The Cat's Coffin World War II pillbox, Old Town, St Mary's


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1016514

Date first listed: 02-Jul-1999


Ordnance survey map of The Cat's Coffin World War II pillbox, Old Town, St Mary's
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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: St. Mary's

National Grid Reference: SV9132410228


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.

World War II pillboxes are built and heavily protected defensive gun positions, mostly for infantry with rifles and machine-guns but larger forms housed light artillery, notably anti-tank guns and light anti-aircraft guns. They are generally grouped around vulnerable or strategically important nodal points, installations and areas, or arranged along linear defensive systems designed to obstruct the enemy's advance across the country. Pillboxes first appeared widely as a defensive element in the relatively static trench warfare of World War I. Gradual development over the following two decades was superceded in early 1940 by design principles born from the practical experience of British troops in France, giving a shell-proof reinforced concrete construction whose hexagonal plan had a gun loophole in each facet giving all-round cover, strongly influencing designs issued from May 1940 by the War Office and by the Chief Engineers of the regional Commands. Nationally, pillbox construction began in late May 1940 as a key part of the rapid programme of anti-invasion defences initiated after the fall of France to German troops. By October 1940, over 14,000 shuttered concrete pillboxes had been built, supplemented by large numbers in other construction techniques and a small number of commercially-produced pillbox designs. Various forms of camouflaged facing were employed and others were hidden within existing structures, depending on local circumstances. By early 1941 however, the tactical concepts underlying pillboxes, especially their deployment to provide linear defensive lines, were becoming criticised as being too inflexible, costly and impracticable as an effective defensive system, with increasing reliance being placed on dug fieldworks around vulnerable points and the use of mobile troop units. This shift in policy culminated in February 1942 in an order requiring no more to be built as they were deemed unsuitable, by which time over 20,000 pillboxes had been completed. World War II defences on the Isles of Scilly were largely directed to the protection of St Mary's, and particularly Hughtown and the Garrison, with only isolated machine-gun posts on some off-islands. Provision of its anti-invasion defences came relatively late, with a system of 27 pillboxes and defended gun positions built around the St Mary's coastline between January and April 1941 by the 14th Battalion Royal Fusiliers under guidance from 231A Fd Coy Royal Engineers. Most were sited around the Garrison and the bays immediately adjacent to Hughtown, with single or small groups of pillboxes overlooking other potential landing beaches. Most adapted standard issued designs, but some were ingeniously masked within existing structures, especially around the Garrison. Of the original 27, nine survive virtually intact, with remains of two others subsided from their former positions. The remainder were demolished, mostly in 1946, though visible traces survive of at least five of those. This latest defensive phase on Scilly complements the well preserved remains from a 400 year sequence of national defensive systems deployed on the islands, providing a rare and valuable resource for studying developments in military technology and strategic thinking over that period. Consequently the nine virtually intact pillboxes still in their original positions are considered worthy of protection. The Cat's Coffin pillbox at Old Town survives substantially intact; its rectangular plan is unusual among the pillboxes erected on Scilly and it is the only example outside the Garrison to use camouflage facing. Its position and grouping with the other two pillboxes around Old Town Bay show clearly the tactical thought which underlay the siting of pillboxes. Its role within the overall anti-invasion system on Scilly is amply confirmed by its relationship with the other surviving pillboxes and their remains, and by the detailed documentary sources which bear on both that system and this particular pillbox.


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


The monument includes a World War II pillbox, known as the Cat's Coffin, in the village of Old Town and behind Old Town Bay on the south coast of St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. It is built against the northern side of a raised bank carrying the modern road around the rear of the bay. When built, the pillbox occupied the edge of a small field, subsequently developed for housing so that it now straddles the southern edge of two gardens. Externally the pillbox has a rectangular plan; internally the south east and south west corners are truncated as small wall facets to accommodate gun loopholes. A concrete raft floor supports walls largely faced by a double skin of mortared concrete blocks infilled by a solid concrete core; the exception to this is the southern, forward, face of the pillbox which was effectively camouflaged to resemble an innocuous wall by an outer skin of random mortared granite rubble where it projects 1m above the raised level of the adjacent road and kerbing, broken only by the gun loopholes and their concrete frames. The flat shuttered concrete roof is edged by the topmost course of the walls' outer skin. Internally, the pillbox measures 3.7m long, east-west, by 2.75m wide and 2m high; a 0.7m wide doorway at the centre of the north wall retains remains of its wooden door frame in an outer face rebate. A former covering wall in the interior 0.9m behind the doorway is evident from its surviving upper course of mortared concrete blocks still in place beneath the roof and from corresponding ghosting visible in the floor's surface. The pillbox has five rectangular gun loopholes; the largest are set in the centre of the south wall and in the internal facets of the south east and south west corners giving a field of fire ranging across Old Town Bay. The loophole apertures are roughly 0.25m wide and 0.3m high, with surrounds chamfered on the inner face, stepped on the outer face. Two smaller loopholes were provided in the north wall, one to each side of the doorway, to cover the approach to the rear of the pillbox. Contemporary sources record an anti-invasion system of 27 pillboxes and defended gun positions around the coast of St Mary's, within which this pillbox is designated `Pillbox No.24'. As a potential landing beach giving easy access to Hughtown, the islands' administrative centre and main population focus, Old Town Bay was identified as especially vulnerable and provided with three pillboxes, all of which survive largely intact: that in this scheduling had a field of fire across the rear and mouth of the bay, giving close cover across the seaward approach to Old Town itself. Another pillbox 140m to the WSW gave closer cover across the western side of the bay, towards Old Town Church; the third pillbox is located on Tolman Point, with a view directly across the mouth of Old Town Bay to the south west, and the mouth of Porth Minick to the east. This pillbox was built as part of a wider system of anti-invasion defences erected around St Mary's between January and April 1941. This particular pillbox appears in operational instructions issued in July 1941, designed to counter any enemy landings on St Mary's. In those instructions it was specified to be manned by the 2nd Platoon of the island's Home Guard, who were to be armed with Browning guns and automatic rifles. All post-war fittings and stored items and materials within the pillbox, together with all garden fences, fittings and furniture, the modern litter box and the surfaces of the modern road and kerbing outside the pillbox, where they fall within the monument's protective margin, are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

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: 15531

Legacy System: RSM


Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3 Extracts in Osborne as below, Appendix aj, War Diary of 13 Btn West Yorks Regiment, July 1941, (1941)
Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3, Extracts in Osborne as below, Appendix ak, War Diary of 14 Btn Royal Fusiliers, Jan-May 1941, (1941)
Title: 1:10000 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 91 SW Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: Map of St Mary's pillbox locations and Nos by 14Btn Royal Fusiliers Source Date: 1941 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3

End of official listing