During the 1850s Alderney was heavily fortified by the British in response to the French extending the fortifications and harbour at Cherbourg, which seriously threatened Britain’s naval dominance in the English Channel and the country’s south coast harbours.
Eighteen forts and batteries were built to protect Alderney and the new 'harbour of refuge and observation', which was intended to be the base for a British fleet against any potential invasion by the French.
A Time of Great Change
The extensive building and major investment during the Victorian period saw Alderney's population treble with the influx of English and Irish labourers, plus a sizeable British garrison stationed in the island.
The impact of this period is still very much in evidence today, in the street patterns, houses and most obviously of all, in the harbour breakwater and the chain of forts and batteries that surround the island.
Queen Victoria Visits
Alderney was so important to British strategy that Queen Victoria visited the island on three occasions, always with much pomp and ceremony, in 1854, 1857 and 1859, giving Prince Albert the opportunity to inspect the harbour and especially the works of defence.
On their visit in 1854 they became the first passengers to ride on the newly built railway which had been built to bring stone from the quarries for the construction of the breakwater. They did so in a horse drawn tender.
The Harbour Breakwater
Alderney’s harbour breakwater, one of the island's key landmarks, was designed by Victorian engineer Thomas Jackson who had previously built railways and canals. It took 17 years to build and was started in 1847 after he had first constructed the railway on the island (and imported two engines) to transport stone to use from a quarry site at Mannez, 2.25 miles away on the other side of the island.
It took over 1,200 workers to build the breakwater and cottages had to be built to accommodate them.
In 1864 when building works stopped the breakwater was 1,463 metres long. However about a third of the end of it was destroyed in storms shortly after its completion and it wasn't rebuilt.
In 2018 the breakwater was chosen by the Institute of Civil Engineers as one of 200 most influential engineering projects in the world.
Alderney’s Victorian forts, the most dominant features of the island’s landscape, were built in the 1850s to defend the island and its harbour against any potential invasion by the French. By 1859 they were armed with 230 cannons.
Many of the eighteen forts and batteries are now privately owned, with some converted to private accommodation and are not accessible to the public. Some of the other forts are now in varying stages of dereliction, with Forts Houmet Herbé and Les Hommeaux Florains, both now derelict. Most of the Victorian defences were occupied and fortified by the Germans during WWII.