When an American Pirate Threatens Your Coast, Build a Fort!
Tiny Fishguard Fort in Wales played an outsize role in U.K. history
by MATTHEW MOSS
I recently had the opportunity to visit the ruins of Fishguard Fort in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Built between late 1779 and 1781, the fort is now a ruin.
But that wasn’t always the case. Two centuries ago, the tiny fort played an active role in the last invasion of the United Kingdom.
During the American War of Independence in early 1779, the crew of an American-sponsored privateer — whose captain some sources suggest was Luke Ryan, but others say was the more famous John Paul Jones — demanded a ransom of £1,000 for the town’s safety and the return of a local merchant ship the piratical crew had seized.
The town rejected the demand and the privateer began to bombard the houses surrounding Lower Fishguard’s harbor. A local smuggler brought his small vessel into range and opened fire on the privateer, driving it off.
While the town suffered only superficial damage to some homes and to St. Mary’s Church, the town council resolved to build a fort to protect Fishguard from further raids.
Sir Hugh Owen, Pembrokeshire’s lord lieutenant, financed the construction of the fort and purchased a piece of land owned by Gwynne Vaughan on the northern headland. The small fort was built above a rocky crag. Its simple, fan-shaped layout is still visible today.
Fishguard Fort boasted eight nine-pounder cannons manned by three invalid gunners from Woolwich plus a few members of the local militia. The gunners reached the fort via a steel sloping path that narrowed at the neck of the headland. The fort’s entrance — a heavy, iron-reinforced wooden door — survives today.
The perimeter wall surrounding the fort was made from local stone and was approximately 10 feet high and 1.5 feet thick. Today much of the fort is overgrown and it’s unclear what sort of temporary defenses — ditches and palisades, for example — were in place when the fort was in use.
The footprints of the gun embrasures are still visible, as is a single surviving loophole overlooking the bay. Just below the level of the barbette — the gun platform — is a stone garrison room that also functioned as a storehouse and powder magazine.
Despite the fort’s impressive array of guns, it was unable to protect the entirety of Fishguard Bay. Much of Upper Fishguard and Goodwick Bay lay out of range.
Unlike many British coastal forts of the period, Fishguard Fort briefly saw action during the French Revolutionary Wars. On Feb. 22, 1797, a French lugger — the 14-gun Vautour — entered the bay on a mission to scout the harbor. A small French squadron was in the area, looking for a landing place for a force of 1,400 troops.
The men at the fort had been warned of suspicious ships in the area, and when Vautour entered the harbor at 2:00 in the afternoon, the fort — manned by an ensign, three gunners and a small force of local Fishguard Fencibles — fired a shot, forcing the lugger to beat a hasty retreat.
The invasion force eventually landed at Carregwastad Point, several miles up the coast. The landing launched the last invasion of Britain. The fort briefly became the focal point of British operations. Seventy of the Fishguard Fencibles mustered there on the night of the invasion.
Believing the French landing force to be much larger than it actually was, the Fencibles decided to spike the guns, destroy the powder and abandon the fort. The guns, however, were not spiked — although the gunners did hurriedly remove the ammunition in carts.
The Fencibles retreated north toward Newport, leaving Fishguard undefended and at the mercy of the French. The French invasion, however, failed. After just two days, the invaders surrendered.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Fishguard Fort fell out of use and slowly became a ruin. Locals no doubt salvaged and repurposed parts of the fort’s masonry.
Today the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority owns the fort. It’s accessible via the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and by a path that runs down from the main road leading into Lower Fishguard. Today the fort boasts four cannon that give an impression of the fort’s former appearance.
Originally published at www.historicalfirearms.info.