. Norie, depicting the places and scenes at different periods of its history where the Regiment had been trained, and also vignettes showing the changes of uniform and details of equipment at various dates which are given by the Artist.

In addition to the Yeomanry Cavalry, large numbers of men were enrolled as Volunteer Infantry. We possess two valuable relics of this branch of the service, which were exhibited at the Field Club Meeting in February, 1911, and presented to the Museum later by Mr. S. R. Baskett of Evershot, viz.: a fine drum, 2ft. 8in. long, with the words “Evershot Volunteers” painted on it, and a green silk flag with Union Jack at the corner, and “First Battalion Dorset Volunteers.” That the patriotic feeling was well maintained throughout the whole county may be realized by the fact that the Infantry were composed mostly of a different class from the Yeomanry, who promised on joining to find their own horses and clothing. Sir William Watts (D.F.C. Proceedings, Vol. XXXII) estimates that in 1803 there were over 3,000 men in the different Dorset Regiments, all locally enrolled; Mr. H. Symonds (Ibid, Vol. XLI) giving a total of nearly 2,000 in the three Dorset Battalions of Infantry. Evershot was appointed as the “Place of Assembly” of the 12th Company, under Captain Jennings. and was a part of the first Battalion, commanded by Earl Digby.

Turning now to exhibits connected with the Royal Navy attention may be directed to the beautiful model of the 64-gun frigate H.M.S. Lion, in which ship Henry Digby is believed to have served as a Lieutenant in the year 1790. It was given to the Museum in the year 1898 by Mrs. Graham, who was then living at Frampton Vicarage, Dorset, with her son-in-law the Rev. F. C. Salkeld, Vicar from 1897—1903. Mrs. Salkeld informed me that the model had belonged to the Graham family for many years, having been made (as she thought) by her great-grandfather, a designer and builder of ships. The model is four feet long, resting on the cradle and slips ready for launching, and was built up from the keel as a full-sized ship would be. The figure-head is a Lion, the stern being finely worked and decorated. By looking through the stern windows, a view is obtained of the lower decks. The frigate was built in 1777, and therefore must have taken part in the early sea-battles of the French war, and probably may have often sailed in company with Thomas Masterman Hardy of Portesham, who entered the Navy in 1781, and to whom our thoughts most naturally turn while dealing with the exhibits .of this period, not only for his own worth, and as a native of Dorset, but as the devoted friend of Lord Nelson.

This friendship and confidence is graphically described in the scene of Nelson’s death in the fifth act of ‘The Dynasts’ — While lying below deck, he exclaims:—

“O, where is Hardy? Will nobody bring Hardy to me? None?
He must be killed too.    Surely Hardy’s dead !”

And a little later when Hardy has come to him, he says,

“Ever ’twas your settled fault
So modestly to whittle down your worth.
But I saw stuff in you which Admirals need
When, taking thought, I chose the Victory’s keel
To do my business with these Frenchmen in.
A business finished now for me.”

In connection with this scene may be mentioned four small engravings framed, showing portraits of Lord Nelson, Captain Hardy, a general view of the fleets engaged in battle, and Nelson’s death in the cock-pit of the Victory. There are also two very interesting letters exhibited in the Museum written by Captain Hardy himself to his relative, Mr. Manfield of Possum. The first, dated January, 1801, was written on H.M.S. San Joseph when lying at Plymouth, and refers to Lord Nelson passing through Dorchester, and to a very serious and sudden illness he had in the carriage; the other letter written on board H.M.S. Victory only six days after the battle of Trafalgar. It is a simple, friendly letter announcing the defeat of the enemy, the death of the great Admiral, and sending kind messages to residents at Possum. It is worth quoting in full.

Victory, off Cadiz.
Oct. 27th, 1805.

Dear Manfield,

We have on the 21st inst. obtained a most glorious victory over the combined fleets, but it has cost the country a life that, no money can replace, and for whose death I shall for ever mourn, our Dear and ever to be lamented Lord fell in the action, and as it fell to our lot to lead the fleet into action our loss has been rather great—54 killed and 80 wounded. How¬ever I have come off unhurt, the weather ever since the action has been so bad that we have had some difficulty to save our shattered ship, and have had no communication with any of the Fleet. I really cannot say the exact number of ships taken, but twelve we are certain of, tho’ I much fear many of them are since lost, and one or two taken into Cadiz, as the gale for these last five days has not ceased blowing directually on that shore. Thomas Bartlett is well, and has written by this conveyance. It will also be satisfactory for Sam Clark (of Possum) to know that his son is well. The Victory is in so bad a state that she must be ordered to England, at any rate you will soon see me and I am determined to remain on shore some months. You will suppose my mind is not very easy, and I am sure you will excuse this hasty scrall. We are this moment ordered to Gibraltar by Telegraph, and I have only time to say that in hopes of seeing you soon I remain with good wishes for all

Dear Manfield
Ever yours most affectionately
T. M. HARDY.

The Dorset County Museum also has a copy of The Times, 7th Nov., 1805, containing Collingwood’s despatch relating to the battle.

View of the Hardy Monument

Engraving of the view of the Hardy Monument, taken from a pamphlet 12th June 1848, with regards to the expenses paid for the erection of the monument

The other exhibits relating to the Admiral are a copy of the Memorial bust by Behnes, in the Greenwich Hospital (1834), and the original sketch by the late Mr. Arthur Acland, together with all his working plans and drawings, of the Hardy Column erected in 1844 on Blackdown Hill near Dorchester. Sir Thos. Masterman Hardy died in 1839.

A brief notice of two minor exhibits, but both relating to the close of the Napoleonic Era, may fitly conclude these notes. In April, 1814, after many defeats in Spain and France, Napoleon abdicated – and retired to Elba. We may well believe that rejoicings were universal throughout England, and a broad-sheet dated July 11th, 1814, framed and placed on the wall of the Museum describes the events at Broadwindsor (Dorset) “in consequence of the late most glorious peace in this small but patriotic village, with a degree of Loyalty, Patriotism, and at the same time Humanity, as is scarce to be credited, and not to be equalled.”

The celebrations lasted for three days. The first day was spent in consuming the beef, bread, and cyder which had been freely distributed to every house, and in dancing, ringing of bells, and fireworks. On the second day the Curate (on behalf of the Rector) gave the loyal inhabitants of this little hamlet, a hogshead of stout English beer. “Then (says the broad-sheet) might an observant spectator have seen a multitude of happy, happy, mortals at once offering up their pious ejaculations to their all-bounteous Benefactor.” On the third day Buonaparte was publicly executed, which is thus described:—” Buonaparte being dressed in all the insignia of royalty, but with sword inverted, and many other marks of degradation, was placed in an open carriage, and drawn through all the streets of the parish. He was condemned to be hanged in chains till dead, and then to be burnt, for which purpose he was taken to a field adjoining the parish, where the gallows was erected and the funeral pile was reared. Meantime the fatal noose is fixed, and this fiend upon earth, this Apostate to religion, this devil’s vice-regent, was launched into the blackest eternity. Thus ends the career of a Tyrant. The inhabitants now returned to the George Inn to spend a considerable sum of money in joyous festivity, and singing ‘Buonaparte done over’ Tyrants begone,’ and many other loyal and appropriate songs.”

Close to this broad-sheet hangs a facsimile reproduction of a sketch showing Bonaparte’s final departure from the scene of his activities. It is entitled “This sketch of Napoleon was made on board the Northumberland, man-of-war, on her voyage to S. Helena (1815) by Mr. Commissary Ibbetson, who gave it to me in that Island ‘Theodore E. Hook.’”

And there, after six years as a prisoner-of-war, Napoleon died, A.D. 1821.

Sic transit gloria mundi.”

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A Fisherman’s Tale: The Monster Fish of the River Frome

Monster Fish -  The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum

Monster Fish – The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum © DCM

Visitors to the Dorset County Museum may have noticed the large fish suspended in the Victorian Gallery. Believe it or not this is a Common Sturgeon (Acipenser Sturio), also known as a European or Baltic Sturgeon, is one of the largest fish ever to be caught in an English river using a fishing rod. Nearly three metres in length and weighing 92 kilograms, this fish was caught by Major Charles Robert Eustace Radclyffe of Hyde House, Bere Regis in the River Frome at Bindon Mill on 2nd July 1911.

Here is his amusing fisherman’s tale taken from the Dorset Year Book 1918 -1919 from Major C.E. Radclyffe’s article ‘My Years of Sport in Dorset’:

“And now we tune to the gentle art, so well beloved by Issac Walton.  Here again in Dorset rich in rewards for those who frequent the banks of her silvery streams.  True it is that the River Stour is not so noted for its pellucid waters as for the size of the great course fish which frequent its dark and deep pools.  But in the clear waters of those beautiful streams, the Frome and the Piddle, which teem with all kinds of fish from salmon and trout to grayling pike, roach and dace, an angler must be hard to please if he cannot there find anything to amuse him.  No two men beautiful streams are to be found in England than these which meander over their winding courses and glide gently into Poole Harbour by two months situated a short distance apart.

The Frome in its upper reaches yields magnificent trout fishing, whilst in its lower stretches salmon run up to 50 lbs. in weight, and enormous pike and countless coarse fish, and a few sea trout, frequent its waters.  The Piddle is without doubt one of the best trout streams in England, and teems with fish for many miles.

Born and bred on the finest stretch of the latter river, it is not to be wondered at that in early youth I took fishing as a duck takes to waters to their mouths, that I have not explored and fished in the past 35 years, and during that time have taken from them many hundreds of fine trout, and many scres of salmon.

An angler is always expected to have some great yarn to tell of each river he has fished, and the writer does not plead to be an exception to this rule; in fact he could fill a book of yarns on Dorset angling.  The difficulty is to get people to believe them all.  But the following is a well authenticated event which happened seven years ago.

Radclyffe Family and the Sturgeon

The sturgeon after its capture, on top of the roof of Major Radclyffe’s Daimler. In front are his four daughters © DCM

Early in the season I was fishing the lower waters of the Frome for salmon with a friend. Shortly after we had started, my friend came running wildly towards me across the meadows, as if chased by a mad bull. Breathlessly he explained that he had seen the biggest salmon in the world I reasoned with him that even a 40-pound salmon looked ‘some fish’ in a small river like the Frome. Whereupon he swore solemnly that this fish was at least 140lbs. As the old saying goes ‘seeing is believing’, so we went to the spot, and soon in the centre of the pool appeared a huge back fin shaped like that of a shark. A closer inspection showed the back of an enormous fish, which my friend had clearly underestimated at 140lbs. But this great back with scales like armour plating was familiar to me, since I had killed sturgeon in Russia, and hence was able to say at once that my friend is a sturgeon, and a big one; but how to land him on our light tackle is more than I can say. Repeatedly the monster rolled on top of the water close between our feet, and finally we decided to borrow a gun from a neighbouring farm and shoot the fish.

The gun having arrived we waited until the fish again showed on top of the water, and then gave him both barrels in the head at a distance of five yards. The only result was to make him take a series of wild rushes across the stream, where he began to roll about as before, apparently none the worse for a double dose of No. 5 shot.  Seeing that big things required strong measures, I sent my car home for an elephant rifle, and we waited. Just before the rifle arrived the fish disappeared in a deep pool, and although we patrolled the river, and had scouts out looking for him for days afterwards, we did not then find further traces of the fish, and decided he must have returned to the sea.

Two months later, a man arrived from Bindon Abbey with a request that I would go next morning to try, and catch the biggest salmon in world, which was then in a big weir pool. From the man’s description I had no difficulty in deciding that here was our long-lost sturgeon.

Early next morning, armed with the strongest rod and line I possessed, and having rigged up a grappling tackle of the largest-sized salmon flies, a party of five of us stood watching the weir pool. After an hour’s waiting, there suddenly appeared the great shark-like fin, and then the back of our friend the sturgeon.

Major Radclyffe and Sturgeon

Major Radclyffe (right) and his Gillie with the 230lbs. Sturgeon, caught by the Major near Bindon Abbey. The largest fish ever caught in fresh water in England. © DCM

Since a sturgeon belongs to the family of bottom-feeding fish, it was obviously impossible to hook this one with any form of bait. Hence it became a problem of casting over the monster and trying to get the hooks to grapple in some soft spot. This was no means easy owing to the thickness of its skin and armour-plated scales. Finally, however, I grappled the fish under the jaw, and then the fun began. For one hour and forty-five minutes I and a friend took turns at the rod, as the continuous strain on one’s arms was more than one man could stand for long; and at last it felt like trying to hold or turn a motor car with a rod and line.

As a last resource we had to requisition services of a small seine net, and floating it down stream until the fish struck into it. The fish tangled itself up like a fly in a spider’s web, and was thus hauled into shallow water. It took three men with two gaffs to land this leviathan, which measured no less than 9 feet 3 inches from nose to tail; verily the largest fish ever captured with rod and line in an English river.

According to a time honoured custom, I presented the fish to His Majesty King George, who graciously returned it to me with a request that it might be preserved in my private museum at Dorchester; all of which was done in due course.

An amusing incident occurred as the fish was landed. A local labourer arrived with a towel on his shoulder for a morning bathe.On seeing the fish he said, ‘Lord, zur, do ee think there’s another of they girt brutes about, cause if ‘tis I bain’t agoin’ to bathe in thik pool agean,’ and I don’t believe he has done so since then.

I have often heard a fine fisherman say he considrers the Frome to be the most sporting, and best all-round river in England.  And although I can claim a somewhat unique record of having caught salmon on almost every country in the world where they are known to exist, from Iceland Scandinavia and Russia, to Siberia, Kamchatha, Japan and Alaska; and from the Bristish Columbia to Newfoundland; yet I look back with great pleasure of all to the days on which I have landed my first and many subsequent great salmon, on the banks of the dear old Frome.

‘Big things with fins’

SturgeonSturgeon are rare visitors to our rivers. Most of the population is found in the Rivers Gironde, France and Guadalquivir, Spain and in the Baltic and Russian rivers. They have four barbels which are tactile organs in front of their toothless mouth that seek out food on murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales; the Victorians made jewellery out of these, setting them in silver and gold.

Most species of Sturgeon are highly prized for their caviar and, as they are slow growing and mature very late in life, are consequently at risk of extinction, as a result of over fishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means ‘bearing eggs’ and can cost several hundred pounds for a small pot. Now the Common Sturgeon is protected and can no longer be caught for its caviar.

It has been suggested that sturgeon have been the origins of some sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

In Morris Collman’s book ‘Hants and Dorset’s Legends & Folklore’, published by James Pike ltd, 1975. He mentions a local Dorchester tradition that monster fish once inhabited a lake near Poundbury Hillfort.

“Poundbury is an ancient British earthwork which the Romans adapted for their use.  It was placed on high ground above the river, and in its early days a great lake which fed by the river Frome, lay to the north of the camp. There are stories of monsters which used to inhabit this lake, but no description of them seems to have been attempted.  They were just monsters, ‘Big things with fins’ according to one old Dorchester lady.

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From Mud and Bones to a Museum Specimen

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

Richard Edmonds and Kevan Sheehan with the Pliosaur skull © DCM

The fossil bones of this pliosaur skull were recovered by amateur fossil collector Kevan Sheehan between 2003 and 2008, as they were washed out of a landslide on the coast in Weymouth Bay. The largest piece weighed over 80 kg. Kevan missed only four pieces, three of which were recovered by two other collectors.

In 2003, Kevan found three massive sections of the jaw lying at the base of the cliff, freshly washed out by the sea. Over the next five years he returned to the site after rough weather and rain, patiently recovering the pieces as they became exposed. This is an incredible achievement for an individual collector, and a sign of his dedication to the recovery of something that would otherwise have been lost to the sea. The three smaller pieces were found by other local collectors, Patrick Clarke and Shirley Swaine. One small piece at the back of one jaw is lost, while the front of the jaw was probably uncovered many years ago. It could have been washed away or it could be lying in a collection somewhere not yet linked to this find.

Funding

The specimen was purchased by Dorset County Council’s Museums Service, half its initial cost going to the collector and the other half to the landowner. Preparation (cleaning) and piecing the bones back together took 18 months of skilled, professional work. Funding has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Collecting Cultures programme, with match funding from Dorset and Devon County Councils. The restored specimen was formally unveiled here by Sir David Attenborough, on 8th July 2011.

About the specimen

As yet, the skull has not been allocated a formal name. It is currently being studied by research groups at several UK Universities, and it is thought probable that the pliosaur will receive a species name new to science (probably crediting its finder)

The skull is 95% complete, but there was no sign of the body at the find site. Entire skeletons are rare as they tended to be broken up before burial. The massive skull probably fell off the decaying body as it rolled about in the Jurassic sea, being ripped apart by scavenging creatures, possibly even other pliosaurs. The complete animal would have measured between 15 and 18 m in length.

Its skull is 2.4 m long, and is believed to have possessed the biggest bite of all time – powerful enough to sever a small car in two! Although they never lived at the same time, it could have torn the biggest great white shark alive today clean in half.

Pliosaurs lived during the ‘Mesozoic Era’, the age where reptiles dominated the animal kingdom. Dinosaurs patrolled the land, pterosaurs soared the skies, and a variety of large aquatic reptiles (such as plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mozasaurs), ruled the seas. Both the dinosaurs and the marine reptiles died out at the end of the Mesozoic Era, 65 million years ago, when a massive extinction event wiped out two thirds of life on Earth. The bones of this pliosaur were found in Kimmeridge Clay sediments (deposited during the Upper Jurassic Period), and are about 155 million years old.

Pliosaur

The Sea Dragon – Pliosaur

Scientists have been able to build a picture of how a complete pliosaur would have looked from various fragmentary remains. Living pliosaurs were air-breathing marine reptiles. They are considered to be a subfamily of the plesiosaurs. Unlike some plesiosaurs, they had short necks with just a few vertebrae. Pliosaurs’ barrel-shaped bodies were equipped with a powerful tail and often a huge skull. The creatures swam by means of two pairs of paddle-shaped limbs (for example the forepaddle on the eastern wall of this gallery). The main identifiable differences between skull specimens are the jaws and dentition, which probably reflect different types of prey favoured by each species. They were able to catch and dismember large prey as they had powerful jaws capable of opening wide, and strong, deeply rooted, conical teeth. There is a model of the head as it perhaps looked when alive, hanging in the window of this gallery.

Ongoing research

Scientific study is underway to discover how the animal lived and died, and how its bones became a living reef for encrusting animals. The specimen has already been scanned at the University of Southampton using its high-energy, micro-focus CT scanner – one of the most powerful of its kind in the UK.

The results have been used to reconstruct a three dimensional digital model of the entire skull, revealing fine details of the creature’s internal structure that would otherwise remain a mystery. The University of Bristol are using this CT scan data to understand just how powerful the bite may have been. Experts from the University of Portsmouth will study the fossilisation process, while mud associated with the bones has been sent to the University of Plymouth, to see if any fossil plankton were preserved. Sediment removed from the bones will be studied by experts in the Natural History Museum in search of bones and teeth of animals that may have hunted around the dead skeleton.

Other examples

The Weymouth Bay Pliosaur skull is exceptional because it is 95% complete, but it is not the biggest in the world. Fragments of larger specimens have been found in the brick pits of Oxfordshire. The skull of Kronosaurus, from Australia, was possibly up to 3 m long. Specimens of comparable size have been found in northern Norway, on the island of Svalbard, and in Colombia, South America.

Other pliosaur specimens are on display around the world at

  • Queensland Museum – an example Kronosaurus found in Queensland, Northeast Australia.

Plesiosaur and ichthyosaur specimens are on display in the UK at