Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 25, 2017.
Webpage updated: May 25, 2017




The construction of the Mount Batten Breakwater was promoted by the Cattewater Harbour Commissioners, who were responsible for managing the shipping in the Cattewater.

Work started in April 1878.  The superintendent of works was Mr J Mountstephen, who had supervised the construction of a similar breakwater at Torquay.  His foreman was a Mr Shepherd.  These two men did not allow any drinking of alcohol, cursing or swearing, or smoking on the site and any workman found doing so would be sacked.  Each worker was also made to subscribe 3d a week to a fund that would pay out 12 shillings a week if the worker was ill or suffered an injury.  They also subscribed to the South Devon & East Cornwall Hospital so that any man who was injured could be taken there without hindrance.

The Breakwater runs due west from the rocks beneath Mount Batten, with the Cobbler Buoy a little to its south.  It is 915 feet in length.

Divers first laid bags of concrete to create the foundation, 20 feet below low water mark.  Then large concrete blocks of between 9 and 14 tons were laid to form retaining walls.  These extended to between 3 and 4 feet above the high water mark.  The outer wall was 18 feet in thickness and the inner one 10 feet.  The space between the walls was then filled with rock from the Commissioners' own quarries adjacent to the site.

At every 160 yards there was a cross wall running upwards from the bottom, which bound the two parts together.  On top of this was laid a concrete parapet, 50 feet wide, 3 feet high at the eastern end to 4 feet high at the western end.  This brought the full height to some 8 feet above the high water mark.

A house was built at the landward end for the watchman.  It was protected by a sea wall.  The Commissioners later used it as their offices.

The depth at low water at the western end of the Breakwater was 22 feet 6 inches but it gradually reduced until at the landward end it was only 10 feet.

During the construction a temporary light was provided at the seaward end but in January 1881 this was to be replaced by a proper lighthouse, at a cost of 205.  It was being built by Messrs Chance Brothers of Birmingham and would consist of a wrought iron service cabin, eight feet in diameter, with the lantern over at a height of some twenty feet from the base.  The  light would flash every five seconds.  A winch was to be used to haul the lantern and a clock into position.

In May 1878 some 30 to 40 men were employed on the construction and the Breakwater had already survived one severe storm.  By the end of 1879 150 men were being employed and all but the final 200 feet had been completed.

By the time it was completed the Breakwater had cost some 20,000 but, as the Western Daily Mercury commented: 'Now that a pier-keeper has been appointed the Commissioners will at once levy tolls.'

On the evening of Wednesday December 31st 1879 the 150 men involved in the construction sat down to a supper in the concrete workshop, which had been especially decorated for the occasion.  The chairman of the Cattewater Harbour Commissioners, Mr John Bayly, was unable to be present so the chair was taken by Mr John Marshall.  Also present were Mr H Shore, the harbourmaster, Mr T Edmonds, of the Eddystone Works, Mr W Kelly, of Turnchapel, Mr J Mountstephen, the superintendent of works, and Messrs Ellacott, T H Harvey, and G P Marshall.  The supper was paid for by the subscriptions the men had made to the welfare fund because there had been no accidents during the construction work.  After the meal there was entertainment provided by the workmen.

When the area around Mount Batten become an air station the Breakwater was closed to the public.  Indeed, seaplanes used to be parked on top of the Breakwater.  In the 1990s the Plymouth Development Corporation took over the area and the Breakwater was once more made accessible to Plymothians.