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Summary of an investigation into the Napoleonic infantry barracks at
Berry Head, Brixham (Torbay, UK), 2007.
By Philip L. Armitage
INTRODUCTION
Background history of the Berry Head Fortifications & barracks
The two Berry Head forts (Scheduled Ancient Monuments 29694/01 and 29695) are among
the most complete surviving examples of French Revolutionary/Napoleonic-war era
fortifications in south-western England (Pye & Slater 1990) and are acknowledged as among
the most important heritage assets of Torbay. Their origin lies in the decision by the
Ordnance Board, a year after the French Republic declared war on England (in 1793), to
establish a coastal defensive gun battery at the tip of the headland at Berry Head, overlooking
the strategically important Royal Naval anchorage in Torbay (see Erskine 1992, 125 – 126).
Protection for the main gun battery (comprising twelve 42-pounder cannon) from the threat
of an overland attack was provided by the building of a masonry revetment with cannon
embrasures (for 9-pounder cannon), backed by an earthen rampart and fronted by a dry ditch
spanned by a drawbridge. This defensive arrangement was designated Fort no. 3. Two small
redoubts (Forts 1 & 2) were planned as flanking defences to the main fortification but of
these only one (Fort no. 1) was built (Evans1986). Four very basic wooden hutments within
Fort No. 3 and one in Fort no. 1 provided accommodation for up to 600 infantry militiamen
and artillerymen forming the garrison. In 1803 Berry Head was chosen by Colonel Oliver
Delancy, Barracks Master General, as the site of one of the twenty new regular army barracks
in Devon. In order to accommodate up to 753 soldiers from regular infantry regiments, four
prefabricated, single storey wooden quadrangle buildings were erected in Fort No. 3, based
on a design drawn up by two of the Barracks Department’s own architects, James Johnson
and John Sanders (Breihan 1990:142 - 143). During the Peninsular War (1808 – 1814) these
additional barracks housed new recruits and transferring militiamen joining regular regiments
who were undergoing training in preparation for being sent out to fight with their respective
infantry regiments in Portugal and Spain. Soldiers from Berry Head also served in Canada,
South America and the West Indies. Records of marriages and baptisms performed in St.
Mary’s Parish Church Brixham reveal soldiers’ wives and their children also lived in the
Berry Head barracks. Two years after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (1815), the Berry
Head Forts were decommissioned, the gun batteries removed and all the wooden barracks
dismantled. Today, the only indications that three of these barrack buildings (barracks 1, 2 &
3, see Figure 1) had once occupied Fort no. 3 are sections of their original mortared stone and
brick footings, exposed in those areas where there is an absence of soil/grass cover (Figures
2, 3, 4 & 5). In the case of barrack number 4 the site is now completely obscured by dense
scrub. As part of the ongoing researches into the Berry Head Forts carried out by Brixham
Heritage Museum since 1961, the author (the present Museum curator) decided in 2007 to
investigate evidence that would enable accurate reconstruction drawings to be made of these
infantry barracks for a visitor display panel to be installed in the north fort (Fort no. 3) at
Berry Head. A summary of the results of this research is presented below.
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RESEARCH
Documentary & pictorial evidence
Disappointingly, no original official detailed plans or drawings of the Berry Head barracks
came to light during the research and it is presumed these have been destroyed or lost in the
passage of time. Perusal of the surviving letters written by soldiers of the Berry Head garrison
also proved unhelpful in regard of descriptions of the barracks, with the notable exception of
the correspondence of Ensign William Thornton Keep who joined the 2nd battalion/28th
(North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot at Berry Head in 1811. Letters written to his
mother and brother during 1811 – 1812 whilst Keep was stationed at Berry Head, together
with others written during his subsequent service in the Peninsula (up to 1814) have been
published by Fletcher (1997). Two of Keep’s Berry Head letters make specific reference to
the nature of the barrack buildings. In a letter to his mother written at Berry Head 27th
October 1811, Keep graphically describes the barrack buildings as “mean diminutive wooden
sheds…..composed of thin planks” (Fletcher 1997: 71 – 72), whilst in a later letter, also to his
mother, written 6th April 1812, he gives further brief insight into the design of the barracks,
observing that he “might as well be living in a booth at a fair” owing to the windows of his
room “being [at] breast height” which on sliding back exposed the occupants of the room to
any passing “lounger”, allowing them “to pop [their] nose in at all hours” (Ibid: 80).
Keep’s letters (above) presented tantalising glimpses of the design of the barracks but were
clearly no substitute for contemporary detailed plans or drawings and the historical research
was therefore extended to consider evidence relating to infantry barracks elsewhere in the
anticipation these would be of similar design and construction to those erected at Berry Head.
A chance visit made to Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum by the author was to prove
providential in “discovering” a drawing of what the “mean diminutive wooden sheds” at
Berry Head possibly looked like. On display at the Cookworthy Museum is an 1812 engraved
drawing of the Kingsbridge barracks (Museum Acc. No. PO755). Inspection of this “scenic”
drawing yielded useful information on the general external appearance of the timber structure
and roof, as well as ancillary features such as positioning of the chimneystacks, windows and
doorways of each barrack. Another museum, Woodbridge Museum, Suffolk, was found to be
a further important source for understanding the constructional design of the Napoleonic-era
infantry barracks. In the museum collections there is an 1804 map by Isaac Johnson of the
Woodbridge barracks, which includes the ground plan and elevation views of one of the
infantry quadrangle barrack buildings identical to those depicted in the Kingsbridge drawing.
The present author was alerted to the existence of the Woodbridge barracks map when
reading the article by Breihan (1990: 148 - 149) on “Army barracks in Devon during the
French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars” and on request the Woodbridge museum
curator Dr. Robin Merrett very generously supplied detailed copies of the drawings with
annotated/extrapolated measurements of the barrack buildings (cavalry as well as infantry)
shown in the map, including that of the infantry barrack.
Field work at Berry Head (summer 2007)
In order to confirm conclusively that the Berry Head barrack buildings would have been of
similar design to those at Kingsbridge and at Woodbridge, the author had hoped to excavate
(in collaboration with Exeter Archaeology) the site of one of the barracks in Fort no. 3 to
establish the complete ground plan of the building from the surviving (buried) masonry/brick
wall foundations. Permission (Scheduled Monument Consent) to carry out such an excavation
was however denied by English Heritage South West Region and it was therefore decided to
attempt as the next best alternative a resistivity survey, which was eventually allowed by
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English Heritage (Section 42 Licence Ref. AA/70916/5). Accordingly, in July 2007
resistivity measurements of the sites of barracks 2 and 3 (see Figure 1) were carried out by Dr
Peter Armitage (Exeter University) who analysed the collected data (based on a 0.5 metre
probe distance) using the MATLAB programme. The resultant 3-D colour plots revealed
what appear to be clusters of buried demolition debris but failed to show any clear outline
details of the buried wall foundations, probably owing to the inherent difficulties of surveying
sites with hummocky terrain with shallow soil cover (the surviving masonry/brick
foundations lie directly on the surface of the limestone bedrock).
At the same time as the resistivity survey was being conducted, measurement and recording
of exposed sections of the footings of barracks 1, 2 and 3 were being carried out by members
of Brixham Heritage Museum’s Field Research Team, ably assisted by young archaeologist
members of Torquay Museum Explorers Club. Although only incomplete sections of the
footings were exposed at each barrack site, when the available plots and measurements from
each site were combined, it proved possible to draw up a basic overall ground plan. Shortly
after the field survey, an archival search brought to light an aerial photograph of the north fort
(Fort no. 3), which provided further crucial information that allowed the “fine-tuning” of the
basic ground plan drawn up from the field survey. In the aerial photograph, taken in July
1972 (Aerofilms negative no. A235876) over two thirds of the footings of barrack 1 are
clearly shown completely striped of any soil cover, thereby revealing details of not only the
layout of the main external foundation walls but also the internal walls that supported raised
floors. The evidence of the field survey and aerial photograph irrefutably confirmed the
similarity of the Berry Head, Woodbridge and Kingsbridge barrack designs.
RECONSTRUCTION PLANS & DRAWINGS
By collating the results of the 2007 field survey and information from the 1972 aerial
photograph together with details provided by the Kingsbridge barracks drawing and the
Woodbridge barracks map it has proved possible for Brixham Heritage Museum’s honorary
draftsman Robert Rouse to produce not only an accurate ground plan of one of the Berry
Head barrack buildings (Figure 6) but also an isometric reconstruction drawing showing its
overall appearance (Figure 7). Local (Brixham) artist/illustrator Rose Coulton recently (2010)
also produced a reconstruction drawing of one of the barrack buildings for a new display at
Brixham Heritage Museum and this is reproduced below as Figure 8.
Although there is no way of establishing the internal arrangement/purpose of the rooms in
each of the barrack buildings at Berry Head, it may be suggested the layout in general would
have been as outlined by Breihan (1990: 149) with up to twenty-four privates/enlisted men
accommodated in each of the four larger rooms forming the long section of the building,
NCOs and junior officers allocated rooms at the ends of the two arms and (as clearly labelled
on the Woodbridge plan) with senior officers occupying the free standing hutment situated in
between the two arms of the main building (see Fig. 8). This arrangement for officers’
accommodation in the hutment refutes the suggestion made by Pye & Slater (1990: 19) that
this free standing structure was the barrack’s kitchen unit. Servants’ quarters and storage
rooms were probably located in the main building.
LIVING CONDITIONS IN BARRACKS
During the Napoleonic period
Each of the quadrangle barracks at Berry Head probably could accommodate up to a total of
125 officers and enlisted men (i.e. equivalent to a large regular infantry company). It is
interesting to consider what it would have been like living at that time in one of these
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buildings. In a letter written to his mother 30th November 1811 Ensign Keep mentions the
“great inconvenience” of having to share a room with another junior officer owing to
overcrowding at the Berry Head garrison at that time (Fletcher 1997: 73). However, in a later
letter dated 12th August 1812, to his brother Sam, Ensign Keep apparently made the best of
the situation and not withstanding “living in poor circumstances” was not “at all
disconcerted” having in his shared room “a snug fireplace, and a kettle simmering on the hob
prepared to welcome tea parties” (Ibid: 84). Although we do not have to hand accounts of the
living conditions of the enlisted men at Berry Head, it may be assumed their circumstances
may not have been as congenial as that of Keep and his fellow officers. As there was no
separate accommodation provision made for married soldiers (in contrast to some of the
American Army barracks at this period!) they and their wives and children were crowded in
with other occupants of the barrack room, generally one family to each room, with the only
concession to privacy a thin blanket/curtain hung around the double bed situated in the corner
of the room. All occupants of the room ate, slept and spent off duty hours confined in an
environment with very limited open space and poor ventilation. No toilet/washing facilities
were provided inside the barracks and a wooden tub placed in the centre of the room served
as a urinal at night. Some indication of the deplorably squalid state of such quarters is evident
from a report on two English militia units stationed in barracks in Dublin July 1798 to
December 1799, written by the Army Medical Board of Ireland (1800), which records that
“the filth and unventilated state of a barrack room in which wives and children are lodged can
only be conceived by those who frequently visited such apartments before cleansing day”
(quoted by McAnally 1949: 274). The authors of this report clearly laid the blame for the
appalling conditions in barracks on the presence of a “multitude of women and children
attached to any corps”, declaring these produced “many formidable inconveniences” and that
they were “the medium through which contagious diseases are first introduced amongst the
soldiery and they invariably preserve the sources of infection” (Ibid: 274). In regard of
contagious diseases afflicting army garrisons it is of interest that exactly at the time Ensign
Keep was complaining of overcrowding at the Berry Head garrison, there appears to have
been a higher than usual mortality among the soldiers’ children at Berry Head, as evidenced
by the entries made in the 1812 burial register of the local (Brixham) Parish Church of St.
Mary (DRO Brixham St Mary Burial Register 1812, microfiche 43). Inspection of these data
seem to indicate that the deaths were not those of newborns (as was sadly commonplace
during that era) but involved older children, including the two sons of John Dory of the 11th
Regiment of Foot, one dying March 30th the other only a day later. In the following year
(1813) with the introduction of the new standardised format for recording burials, the data
available from the St. Mary’s Burial Register (DRO microfiches 43 & 44) provides a clearer
indication of the ages at death in the garrison’s children, which continued to be higher than in
years prior to 1812-13. The entries reveal for example the death of 8 month old Elizabeth
Martin, daughter of a marine stationed at Berry Head. Other children are aged 11 months and
1 year at time of death. Whatever disease killed off these children it appears not to have been
communicated to the soldiers in the garrison, whose death rates in 1812 and 1813 appear to
be comparably to that seen in earlier years; contrary to the assertion made by the Irish
Medical Board that contagious diseases were readily passed on to soldiers by infected
children.
During the Victorian period
Whilst not strictly within the purview of the research project carried out into the Napoleonic
barracks at Berry Head, it is perhaps worthy of mention (by way of a postscript) that the
living conditions in barracks for the enlisted soldier and his family continued to be one of
squalor well into the Victorian period. This is best illustrated with reference to an article on
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“The sanitary conditions of the British Army” published in the Times 9th March 1858 page
12, which reported high frequencies of deaths in barracks, especially from “diseases of the
lung”. Overall the incidence of death among the Infantry of the Line was 57.27% and among
the Guards as high as 67.68%, which the Commission responsible for reporting ascribed to
the “vitiated atmosphere generated by overcrowding and deficient ventilation, and the
absence of proper sewerage in barracks” (Anon 1858). With no provision made for married
soldiers, their wives and children were forced to tolerate sharing rooms with unmarried
soldiers and there was considerable public criticism on the grounds of indecency (see May
2002: 29 – 32 for a useful summary on the subject of wives in barracks). Reporting on a
notorious case of the murder of a soldier’s wife by a fellow soldier (a private in the 57th Foot)
occupying the same room at Leeds Barracks on 20th January 1848, the Douglas Jerrold’s
Weekly Newspaper No. 89 published 25th March 1848 (pp.408-409) expressed disgust “on the
state of those great dens of indecency, the barracks, hot beds of immorality. Can anything be
more indecent than for nine persons, young, unmarried soldiers, women and children, to sleep
in the same room?” Prompted by the “late melancholy event in Leeds barracks” a reader
(identifying herself only as “a soldier’s wife”), who herself could “speak from long
experience and observation” of the appalling conditions suffered by wives in barracks, in a
Letter to the Editor of Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper (edition No. 96, 13th May 1848,
p.626) wished to draw attention to the “urgent necessity for the reform of a system productive
of so much misery, demoralisation, and crime”. The writer of the letter declared “How can a
woman retain any particle of respect under an existence so outraging to all delicacy? How
can she become otherwise than utterly hardened and corrupted whose whole life passes in the
presence of soldiers, in the enforced companionship of men of all ages and descriptions, in
many cases recruits from the wildest districts of Ireland, and this in rooms where barrack
discipline generally forbids the erection of either screen or curtain?”
Clearly, even by the mid Victorian period, no significant progress had been made since
Napoleonic times in regard of improvement in conditions in barracks for enlisted soldiers and
especially those with wives and children. If the article entitled “The advantages of marrying a
soldier” by Cicely McDonnell published in an edition of the Navy and Army Illustrated
(reprinted in Warner 1975: 80 – 81) is to be believed, however, then conditions for army
wives had by the later Victorian period (c.1890s) vastly improved. According to Cicely
McDonnell the advantages of marrying a soldier rather than an “artisan or man of any station
lower than the middle class, [were] as follows: sanitary dwellings, no rent, bright and
cheerful surroundings, gas, coal, firewood, schooling for children free; the certainty of a fixed
daily quantity of wholesome food; the provision of clothing of all kinds (so far as the husband
is concerned), without the eternal necessity for painful calculation as to the means of
procuring the wherewithal… Above all, a soldier’s wife is free from the wearing anxiety lest
through strikes, business losses, reduction of staff, etc., her husband should lose his berth at
short notice, and she should suddenly find herself in the direst straights through complete loss
of means”.
What of present day conditions in barracks? In answer to this, the reader is directed to the
article by Wheatley 2007 entitled “Growing army of soldiers’ wives go to war over their
squalid housing”, published in The Times January 5, 2007, pp. 30 – 31. Our present day
soldiers and their families deserve far better!
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REFERENCES & SOURCES CITED
Anon (1858) “The sanitary conditions of the British Army”. The Times March 9, 1858, p. 12.
Aerofilms (1972) Negative No. A235876. Aerofilms, Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire.
Breihan, J. R. (1990) “Army barracks in Devon during the French Revolutionary and
Napoleonic Wars”. The Devonshire Association Report and Transactions vol. 122, pp. 13 –
158.
DRO (Devon Record Office) Brixham St Mary Burial Registers 1812 – 1813, microfiches 43
& 44.
Erskine, R. A. (1992) “The military coast defence of Devon, 1500 – 1956” pp. 119 – 129 In
M. Duffy, S. Fisher, B. Greenhill, D. J. Starkey and J. Youings (eds.) The New Maritime
History of Devon Vol. 1: From Early Times to the Late Eighteenth Century. London: Conway
Maritime Press Ltd. in association with Exeter University.
Evans, D. 1986 The History of the Berry Head Fortifications. Report produced for the
Bridge Agency.
Fletcher, I. (ed.) (1997) In the Service of the King. The Letters of William Thornton Keep, At
Home, Walcheren, and in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814. Staplehurst: Spellmount Ltd.
Isaac Johnson (1804) Map of Woodbridge Barracks. Collections of Woodbridge Museum,
Suffolk.
May, T. 2002 Military Barracks. Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications
Limited.
McAnally, H. 1949 The Irish Militia 1793-1816. A Social and Military Study. London: Eyre
and Spottiswoode.
Pye, A. R. & Slater, W. D. (1990) Berry Head Fort, Brixham. An Archaeological Survey.
Exeter Museum Archaeology Field Unit Report No. 90.10.
Warner, P. 1975 Army Life in the ‘90s. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.
Wheatley, J. (2007) “Growing army of soldiers’ wives go to war over their squalid housing”.
The Times January 5, 2007, pp. 30 – 31.
Accounts of the murder of a soldier’s wife in Leeds barracks January 20, 1848 appear in
Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, in Editions No. 89, Saturday, March 25, 1848, pp. 408
– 409 and No. 96, Saturday, May 13, 1848, p. 626.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Dr. Philip L. Armitage wishes to express his gratitude to the Berry Head National Park
Manager Mr. Nigel Smallbones and his staff for their invaluable assistance and support
during the project. Acknowledgement should also be made of the helpful contribution made
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by Torquay Museum Young Explorers Club members and their leader the late Mr. Tim Crine,
Education Access Officer, Torquay Museum in whose memory this article is dedicated.
Grateful thanks is extended to Dr. Peter Armitage, Exeter Advanced Technologies, School of
Engineering, Computer Science & Mathematics, Exeter University, for carrying out the
resistivity survey, assisted by Brixham Heritage Museum Field Research Team members
Mrs. Diana Jenkins and Mr. Gerry Perkins. Sincere thanks also go to Dr. Robert Merrett,
Woodbridge Museum, Suffolk, for providing an annotated copy of the 1804 Isaac Johnson
Woodbridge Barrack Map and to author Mr. Ian Fletcher for generously granting permission
to quote extracts from his book In the Service of the King. The Letters of William Thornton
Keep. For the reconstruction drawings thanks are due to Mr. Robert Rouse and to Mrs. Rose
Coulton.
PLA
30/8/2011
Captions to the figures
Figure 1: Map of Fort No. 3 at Berry Head showing the location sites of the four 1803
infantry barracks and 2007 resistivity survey areas.
Figure 2: Berry Head Fort no. 3, site of barrack 1 showing part of the exposed outline of the
foundations.
Figure 3: Berry Head Fort no. 3, site of barrack 1, closer view along an exposed section of the
foundations.
Figure 4: Berry Head Fort no. 3, site of barrack 1, close up view of exposed mortared
masonry/brick foundation.
Figure 5: Berry Head Fort no. 3, site of barrack 3 showing the exposed foundation outline of
an entranceway/porch.
Figure 6: Ground plan of the foundations of a barrack building based on field survey and
photographic evidence (1972 aerial picture).
Figure 7: Isometric reconstruction drawing of one of the infantry barracks at Berry Head,
circa 1803 – 1817. Dimensions of the building are as follows: length 123 feet, width 64 feet,
height 17 feet. Drawn by Robert Rouse (Brixham Heritage Museum).
Figure 8: Artistic reconstruction of one of the infantry barracks at Berry Head, circa 1803 –
1817. Drawn by Rose Coulton (freelance artist/illustrator).


Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4


Figure 5


Figure 6


Figure 7


Figure 8