From the 1550s, Alderney was recognised as a strategically important naval and military base. It played an important role during the French
By the 1550s the English authorities, realised the importance of Alderney as both a naval base and a haven from privateers. In 1546 they began the construction of a powerful work that would dominate the approaches to Longis Bay then still the island’s main harbour. Originally referred to as the Upper Fort or Les Murs de Haut but later known as Essex Castle, the fort has had a relatively uneventful but chequered history. Of the original structure only the north and west walls remain – incorporated into the later Victorian work known as Essex Barracks and Hospital.
The picture below illustrates the northern end of Fort Essex showing part of the original 16th century walls; the watchtower was added in the early nineteenth century. The loop holes and observation slits in the watch tower and immediately in front (left) were added or enlarged during the German occupation.
Throughout the 1600s and early 1700s few fortifications of any note were constructed although from time to time various armaments were dispatched to the island. In the late 1730s, the Board of Ordnance called for a survey of Alderney for the purpose of constructing new batteries. Colonel J.H.Bastide completed the survey in 1739; his map shows the jetty, constructed by Le Mesurier, as the “New Peer” that still exists today and is known as Douglas Quay. Bastide’s map (shown below) lists the sites for ten proposed batteries mounting 27 guns.
At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the island’s 18th century defences were in a poor state. In a report on the defences in 1801, it was noted that there were just 48 guns on standing carriages and a further fifteen on field carriages.
By the end of the following year, the number of guns mounted in the island’s nineteen batteries had increased to 85. Twenty-five of these guns were concentrated on the shoreline and slopes of Essex Hill to command the anchorage of Longis Bay. Kent and Clarence Batteries, known as the Queen’s Lines, were halfway up the slope of Essex Hill while Prince of Wales Battery was an extension of Longis Lines above the shoreline on the low cliff.
By 1804 the Longis Bay batteries were reorganised: Kent and Clarence Batteries were dismantled and Longis Lines was extended to mount fifteen guns together with the new three-gun Le Mesurier’s Battery in the centre of the bay.
Built in 1801, the former Longis Barracks (shown below) housed men for the fifteen guns mounted in the reconstituted Longis Lines and shore area in 1804.
The semaphore tower (now known as Telegraph Tower – shown below), constructed on Beacon Heights in 1809, was used to communicate with the other Islands during the Napoleonic Wars using Mulgrave’s Telegraph system. By 1809, the defences mounted some 93 pieces of ordnance and the Alderney Militia, comprising artillerymen, grenadiers and light infantry, totalled some 384 men.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Alderney mounted imposing artillery defences for such a small island, but over the next 25 years there was a steady decay of its defences and those of the other Channel Islands. Even as late as 1840, a report called for by the Inspector General of Fortifications showed the only defences were those remaining from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
At about this time, the French had begun to strengthen Cherbourg and to complete the construction of its harbour. This caused considerable alarm in the Admiralty, which feared for the safety of the naval dockyards of Portsmouth and Plymouth that lay within easy reach of the new steam driven warships.
By 1842 plans for “Harbours of Refuge and Observation” were proposed for the three main Channel Islands. However, only Alderney was considered by the Admiralty to be of prime importance as a lookout station for vessels of war. Consequently the original proposal for a harbour at Longis was abandoned with the decision in 1844 to build it at Braye. From here a watch could be kept on the south side of the Channel, particularly on Cherbourg, while the new harbour at Portland could perform a similar function in the north.
From 1852 until the early 1860s, the fortification of Cherbourg and the building of its massive breakwaters were completed; it was during this period that the proposed size of Alderney’s harbour increased and the main period of fort construction was underway. Pictures below include a plan showing the projected increase in size of the Breakwater and Harbour between 1847 and 1859, and a photo shows the actual size of the completed work.