WALKERS exploring the Pembrokeshire Coast National Path can find a range of interesting items and scenes, including a former military fort turned museum.

Today we will take a look at Chapel Bay Fort and Museum’s history in the military, including the story of a suspected spy held prisoner there..

In 1817, the first fort was proposed to be created at Chapel Bay, with plans for a two-tier gun battery to be built into the coastal slope at a cost of £8,863. There was 12 guns in the proposal and the fort would be protected by demi-bastions and a defensible barracks at the rear.

Western Telegraph: Gunners manning one of the guns at the fort during thee First World War. Picture: Mrs D. RussellGunners manning one of the guns at the fort during thee First World War. Picture: Mrs D. Russell

In 1858, work was proposed for more defences at Chapel Bay Fort by the War Office Committee, with plans for 10 guns in an open battery in a straight line, on rear pivots with a defensible barrack at the rear for 150 men. This came from a report to Parliament on the sea defences of Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock which was published by the committee.

The plans for 10 guns were endorsed by the Royal Commission on August 20, 1859, and the following year a report on the defences of the United Kingdom was published by the Royal Commissioners of the Defences of the United Kingdom which recommended new work at Chapel Bay but this was not approved.

On June 19, 1861, a site was bought from J. Mirehouse, Esq. for a battery and the following year, an application to build a battery of six guns was approved, however, in 1867, work to mount six guns in an earthen battery had not yet been started.

The following year, the British military introduced a 10” 18-ton gun R.M.L, which featured in a design by Colonel Jervois for Chapel Bay the following year. He produced a design for six R.M.L. guns which utilised Moncrieff Disappearing Gun Carriages in a battery which would have barracks for three officers and 60 men in the rear. The area was to be enclosed by a ditch and wall and flanked by caponiers.

He was unable to get approval for the mounted guns on the disappearing gun cartridges but approval was given for a rectangular plan battery with earthen ramparts, enclosed by a 16 foot deep ditch, armed with six 9” R.M.Ls.

In 1890, the War Office approved construction work to start on January 1, the following year. In the plans, the battery would have three 10” Mk.III R.M.L guns mounted on seven-foot parapet ‘C’ central pivot carriages. The work was done by W. Hill of Gosport and was completed on October 31, 1891.

An area to the east of Chapel Bay Fort was bought in 1893 from R.W.B Mirehouse, Esq. for a battery of three 12 pdr. Q.F. guns. The following year, the War Office approved a 6 pdr. Q.F. battery which was completed on March 17, 1896 by Messrs Heathevly Bros. of Coventry.

In 1898 further work was approved when the War Office allowed a new three fun 12 pdr. Q.F. battery to the east of the moat. The work took almost two years to complete, beginning in May of that year and being completed by March 1890. A decade later the War Office approved plans to reconstruct and re-arm Chapel Bay Fort. The work began that June and was completed in August 1901. There were three 6” Mk.VII B.L. guns and the following year these guns were joined in the armament by three 12 pdr. Q.F. guns and four Maxim machine guns.

The fort was used as a prison in 1904 when it held a suspected spy prisoner. A French man who was believed to be a spy for a foreign power was detained at Chapel Bay. He had been staying in a cottage overlooking the site where submarines were being tested. He was searched at the fort and nothing incriminating was found, although he had a large sum of money in English banknotes and gold.

Later newspaper reports stated the man had arrived in Milford Haven with no luggage aside from a small satchel which contained binoculars wrapped in newspaper. He told the landlord of the hotel in Milford Haven that he left his luggage in room 42 of the Swansea hotel The Royal and would not provide his name.

Western Telegraph: Aerial view of Chapel Bay Fort. Picture: Chapel Bay Fort and MuseumAerial view of Chapel Bay Fort. Picture: Chapel Bay Fort and Museum

The landlord contacted the hotel who said no one had occupied the room – which was the housekeepers. He left after a couple of days and arrived at Angle, which is close to the fort, with just the satchel and binoculars. He went to one of the inns where the landlady immediately recognised the characteristics of a potential spy.

The Tamworth Herald reported the landlady said that ‘from the first moment she knew he was an enemy of her country.’

She asked him if he had any luggage, realising that this was also a mark of a foreign spy. He said he didn’t and flashed some of the gold and banknotes. He is said to have sat in a chair and clutched at his throat, stating: “My heart very bad.” She responded that he wouldn’t find his heart there. The man was then said to have asked if the officers from the fort would go there and she ‘read the guilt in his eye.’

He is said to have tried another inn and was unsuccessful again, but was able to get an apartment from a young widow, although he never provided his name. He hired a boatman and was making journeys throughout the day and night along the estuary. The boatman didn’t think he was a spy but said that when the submarines were out, the stranger was out on the boat with his binoculars in the direction of the submarines.

He also had a keen interest in weapons, sailing around to where an American dynamite gun that had been on trial was fixed and to see the cruisers at Pembroke Dock, Carr’s Jetty and Hobbs Point. He also sailed around to see new heavy guns being put into place, but would avoid Government officers and property.

He also caused concern and intrigue with his behaviour on land as his walks were said to have been furtive and inquisitive and a gunner was told to watch him. He was caught in the Maxim Battery at Pill Point and was arrested and taken before Colonel Walker. He was said to have only said “Beg your pardon, beg pardon.”

The man had told the boatman that he was a wine merchant in Rome and had travelled to Chicago, Cairo and Khartoum. He then produced a card with an Italian name and the words ‘Teacher of languages.’

The colonel had searched the man’s satchel and found nothing suspicious, so he was released after a night in the fort and soon left Wales. But the locals were sure he had a camera in his binoculars which was photographing the military activity, although this had never been proven.

In 1914, three gun floor shelters were completed to provide the duty gun crews with accommodation.

During the First World War, the fort was used as the examination battery for the Haven with the guns and lights being manned 24/7.

In 1932, the Army left Chapel Bay Fort and it was bought by Mr A. W. Gutch, an Angle man who was the agent to Miss Mirehouse, who owns shooting rights of the 20-acre land.

Next week, we will look at how the fort became the museum it is today.