Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A harbour of refuge


alt = View of Portland Harbour, with sailing vessels, in 1860

The genius of England is universally admitted to be of an eminently enterprising and speculative character. No scheme, however daring, which can show a reasonable prospect of paying a good per-centage for property invested, ever waits long either for money or men to bring it to a successful issue. This is especially the case in our marine commercial enterprise; English ships are everywhere, and English ship-owners always ready to encounter risk, difficulty, and danger in opening a new field for trade, or exploring the most distant countries in the hope of widening our already enormous foreign commerce.

As a consequence our vessels are countless, and the amount of wealth invested in them something incredibly large. For the protection of these great national interests from all preventable disaster, large sums of money are freely spent, both from the public and private purse. Grants are made annually, by parliament, for maintaining and improving our protective measures, and the increasing perfection of our hydrographic surveys, our naval charts, and our lighthouse and buoying arrangements, do much to prove the wisdom of a wise liberality in these matters.

It will be noticed that almost all of the efforts in this direction are the work of government; and it is right that this should be so, for great as is the marine wealth of the country, the English people are too just to desire that the heavy outlay involved by these works (an outlay without direct appreciable return), should fall upon the ship-owner.

His first object must ever be to obtain a fair remuneration for his money and his enterprise, while it is clearly the duty of the people whom that enterprise benefits to afford it all the security possible. Nor has there generally been wanting, on the part of successive governments, a large liberality for the establishment of means of protection for shipping, though it is to a point which was for long years neglected that we propose to direct attention in this paper. It is comparatively very few years since the construction of harbours of refuge, greatly needed as they are upon our coast, has come under legislative consideration.

In the year 1843, the attention of the government was particularly directed to the subject, in consequence of a recommendation contained in the report of a select committee of the House of Commons, which had been appointed for the purpose of inquiring into “the shipwreck of British vessels and the preservation of lives of shipwrecked persons.” Shortly afterwards, in April, 1844, a commission was formed to inquire into the most “eligible situation for constructing a harbour or harbours of refuge in the channel.”

This seems late in the day for the claims of breakwaters to be first considered, but the expense and time required to accomplish these works must have had great influence in deferring their execution to so late a period. The result of this second inquiry was that the commissioners recommended:—

First: That a harbour be constructed in Dover Bay, sheltering a certain area of roadstead.

Secondly: That a breakwater should be constructed in Seaford Roads.

Thirdly: That a breakwater should be constructed in Portland Bay.

The same report stated: “If only one work be undertaken at a time, we give the preference to Dover, next to Portland; and, thirdly, to Seaford.”

The practical result of all this was, that the construction of Dover and Portland Harbours was decided upon, both of which are now in course of erection. It is to Portland, the least known, and by far the most picturesque of the two localities, that we propose, with the reader’s kind permission, to conduct him; that if he be so minded, he may learn what time, pains, and money this country freely spends to add one new security to the seaman’s uncertain life; and how in deeds of wood and iron, as well as in word and song, England loves her sailors.

The construction of this harbour having been decided upon, the first vote was granted by parliament in 1846, and by an act passed in May, 1847, powers were obtained for purchase of lands adjoining the proposed site, and the works commenced in the latter end of August, in the same year. The first stone was laid, in a deluge of rain, by H. R. H. Prince Albert, on the 25th of July, 1849, and in the early part of the following December, the operation of discharging stone upon the line of breakwater commenced in earnest. We are prepared therefore to find much work done, and the structure already partially performing its functions.

Let us become, in imagination, one of the crowd assembled on the little hill, called the “Nothe,” on the south-side of Weymouth harbour, this bright September morning, and having gazed our fill at the Great Eastern lying huge and still in Portland Roads, let our eyes rest for a few minutes on the local peculiarities of the magnificent bay in which she rides at anchor, together with some half-dozen ships of-war and a crowd of smaller craft.

The grass-covered rocks under our feet run westward, dipping as they go, till at some three miles’ distance they meet the long low line of the pebble-beach, over and beyond which we plainly see the glimmer of the distant channel; following the course of this most wonderful bank, as it stretches in a south-easterly direction, the eye rests at last on the rocky island of Portland, and reaching its farthermost points, falls directly on the breakwater.

Roughly drawn, this is a sketch of the natural bay; and the coast line runs so far towards the south-east, that it wants but continuation in a north-easterly direction to cut off from the inclosed bay the breakers of a sou’-easter, and by completing the unfinished semicircle, to make the roadstead safe in all weathers. A glance at the map will show this in a moment, and give a clear idea of the extent and importance of the immense area thus protected, where indeed a fleet might lie uncrowded, and where the huge Great Eastern, giant though she be, looks dwarfed in the distance. Some of us can learn from figures, and grow wise upon statistics: for such fortunate spirits, let the following table of sheltered anchorage, extracted from an official chart published by order of the House of Commons, be an indication of its magnitude.

Of 5 fathoms deep and upward 1,290 acres.
3 fathoms deepand upward 1,590 acres
2 fathoms deepand upward 1,758 acres
Up to low-water line
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
2,107 acres

From our distant and elevated position we have endeavoured to get a general survey of the breakwater and its inclosed harbour: we will now proceed to take a more detailed view of the works themselves.

We take boat from Weymouth Quay, and twenty minutes’ steaming brings us to the stony island. A veritable Arabia Petræa it is: we land among blocks of stone, some half-mile from our destination; we walk through lanes of piled stones, only to come upon other and similar lanes, till we emerge on the stony road leading to the breakwater. Every soul on board our boat seems bent on the same errand as ourselves: being well instructed beforehand, we do not follow the multitude in this case, but bravely face the hill which lies before us, and making up our minds for a stiffish climb, get first upon the table-land forming the chief habitable part of the island. Once there, we shall confess that our toil was not in vain, for from this Vern Hill, as it is called, is as lovely and strange a view as we ever remember to have seen. We are now opposite the Nothe on which we lately stood, but at a much greater elevation: at our feet lie the vessels,—liners, frigates, and the monster, swarming with dwarf life; big boats and little boats, steamers and sailing craft, all about and around her. To our left the narrow red line of pebble-beach, with the blue water smooth as a mill-pond on this side, and flecked everywhere on the other with the white foam of the restless waves, stretches away and away mile after mile till it is lost in the warm hazy distance: it is this beach which gives such peculiarity to the view; it is so singular, so unlike anything else, that none could see it for the first time and fail to be impressed with its strangeness and beauty. But there are other things besides the view on Vern Hill. We turn landward, and here are soldiers in abundance, cantonments, incipient fortifications, which even in their babyhood look Titanic; and last, not least, the well known Portland prison. Here we do not propose to go; the day is too bright, and the scene too inspiring, to make us wish for painful sights and associations; so we will be content with remarking that the convicts, numbering about fifteen hundred, are for the most part employed in procuring stone for the construction of the breakwater. The results of their labours we shall see more of by and bye; but we must clearly understand that, though thus employed, they have nothing to do directly with the works, but labouring within proper boundaries, and under strict supervision, they are separate from the ordinary workmen, and do but supply the raw material from the quarries on the hill. Descending again, we turn our steps towards the works, passing on our way a massive breastwork, formed partially of granite and partially of the native stone. We learn that this is an experimental erection, and that in a few days her Majesty’s ship Blenheim, now lying in the bay and bowling great round shot every five minutes along the water at a distant mark, will anchor broadside on, and give the breastwork an impartial peppering, with the view of testing the relative merits as to resisting power, and consequent adaptability for fortifications of the two materials. We believe that batteries will ultimately be built at the extremity of the breakwater, and that the stone of which these are constructed will depend very much on the result of this experiment. A little further on we come to the entrance of the works, and, writing our names in the visitors’ book, are free to wander wheresoever we may choose. Before going further, it will perhaps be well to give a very rapid sketch of the principles and practice of building these sea-walls.

Three methods are commonly in use:—

1st. As at Plymouth. Rubble stone is flung into the water indiscriminately until it forms a bank rising above the high tide level; its sides take any angle they will, and the structure from low water to high water mark is finally levelled and faced with massive ashlar masonry.

2nd. As at Dover. A plain sea wall of great thickness is built (much after the manner of other walls) of large blocks of stone or concrete, laid both under and above water with the care and accuracy of well finished masonry.

3rd. As at Portland. Rubble stone is flung in, until the bank it forms rises to the level of the lowest tides; on this as a foundation a substantial wall of solid masonry is built.

It will be seen that the first method we have mentioned involves an almost incredible consumption of materials; the second takes less material but enormous labour and expense, from the amount of diving and submarine masonry; while the third using less material than the first, and less labour than the second, seems to hit the medium line of the greatest economy possible in these expensive works.

The first object, then, of the engineers here has been to construct this rubble bank; and with this view a temporary staging carried on piles into the water is erected in the following manner. A pile is loaded heavily and sunk into the blue waves, its lower end is shod with a large cast-iron screw, while its top is fitted with a cap, having long radiating arms of wood; the ends of these arms are notched to carry a strong rope coiled round them, one end of which passes to the shore; the arms thus form a kind of large skeleton reel, or drum, wound about with a rope, the loose end of which is then hauled upon by powerful machinery; and the pile steadied by guys, being thus made to revolve, slowly screws its way down into the solid earth, becoming firmer and firmer with each revolution. One row of piles is thus fixed, and another parallel row at thirty feet distance from the first is also screwed into the soil. Upon these, as a foundation, longitudinal timbers are laid, and on the timbers a strong platform erected. We have thus progressed thirty feet into the sea, and the hauling machinery is now worked from the staging thus formed over the spot where the blue water gurgled uninvaded yesterday. Another row of piles at thirty feet distance from the last is now screwed in, and another thirty feet won from the water. Simply told, this is all that is requisite to carry out the wooden staging far into the sea; of the practical difficulties involved in the work we say nothing here; that they are often considerable will be easily inferred, when we remember the great depth of water in which many of these piles are screwed, and the immense weight and size of the piles themselves.

Strictly speaking there are now two separate breakwaters being constructed at Portland, the first running due east from the shore for about 1800 feet; and an outer or main breakwater, which is to be about 6000 feet long, separated from the first by an opening 400 feet in width and sweeping in a circular curve away to the north-east. The first of these, now nearly completed, is not only a sea wall but a landing and coaling stage for large vessels as well, while the outer or main breakwater is at present nothing more than a line of rubble stonework rising above the sea.

Throughout the whole of this length, or nearly 8000 feet, the temporary staging is carried, and its platforms laid with rails for the passage of the trucks of stone. Let us now look a little into the methods employed to procure the rubble and discharge it into the water. On the top of the hill, as already stated, the convicts are at work quarrying the stone. From its summit loaded trucks are constantly descending a series of inclined railways worked by a very familiar arrangement of drums, chains, and breaks, the loaded trucks in their descent hauling the empty carriages up again to the top of the inclines. Arrived at the level of the staging, we see them coupled to a small locomotive engine; and “puff, puff,” away the “Prince of Wales” steams with some six or eight loaded waggons behind.

Leaving the shore, the little engine stands boldly out to sea, supported on the platform and its rails, and rattles by us at a good speed over the creaking and shivering timbers. It is a great sight this, and not without some nervous accompaniments. The deep water is dashing against the piles nearly thirty feet beneath us, yet the “Prince” bowls along over the apparently perilous pathway as merrily as ever Great Western locomotive thundered into Paddington station, its driver and stoker looking as unconcerned as if the waves below them were solid steady earth. Perhaps while still feeling a little doubtful of this new kind of railway travelling the train stops near you, and, without a moment’s warning, without even the sounding of a whistle, you are unmistakeably frightened by a “crash, bang, boom!” as if train, engines, and men had gone together to the bottom. For an instant all sight of them is lost in an ascending column of white water, till as this slowly sinks you again catch sight of the “Prince” quiet amid the din, and then there comes another crash and another column of spray shot high into the air—but this time we are not alarmed; the trucks we discover are only discharging their stone. By a simple mechanical contrivance the waggon drops its whole load bodily into the sea, and it was to this falling mass of rubble, some eight or ten tons in all, that the commotion was due.

Train after train of trucks runs by us on this errand, and everywhere is the crash of the falling masses of stone. All day long the work goes on, undeterred by weather or season, neither gales nor heavy seas producing much influence on its certainty and speed. Walking, as it were, by faith in science and skill, the locomotive steams along the platform, while the wind is howling through the timber work, and the sea is breaking vainly on the piling. Two thousand tons of material a day is thus cast into the water; for nearly ten years this has been going on, and the sea is not yet wholly conquered. The construction of the inner and shorter breakwater, being, as we have said, not only a sea wall, but a landing-stage as well, claims some attention. This part of the work is all but completed, and presents a magnificent specimen of masonry. The rubble foundation has been brought up to the lowest spring tide water-mark. Here it has been levelled, and upon it erected the wall proper, about twenty-five feet high and eleven feet thick; on its summit is a pathway about thirteen feet wide; the wall is strengthened by buttresses nine feet deep and ten feet wide, occurring at every twenty feet of its length on the inner side, while its seaward face is built of huge blocks, beautifully put together; the hardest granite being used up to high-water line, and the Portland stone completing the whole. This seaward face is nearly perpendicular, having a “batter” or slope of one inch in every foot. It must however be remembered, that the rubble foundation, previously described as reaching low-water level, is here heaped up higher along the wall, and naturally forms an embankment of rough stone, sloping gently to the bottom. This embankment, or “apron,” is of advantage in lessening the force of water upon the wall itself. The structure is terminated by a circular “head” of masonry. The foundation of these heads is laid about twenty-five feet deep at low water of spring tides, and here the duties of the mason were allied to those of the diver. Every stone was carefully marked and fitted before being placed under water; and the divers, duly equipped, did their day’s work some fifty-feet below the surface. More beautiful or successful specimens of the mason’s craft than these “heads” it is difficult to conceive. On the inner side of the sea wall are the landing quays before alluded to. Rising out of deep water, they permit the largest craft to range easily alongside, and are, we believe, chiefly destined to serve as coal wharves for ships of war lying in the roads. Already we see considerable quantities of coal stowed along them; and there will ultimately be erected a staging and line of railway, with the proper discharging apparatus for this service.


Standing upon this quay, we will pause for a moment to enjoy the deep blueness of the water. How clear it is! and how plainly we see the great brown whiting lazily grazing among the weeds. Two youngsters from the works are taking advantage of the dinner hour to lie along the quay walls and try their luck with a primitive line and hook; but the whiting show an evident desire to avoid their delicate attentions. We watch them amused for a while, till one of them shouts, excitedly, “Bill, here be the bait!” Bill is all eyes in a moment; and we share their pleasure, as we see shoal after shoal of the small fry the local fishermen call “bait” swimming slowly by. When the bait is about, the mackerel are most likely near. Myriads of the little fish cover the water; thicker and thicker they glide past. Our little friend grows madder and madder, and flings out his barbarous line farther into the blue water, in the vain hope of taking some idiotic mackerel fonder of pork than safety. Still the bait swims on unmolested, when we become aware of a curious kind of excitement among them; growing and spreading, in an instant it has become a panic, and the gliding shoal darts wildly through and even out of the water, as a hundred glittering streaks of green and silver flash among them out of the deep sea. For one moment the beautiful destroyers gleam bright upon the surface, then sink again below. The bait, slowly resuming their tranquillity, swim quietly by again; but the spectacle is not without its excitement; none but those who have seen it can imagine the fierce, swift rush with which a mackerel shoal rising for food flashes past, and it is with quickened interest we wait the return of the fish, and a renewal of the slaughter. They come again and again, while all the time the great brown whiting graze as unconcernedly as if there where no such thing in the watery world as pain, terror, and death.


We must not let this scene, however, detain us too long, but stroll leisurely on to the extreme end of the breakwater. It is a long walk, but a pleasant. The cliffs of Portland open as we proceed, and the view becomes more extensive and beautiful: the white sails of passing yachts, the wheeling gulls, the breezy air—all combine to make a picture pleasant to see and to remember. On the farthest finished point we come upon a portable light apparatus for the warning of vessels, which is carried forward with every additional increase in the length of the structure. The lamp is fed with gas in a somewhat novel way. A small gas holder furnished with wheels, and running like a truck upon the rails, is attached by flexible tubing to the light. This holder goes periodically backwards and forwards to be filled; and it is a curious sight to see the locomotive dragging a gas-holder shorewards for its feed of gas.

Returning to the land, we must visit, before we leave Portland, some of the principal shops and buildings connected with the works. Chief among these in interest are the cement-mills, the fitting and engine-shops, and the pickling-house. We have heard much, during our visit, of the extraordinary tenacity of the cements used in putting the masons’ work together, and have seen a specimen of stone broken before the cement would yield; and we now find ourselves in the workshop where this cement is prepared. Here are the mills: revolving pans of iron with heavy rollers running in them and crushing their contents to powder; these pans are fed from a kiln hard by, in which is burned the blue lias forming the chief ingredient of the cement; outside the building is a heap of a reddish brown and sandy-looking material; this is pozzuolani,—most probably a total stranger to the reader. Pozzuolani is a volcanic product which we may roughly describe as ashes, and having several properties which render it extremely useful for cement. “It is an ill wind that blows no one any good,” we know; still it does seem somewhat strange that the scorching lavas of the terrible volcano should be turned to so far from fiery an account, or that Vesuvius’ embers should be finally quenched in the salt-water lapping the sides of an English break-water.

Turning our steps to the engine and fitting-shops, we come suddenly into the presence of a steam-hammer in full work, standing in the centre of a large building crowded with machinery, and at this moment driving the star-like sparks of burning metal, meteor-like, about the place. The hammer is smashing away against a great cube of white hot metal; now striking blows such as Thor might envy, and again patting the obedient and malleable metal with patronising gentleness; but ever insisting on submission to its will, and getting it by hard blows where gentle persuasion fails.

But we must not linger here: there is too much of a revolutionary spirit about a shop of this kind to make it pleasant to a visitor. Surrounded on all sides by whirling pulleys and flying-straps, we seem to be imprisoned in a whizzing world, where nothing stable satisfies the senses; our eyes seeking vainly for some spot endowed with the blessing of stillness, and our heads in a short time feeling as if about to catch the infection of motion and to take to whirling on their own account; so we go out again just as the modern steam Thor comes down with another thundering blow on a new mass of metal, and make our retreat amid a shower of blazing sparks.

At a few paces’ distance we find the pile pickling-house mentioned above; “still life” this, happily, but evil smelling enough. A large wood yard terminates at one end in a shed of considerable length; in this shed we see something which strikes us as being perhaps the largest steam-boiler in the world; one end is covered by a door, fastened on with such an array of screws that we speculate on the possibility of having discovered the “strong box” of the establishment. It is indeed a “strong box,” though it only holds timber. All the piles used on the works, before being submerged, are impregnated with creosote for the purpose of preserving the wood from decay, and the process is effected in the cylinder before us; this is about six feet in diameter, and some ninety feet long, lying lengthways along the ground. Running up to its mouth is a little line of railway, which, on the removal of the door is continued, we see, into the cylinder; on this railway traversing the whole length of the yard are several small trucks; two of these are at this moment loaded with long piles which are thus conveyed into the yawning cavern; the door is swung to, and bolt after bolt securely screwed up. When everything is made fast, pumps, communicating with the boiler and drawing their supplies from reservoirs of creosote beneath the flooring of the shed, begin to pour in streams of the preservative fluid; the cylinder is soon filled, and the continued pumping drives more and more creosote into it; gradually the force of the liquid increases, and the piles begin to be permeated by it, the pumps straining at the work until an enormous pressure on every square inch is obtained.

The wood lies in its penetrating bath until its fibres are completely saturated; when, the creosote being once more restored to its subterranean dwelling, the door is opened and the pile which went in white and spotless pine, comes forth a blackened monster safe from rot—whether wet or dry; preserved indeed, but—smelling! bah!—let us get into pure air again to soothe the feelings of our offended nostrils.

The sun is going down into a still sea, the breeze has fallen, and the quiet of evening is creeping over the bay; we take a long look at the Great Eastern, and her last departing batch of visitors, and with a glance at the black ships-of-war, the stately Edgar and Blenheim, and the beautiful frigates. We wander towards the pier, en route for Weymouth, but discover that we have missed our last boat; however, we are not much disturbed at our ill-fortune, for we have not walked so far, but that a stroll home past the beach, which with its picturesque singularity has so delighted us, may not be uninteresting. It is but four or five miles, and as we saunter along, we watch the gray evening mists stealing sea and ship from our sight; the heights of Portland are slowly lost in haze ere the star’s faint lustre glints on the darkened water; soon kindred stars shine out everywhere; ship after ship hangs out her bright token of life, and as we turn the point of the last hill on our homeward route, the Bay of Weymouth lies at our feet, a net-work of fairy-like illumination.

Lights glitter everywhere, from the planet-like harbour signals, to the lamps of the promenade, with their long quivering reflections. Once more at home we recall the pleasures of our trip, and filled with admiration of the mighty results which man’s skill and perseverance can attain, we determine soon to look a little into the history and structure of that grander breakwater of nature’s building,—the pebble-beach. We shall probably find no acts of parliament, no royal commissions, and no foundation ceremonials connected with its story; perhaps, however, with patience, much of interest may be learnt concerning it. May we hope for the reader’s future companionship in our proposed “Run on the Chesil Bank?”[1]

D. P.


  1. The almost tropical severity of the gales of last October (which occurred since this article has been in type) is too exceptional seriously to modify any remark made above. The staging, however, which is represented as being proof against heavy seas, has, we believe, suffered some damage in the recent tempestuous weather, though this is slight in comparison with what might have been expected from the effects of one of the fiercest storms ever experienced on our shores.