Situated on the cliffs above Hatherwood Point, just east of Alum Bay, Hatherwood Battery was the last of the forts constructed as a result of the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom to defend the West Wight. It was built with three purposes:
- To cover and defend Alum Bay from enemy invasion.
- To cover and prevent enemy vessel entry into the shipping channel of the West Solent.
- To cross fire and co-ordinate with the guns of the Needles Battery in order to achieve the above.
Alum Bay is a bay near the Needles well known for its multi-coloured sand cliffs. It was a popular tourist destination from as early as the 1790s and is today the location of the Needles Pleasure Park. In Victorian times it was the closest bay to the Needles where an enemy force could safely land, with Alum Bay Chine allowing an enemy to scramble up to the top of the cliff. In 1869 a simple wooden pier was constructed in Alum Bay, and by 1887, a new 370 feet long 'paddle shaped' pier head was built. Although popular in peacetime, it was feared that invaders could use this pier to rapidly disembark troops. The Great War caused the pier to be abandoned and it never regained its pre-war popularity. Alum Bay was also the site of early radio experiments, when Guglielmo Marconi set up a 40 metre radio antenna outside the Needles Hotel in Alum Bay. From there in 1897 he was the first person to communicate with a ship offshore, and in 1898 he communicated with radio stations across the Solent in Bournemouth and Poole.
Constructed on the Headen Warren heath land at Hatherwood Point near the four hundred feet high Headon Hill, the Hatherwood Battery was originally designed to have an armament of six 68-pounder smooth-bore guns, yet when it was finished the final design had seven barbette gun emplacements. These were arranged in three different groups: Group A – two guns on the north flank, Group B – three central guns facing east, and Group C – two guns on the south-east flank. One gun each from groups A and C, on the corner position, was also able to face east.
The battery was purely offensive – there were no landward defences, just the seven gun positions, shell and cartridge stores, the main magazine and some administrative buildings. As the battery was located in a remote spot at the top of a little-used winding track, it was not even permanently garrisoned. Although the original plan was to include a barracks for 50 men and two officers, this was never built, although quarters for two married soldiers was provided. The garrison instead came from nearby Golden Hill Fort.
The Battery's Armament
William Armstrong had invented breech loading guns in the 1850s and, though these news guns could be loaded from the breech (rear) of the gun rather than the muzzle (front), they had serious disadvantages. Breech loading guns tended not to be as powerful and less likely to penetrate ironclad ships' armour as their older style muzzle-loading counterparts, and they had a shorter range. The exhaust gases caused in the guns' explosions also tended to corrode and loosen the breech, which caused serious accidents. By the mid 1860s the army had largely reverted back to traditional muzzle-loading guns. By the time Hatherwood Battery was armed, muzzle-loaders were standard, although breech loading weapons began to be re-introduced into the British army in the 1870s when new smokeless powder was developed and guns began to be made out of steel rather than iron.
History Of Hatherwood Battery
Little is known of the isolated, barren area that Hatherwood Battery is located in. There are round barrows, built around 2000-1500 BC, that held the remains of significant locals. These are legally protected archaeological sites; however they have been raided by treasure-seekers over the centuries. The first known defence of the Hatherwood Battery area was the invasion beacon built in 1324, one of a network of 24 on the Island.
In 1869 Hatherwood Battery was armed with four 9-inch rifled muzzle loaders on both flanks and three 7-inch rifled muzzle loaders in the centre. In 1873 the three central emplacements were converted for use for two heavy 12.5 inch rifled muzzle-loaders, with the third emplacement converted into an expense magazine. The main magazine was demolished and relocated to the left flank beneath a new long mound containing a shell-filling laboratory.
In 1886 four PF (Position Finder) cells and a fire command station were built on Headon Warren near Hatherwood Battery. These were used to direct the batteries in the area to co-ordinate fire. In 1886 it was also realised that the 9-inch RMLs were outdated, and it was proposed to replace the two left flank, Group C, guns with two 10-inch breech loading guns instead. However in 1888 these were replaced with experimental 9-inch RMLs on long-range 35° elevation mountings, rather than the standard 10°. This was part of a series of programmes in which the forts on the West Wight engaged in experimental weaponry, and Warden Point battery later adopted these guns in 1892.
Between 1890-1 a searchlight was installed in front of the battery and an engine room to power it built at the battery near the Group A guns. However it was realised that the clay that the battery was built on was beginning to subside and soil erosion was a serious problem.
In 1895 it was decided that the long-range mount experiment was not a success and it was proposed to replace them with standard mountings. However in 1898 the Montgomery Committee, investigating the degree of subsidence, concluded that the battery was 'slowly slipping away. In the event of a very wet winter [the battery] may at any time be rendered unserviceable'. Proposals were made to rebuild the battery at nearby Headon Hill, armed with two 9.2 inch breech loaders and two 6-inch Quick Firing guns, but instead the battery had its armament reduced to lighter guns. The two remaining original 9-inch guns of Group A were removed and the Group C guns were replaced by two 5-inch breech-loading guns in 1900. In 1901 the centre positions were modified to take 5-inch breech-loading guns. However in 1902 the armament of the battery was listed as only the two 5-inch quick firing guns.
In 1903 the soil erosion had caused enough damage and the battery was officially disarmed and abandoned.
The Great War
Although the battery did not serve a defence capacity during the Great War, it still was of use. During the Great War it was standard practice to use old railway carriages to provide quick and convenient accommodation at batteries on the Island.
In the summer of 1917, the 10 year old Wystan Hugh Auden1 visited the Island with his mother and two older brothers. He wrote in his diary:
'After dinner we walked onto Headon Hill and after we had seen the tumulus we walked down into what looked like an old disused fort but when we got in there an Orderly turned us out saying it was an Isolation Camp [for] ...cerebro-spinal meningitis – so felt anxious!'
The Second World War
The Royal Navy used the battery site between 1940-43 as an ASDIC2 Indicator Loop station to defend the western Solent as part of the HMS Vernon anti-submarine effort. Indicator Loops consisted of a submerged cable on the seabed that detected a submarine's magnetic current as the submarine passed over it. Submarines were perceived as a real threat in the area as during the Great War two ships had been sunk by the German submarine UB35 in the waters near the Needles: the SS Mechanician on 20 January 1917, where 13 died, and 22 January, 1917 when the SS Serrana sank with the loss of all but two.
During the Second World War the area surrounding Hatherwood Battery was also used as a training and target area for Hawker Typhoons as well as for infantry and bren-gun carriers as part of the preparations for the D-Day Landings.
Since the Second World War the site has continued to slip off the cliff. Though easily found uphill from Alum Bay Chine, only four of the gun emplacements survive. The two central ones are badly eroded and only the left Group C emplacements remain intact. No trace of the buildings have survived.
The National Trust and Headon Warren Wildlife
In 1951 Headon Warren was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest for both its biological and geological features. In 1977 Headon Warren, including Hatherwood Battery, were purchased by the National Trust as part of the Neptune Project. The National Trust is now Britain's largest land owner and owns 10% of the Island and 28% of the Island's coastline.
Headon Warren supports a large number of rare plants, and is one of the two acid heath sites on the Island. Plants found in the area include heather, two types of gorse, grassland, yellowort, autumn gentian and rare early gentian, almost exclusive to the Island, centaurues and orchids. It is also native to mining bee colonies, rare butterflies. Sadly the Isle of Wight wave moth (Idaea humiliata) that once frequented this area has not been seen since the Second World War and is now believed to be extinct. Other animals include red squirrels and rabbits – the Island has traditionally had a large rabbit population as foxes are not native to the Island and were first introduced in the reign of Henry VIII.Walk The FortsHeadon Warren SSSINational Trust - Needles, Tennyson Down and Headon WarrenWalk The West Wight Forts RouteHatherwood Battery Plan - Palmerston Fort Society