Post-medieval watch house and Coastguard lookout on Watch Hill, Bryher


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1016171

Date first listed: 25-Sep-1997


Ordnance survey map of Post-medieval watch house and Coastguard lookout on Watch Hill, Bryher
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)

Parish: Bryher

National Grid Reference: SV 88006 15233


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social development of early communities. Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands' settlement. The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post- medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post- medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard for the nation's shipping in the western approaches. The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of documentation, including several recent surveys.

Watch houses are structures erected usually in elevated positions whose wide field of view enabled early warning to be given of approaching enemy forces. The structures, usually small buildings with viewing openings, provided shelter and sometimes an element of camouflage for those assigned to watch duties. In this role they formed a integral part of many defensive systems developed during the earlier part of the post-medieval period (approximately AD 1540-1815), working in conjunction with a variety of signalling systems, including beacons, flags and, later, semaphore stations. Watch houses provided the forerunner to the enormous diversity of early warning and enemy detection systems developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. Remains of at least four watch houses of early 18th century or earlier date survive on the Isles of Scilly, one each on Bryher, St Martin's, St Mary's and Tresco. Locations advantageous for watch houses sometimes proved of similar benefit for siting the lookouts established during the 19th century by the Coastguard to assist in their role against smuggling, and by civilians for other purposes, notably on Scilly to observe approaching shipping which would require the services of a local pilot. Rising trade, demand and taxation affecting imported commodities such as tobacco, spirits, and tea during the 17th and 18th centuries, coupled with few effective controls on maritime activity outside the major ports, encouraged an illicit trade by smugglers profitting by avoiding payment of duty on goods run across from the Continent or acquired at sea from trading vessels in the Channel. Effective control only came with the ending of the wars with France when, in 1816-17, the Customs was considerably expanded to form the new Coastguard, with sufficient manpower to operate as a widespread preventative force along the south coast. The establishment of a network of coastal lookouts proved an important measure in the Coastguard gaining control over maritime activity. Prior to this, conditions in the south west of England proved especially favourable for smuggling, with its deeply indented coastline remote from the centres of authority and administration but conveniently facing the Continent and adjacent to the trade routes entering the Channel. The enhancement of these factors in regard to the Isles of Scilly made smuggling a vital supplement to the islands' economy in the early 19th century, as is shown by a petition in 1819 to relieve the islanders' poverty, citing the effectiveness of the new preventative force as a main cause of their distress. Apart from historical references and association with some surviving buildings on Scilly, this formerly important economic activity and the counter-measures which effectively stopped it leave few remains, chief among which are a small number of smugglers' caches and surviving traces of at least three 19th century lookouts set up by the Coastguard force. The Coastguard lookout on Watch Hill survives well as the most complete example remaining on Scilly, showing clearly its manner of construction and the siting which proved so valuable in establishing the effectiveness of the Coastguard service. The role of such key viewpoints in earlier post-medieval defences is demonstrated by the remains of the watch house surviving around the later lookout and whose identification is confirmed by 18th century ducumentary sources. Although robbed of parts of its wall fabric, much of its ground plan survives as an important and integral part of the early post-medieval defensive system that survives extensively on the Isles of Scilly.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The scheduling includes a 19th century Coastguard lookout overlying remains of an earlier post-medieval watch house and situated near the summit of Watch Hill, a prominent hill on Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. The Coastguard lookout is visible as a small boat-shaped enclosure measuring 4.6m long, east-west, by up to 1.6m wide internally. The west end is 1m wide and the east end tapers to a blunt point. The enclosure is defined by a drystone wall rising generally 1m high, approximately 0.9m wide at its base and tapering to an uneven and partly stone-robbed top. On each side, the wall's lower course incorporates some large edge-set slabs, up to 1.9m long; above these and elsewhere, smaller rubble is laid on edge giving thinner courses. A 0.8m wide entrance gap is situated at the west end of the enclosure's south side, the wall rubble to each side capped by flat slabs. The Coastguard lookout partly overlies remains of an earlier watch house which was recorded on the summit of Watch Hill by the antiquary Troutbeck in 1796 and which gave the hill its present name. Its remains include a levelled platform on whose northern half the later Coastguard lookout was built but whose north east and southern edges contain traces of earlier wall foundations; more substantial walling of a subrectangular structure extends west from the platform and later lookout. The levelled platform measures approximately 11m north-south by 7m east-west, rising approximately 0.7m above the surrounding ground level along its curving northern edge but merging with the hill's summit surface on the south. The platform surface extends 1m beyond the Coastguard lookout on the north and has traces of rubble along its north eastern edge. On the south of the platform, on a course 6.5m beyond the south wall of the Coastguard lookout, a low line of rubble marks a southern wall foundation, 0.5m wide, 0.1m high and 6.5m long east-west and angled to the north at its eastern end. The subrectangular structure extending west from the platform and later lookout is open on the west but defined on the north and south by walls approximately 4m long and approximately 5m apart, built largely of edge-set boulders, and on the east by a drystone wall partly re- used for the west end-wall of the Coastguard lookout but extending further north as a stub of drystone walling. The boulder walls on the north and south appear as remains of a former drystone wall from which the smaller rubble has been removed, a process partly accounted for by the later construction of the adjacent Coastguard lookout. The site of this watch house occupies one of the most elevated situations on Bryher, with uninterrupted fields of view across most of the waters to the east and west of Bryher, including the deep water channel of New Grimsby Harbour between Bryher and Tresco to the north east. The watch house on this position complemented other watch houses on St Mary's and St Martin's, forming part of the extensively surviving system of 17th and 18th century defences on Scilly by giving advanced warning of approaching danger to allow preparation and manning of the defences. Its advantages as an excellent viewpoint also served the Coastguard Force as the site for one of the several lookouts established on Scilly from the 1830s onwards.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 15492

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Gill, C, The Isles of Scilly, (1975)
CAU, Scilly SMR entry PRN 7399, (1991)
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7370, (1988)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; Cornwall sheet LXXXII: 14 Source Date: Author: Publisher: Surveyor: 1888 and 1908 Editions
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8815 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:

End of official listing