Monday 7 August 2023

Palmerston's Folly

Castle Hill, overlooking Newhaven, has been a defensive site since the late Bronze Age and was occupied for at least a thousand years from that time [it had a hillfort upon it]. When Britain feared invasion from the French during the 19th century the site came into play once more. Despite the government's reluctance to heavily invest in a series of forts along the south coast Lord Palmerston got his way. They were built, but the threat never materialised and they remained unused. They became known as the 'Palmerston's follies', but this large example continued to play a defensive role during both World Wars. It isn't a place I might go to of my own volition [it was the second part of Mr GBT's birthday outing], but it approaches the military period of history for which it was active from many different angles. There was much of interest for both of us. I'm reluctant to use the word "enjoy" because it seems very trite when the subject is war. It's closing at the end of this summer until Spring 2025 to  undergo a major refurbishment. The images and the words I've shared are what stood out for me personally.

Although they don't really show up in my photo these bollards are shaped like torpedoes.

The fortified is the only one with a drawbridge and they meant business with the heavy metal door! There are stencilled figures representing the different eras of activity all along the tunnel which opens out into the main courtyard.

The fort was first armed in 1873 with guns needing cartridges full of gunpowder. The grand magazine could hold up to 1356 barrels of the stuff and there had to be exacting rules for all to follow to avoid explosions and death. The candle lamps were kept behind glass both here and in the laboratory where the gunpowder was loaded into the shells and cartridges.

This image from WWI is iconic. I take it by Margaret Aquith's rather tart "If, Kitchener was not a great man, he was, at least, a great poster" remark that he was unpopular in many sectors. Initially there was no problem with recruiting men to fight for their country and it was quite a struggle to process the huge numbers of volunteers who came forward. As the huge losses started to affect the war effort conscription was brought in. From January 1916 all unmarried men aged between 18-41 were called up and married men from the May. By 1918 the upper age had been increased to 50.

Those who did not agree with war and conscription were at the mercy of the Order of the White Feather. The women in the order were encouraged to publicly humiliate any man they saw who wasn't in uniform and give them a white feather for cowardice. The conchies [conscientious objectors] and anyone else who didn't want to fight were their intended targets and despite an increasing unease with many members of the public at their unregulated actions the government seemingly did little to deter them. They didn't stop to ask those that they verbally attacked and many were shamed even though they were underage, in a reserved occupation or those who had  been invalided out of the forces or convalescing away from the front whilst recovering from injury. Eventually men were given 'on war' badges, armbands or proof that they were waiting for the call-up so that they could provide proof,

Everyone in society was affected by the war [the King gave up alcohol save for private medical use to do his bit] and emergency legislation was brought in without debate [the pandemic gave us all a flavour of how that works]. The Defence of the Realm Act [DORA for short] changed all sorts of aspects of society. Women were brought into the workforce and the government were able to seize factories and land to use for munitions production. As it evolved more restrictions were brought in including no bonfires, flying of kites, no possession of cocaine [unless you were in a medical profession], no whistling in the street in case it was mistaken for a siren and the strength of alcohol was reduced to that productivity wasn't hampered. Even today we still have British Summer Time which was introduced to increase potential working hours to the max.

By 1939 the country was back at war again. Below is one of the famous Howitzer guns and a selection of the propaganda posters.

The sensation of sitting in a mocked up air raid shelter with lights dimmed and the sounds of the air raid sirens and explosions was quite disturbing and frightening even though the rational part of my brain knew it was only a simulation. I can't even begin to imagine the terror people felt. Besides the constant worry of losing loved ones you were struggling on all fronts every day just to cope. I know it's always said that people were much healthier during the war, but it's documented that they were also constantly hungry and tired with many working long hours in very physical jobs whilst running homes and bringing up their families. Many foods were heavily rationed but not fruit and veg nor interestingly beer. Indeed the government went to great lengths to keep shortages of it down because it was recognised that it was an important element in keeping morale up. For reasons I know not it was an offence to use icing sugar as well as wasting or allowing others to waste precious resources which makes far more sense. Nothing was overlooked from the size of labels being reduced on tins to thinner newspaper. 

There are many WWII displays, but it was the heart breaking Dieppe Raid on 19th August 1942 which moved me the most. It was doomed to failure from the start with many errors made even before the soldiers left the Newhaven shore. Their luck ran out even before they landed as the Germans already knew and were able to pick them off one by one. They didn't even need to aim their guns at a specific target to hit someone. So many lives were pointlessly lost with the Canadians suffering particularly high losses. The sweetheart bracelet below is made from buttons from the Carleton and York regiment of Canada and was given to a landgirl by her boyfriend. Sadly he was one of the ones who didn't return. 

Incredibly Sooty, the ship's cat, survived even though the Landing Craft she was on was one of the many vessels which foundered. She managed to swim clear and was awarded the Dieppe Raid Medal much later in 1992. Valuable lessons were drawn from the disaster and the experience shaped how the D Day landings were planned and carried out in 1944.

Not wanting to finish on too serious a note there are many tunnels dug deep into the hillside below. Some of them were used as a space for the RAF 28th Air Sea Rescue Unit to spend their off duty hours. One year they held a Christmas party and in the spirit of making do they used all their leftover boat paint to decorate the walls with themed murals. Most are not accessible to visitors, but this door is a prime example of their artwork. Let's hope they had one hell of a time!!




  1. I cannot imagine being a woman walking around handing out white feathers and calling men cowards. The Dieppe invasion was quite sad.

    1. They were such different times and difficult to relate to.


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