Western Heights and Quebec – Part I

Quebec House - Westerham, Kent - National Trust property 2013

Quebec House – Westerham, Kent – National Trust property 2013

One of the Dover Society trips this year (2013) was to Chartwell, Westerham, the home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1924 to his death in 1985, and the nearby Quebec House. The latter was the home Sir General James Wolfe (1727-1759) during his childhood and the National Trust now owns the house.

My interest in the latter, General James Wolfe, stemmed from when I was preparing the case against a proposed development on Western Heights back in the late 1980s early 1990s. This was heard at a Local Plan Inquiry where, with the help of Jack Phillips and Alan, my husband, we were successful in stopping it going ahead. A further outcome, we hoped, would be the recognition that the Heights was an Ancient Monument, under the auspices of English Heritage in conjunction with Dover District Council (DDC). Therefore would no longer be starved of finance in order to make it ripe for developers to move in.

Doug Crellin's Map of the Western Heights fortifications

Doug Crellin’s Map of the Western Heights fortifications

Dover is a narrow valley opening up to the sea between two high cliffs, Dover Castle dominates the Eastern Heights and on the opposite side of the valley are the Western Heights. The main thrust of my case was the historic fortifications and I drew parallels with those in Quebec, Canada. The latter are located within a World Heritage Site a designation given in 1985. In English history, James Wolfe (1727–1759) is synonymous with Quebec and I had every reason to believe that the General was in Dover prior to the Quebec campaign. The trip to Westerham confirmed this.

General Wolfe - Quebec House, Westerham. Courtesy of the National Trust

General Wolfe – Quebec House, Westerham. Courtesy of the National Trust

General Wolfe was born at the vicarage in Westerham, Kent, the elder of two sons of Lieutenant-General Edward Wolfe (1685–1759) and his wife, Henrietta (d. 1764). Shortly afterwards they family moved along the road to what is now called Quebec House and in 1738, the family moved again, this time to Greenwich. In 1731, James was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in his father’s regiment and followed a military career. On 27 June 1743, he distinguished himself at the Battle of Dettingen on the River Main, Germany, during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). In January 1749, he was appointed Major in the 20th Foot and began compiling his ‘Instructions for Young Officers,’ published in 1768.

The instructions were initially prepared in the event of a French Invasion. At the time, the British Army used a technique known as platoon firing, whereby the infantry battalion was subdivided into small platoons who would fire in sequence thus maintaining constant firing and throughout the musket was held at shoulder height. Wolfe introduced the much simpler technique of levelling the bayonet with the hip and creating an offensive rather than defensive weapon. These and other techniques were later incorporated into the official regulations and were the basis of British Infantry tactics in the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).

Around 1753-1754, Wolfe was stationed at Dover Castle where discussions were taking place in order to convert it an artillery fortress. Over the following two years extensive alterations took place including:
– The defence of the landward approaches from the north and east;
– Lowering the towers between Fitzwilliam Gate and Avranches Tower to give the artillery a field of fire;
– The building of a number of batteries in front of the Mote Bulwark.

All of which can still be seen today.

In May 1756, Britain declared War on France – the start of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and on 6 September 1857, Wolfe sailed with an expedition to Rochefort on the Atlantic coast of France. The French town had been designed as the ‘refuge, defence and supply’ for the French navy and its harbour had been fortified under the instructions of the Marquis de Vauban (1633–1707), referred to as Vauban.

The landing was successful on the nearby Île d’Aix where the ramparts were destroyed. However, the raid on Rochefort was failure due to a combination of Vauban’s defences and indecision in the British command. Afterwards Wolfe wrote a detailed account and was reported as saying, ‘I am not sorry that I went, notwithstanding what has happened; one may always pick up something useful from amongst the most fatal errors’ (5 Nov 1757, The life and letters of James Wolfe, ed. H. B. Willson, 1909). Wolfe’s observations were to put him in good stead against the French at Quebec in 1759.

Plan of Quebec circa 1758

Plan of Quebec circa 1758

French explorer, Jacques Cartier stayed in the area that became Quebec in 1535 returning in 1541. His intention was to build a settlement but the harsh winters and hostility from the indigenous population led to the idea being abandoned. However, in 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded what became Quebec City within a stronghold with defences designed by Vauban. The city was situated on a high promontory formed on one side by the St Lawrence River and on the other by the much smaller St Charles River.

On 23 January 1758, Wolfe was appointed one of three brigadier-generals in North America serving under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst. They were to lead an expeditionary force to capture the fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island. Wolfe distinguished himself and the army besieged Louisburg. He then returned to England without authorisation and managed to persuade the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to lead an expedition to take Quebec. Wolfe was promoted to Major-General, given the authority he needed and put together a force led by officers he knew would serve him well. They sailed for Canada on 14 February 1759.

Wolfe was 4 miles downstream from Quebec by 27 June 1759 with every intention of making an attack. What happened next is well covered in the history books; suffice to say things did not go well for Wolfe and his troops. During the following weeks Wolfe, no doubt, spent his time looking for weaknesses in the French defences and a second attempt was made in the early hours of 13 September. By dawn his army had scaled the cliffs, where the defences were weakest, to the Plains of Abraham. The French made a counter attack but were routed. Wolfe, However, was fatally wounded and his body was brought back to England where it was interred in the church of St Alfege, Greenwich, on 20 November 1759. Quebec surrendered five days after Wolfe had been killed and eventually the whole of Canada came under British rule.

Guilford Battery with Mote Bulwark behind 1821. Dover Museum

Guilford Battery with Mote Bulwark behind 1821. Dover Museum

During the American War of Independence (1776-1783) France supported the colonials and Britain, fearing an invasion, strengthened the national defences. Due to the proximity of Dover to France, the town’s defences were put in charge of Captain Thomas Hyde Page (1746-1821). He organised the building of four batteries along the seafront. These were Guilford Battery, under the Castle cliffs; North’s Battery, where Granville Gardens are today; Amherst Battery to the east of where the Clock Tower is today; and Townsend Battery close to the present day Lord Warden House.

His home was 110 London Road, Buckland, and Captain Page played an active part in the towns activities. With the continual threats from across the Strait, was instrumental in setting up the Dover Volunteer Association. Local volunteers trained to operate the batteries – they were the forerunners of the present Territorial Army. His other lasting legacy was on Western Heights.

Between AD 115–200, the Romans built a large fort, the Classis Britannica at the base of north-eastern slope of the Heights. They also built two massive lighthouses, or Pharos, were erected, one of the Heights and the other on the eastern cliffs. The latter still stands, close to St Mary-in-Castro, within the Castle. Close to the Classis Britannica fort was a large civilian settlement with many substantial buildings. One of these was the Roman Painted House’ (circa c. AD 200), so called because of the painted wall plaster used in its fine decoration – this can still be seen today. From about AD270 Roman Britain came under increasing attack from Saxon pirates and it became necessary to fortify the shores. Large, strong Roman Shore Forts were built, including one at Dover  but eventually the Romans abandoned Britain.

Bredenstone that once could be seen on Western Heights. Dover Museum

Bredenstone that once could be seen on Western Heights. Dover Museum

By the twelfth century the round church, or chapel, long time attributed to the Knights Templars, was built on Western Heights – the foundations can still be seen. Nearby, was the medieval village of Braddon. Following the Restoration (1660), the installation of the Lord Warden took place near what remained of the old Roman Pharos, at the time called the Breden Stone – later Bredenstone. The area was, at the time, called the Devil’s Drop, as it was from here that felons were hurled off the Heights to their deaths. The Lord Warden Installation ceremony continued to take place on the Heights until 1891.

In 1781, the Board of Ordnance bought two parcels of land on the Heights, totalling 33 acres. In the light of Wolfe’s exploitation in the weaknesses of the Quebec defence system, Page, organised the building of fortified batteries for which he was knighted. When peace returned the works on Western Height incorporated a self-contained redoubt fort at the eastern end of the hill and a Citadel on the west, with entrenchment’s between. This was the start of a major permanent new fortress on the Western Heights.

Grand Shaft Barracks 1850s. Dover Library

Grand Shaft Barracks 1850s. Dover Library

It was the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) that led to the increase in the Western Heights fortifications. Captain William Ford drew up plans with the intention of housing a garrison of sufficient size to secure the Heights against attack from the west or the rear. At the same time, enabling to direct flanking fire onto any invasion force attempting to assault the town and port.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Twiss, the building of the defences began in April 1804 and followed Page’s fieldworks. Strong defensive lines linked the Citadel – the main defence – with the redoubt on the eastern side. The Citadel was strengthened; the Drop Redoubt and the North Centre Bastion along with bombproof barracks and connecting lines were constructed.

Across the valley, at the Castle, the Mote Bulwark was linked with the Castle on the cliffs above by the Guilford Shaft. The Casemate Barracks, designed by Twiss, were begun in 1793 to provide accommodation for soldiers. Initially they were four parallel tunnels extending approximately 100-feet into the cliff with vertical ventilation shafts and reached by a terrace that extended from just above Cannons Gate. Along what are now Townwall Street and Woolcomber Street a defensive canal was dug – all traces of which have now gone.

At St Margaret’s Bay, a wall that formed part of the defences can still be seen. This and similar outlying defences were built at the instigation of Sir Henry Popham, from East Kent, and Sir Charles Gray then commandant the South East Kent Forces. The defence of the coast was manned, for the most part, by the Cinque Ports Volunteers.

Grand Shaft staircase - Museum postcard

Grand Shaft staircase – Museum postcard

For the troops at Western Heights a link between the barracks with the port to enable rapid troop movement was built. The monumental Grand Shaft was designed by Page, was constructed between 1805 and 1807. It consists of three spiral staircases around a vertical circular brick shaft that descends for 140 steps to a tunnel linking up with Snargate Street. The Barracks, named after their proximity to the Grand Shaft, was erected and could accommodate 1,300 men, 59 officers and eight horses. Nearby was a 180 bed military hospital was completed in 1804.

All of these works were carried out under the auspices of William Pitt the Prime Minister – the then Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and the Secretary of State,  Sir William Dundas. When finished the Western Heights fortifications could accommodate 5,000-6,000 men and cost approximately £240,000.

  • Presented:  
  • 23 August 2013
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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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