FACTS AND FIGURES – The Breakwater

by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012

1788 Plan put to Government by the Master Attendant at the Royal Dockyard, to construct a pier from Staddon to Panther Rock, 2.5 miles out from Plymouth Hoe.

March 1806  John Rennie, a civil engineer together with Joseph Whidbey, the Master Attendant at Woolwich Dockyard, drew up a report and plan for a Breakwater, assisted by Mr Hemans, the Master Attendant at Devonport Dockyard. The plan recommended a free standing breakwater be built along the line of the Panther, Shovel and St Carlos Rocks.

June 1811 Government adopted plan submitted by Messrs Rennie and Whidbey. It was to be a solid wall of stone, 3000 feet long, 36 feet wide at the top, 210 feet wide at the base, to a level 10 feet above low water mark, where it would be 30 feet in width, with an arm at each end at a 120 degree angle.

March 1812 A 25 acre site at Oreston was bought from Duke of Bedford for 10000.This became Breakwater Quarry. Quays were erected and rail tracks were laid. Stone estimated to cost 7shillings and 6 pence (37.5p) a ton for the 2 ton limestone blocks which were to be used.

August 12 1812 The first block was deposited and thrown overboard to find its own position on the seabed, some 30 feet below. Blocks were transported to the site by one of 10 specially converted sailing barges. They made 4 trips daily. Messrs Billings were the contractors. There were 45 smaller vessels capable of carrying 50 tons of smaller stones. 

March 1813 Breakwater had so far advanced that parts of its irregular surface were seen above low water.

March 1815 Decided to raise the structure to 20 feet above low water instead of the 10 feet initially planned.

January 1817 Hurricane displaced much of the work and altered the seaward slope from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5. No action taken.

November 1824 Violent storm removed upwards of 200,000 tons of stone and again reduced the seaward slope to 1 in 5. Plans were changed and the centre line was moved 36 feet towards the shore and the width of the top reduced from 55 feet to 45 feet. Slope on landward side remained at 1 in 2.

July 17 1827 Top of the breakwater was paved for added protection. One of the granite blocks is engraved to commemorate the visit to the breakwater by the Duke & Duchess of Clarence on this day.

1841 The work is generally quoted as finishing at a cost of 1.5million, 300,000 over budget.

June 1941Lighthouse on western end started to designs of Messrs Walker & Burgess. It is built of best white granite from Cornwall.

November 1843 Lighthouse completed – 126 feet high, 78 feet of which are above the top of the breakwater. 

June 1844 Lantern lit for the first time. It was 87 feet tall with 118 mirrors. Light was visible for 8 miles in good weather.

June  November 1845 Beacon erected at western end. Stepped base is 25 feet high, topped by an African oak pole 17 feet high, on top of which is a wrought iron globe, 6 feet in diameter, capable of holding several shipwrecked sailors.

June 1847 There was still 70 yards of the 350 yard eastern arm to complete, requiring a further 50,000 tons of stone, on top of the 3, 620,440 tons already used. Eventually, some 4,500,000 tons were reputed to have been needed, far outstretching the original 25 acre quarry.

The number of workmen employed on the project at any one time was thought to be 765. When John Rennie died in 1821, the work was continued by his sons George and John.

1862 Shovel fort begun. Piles 70 feet deep fixed into the rock with iron shoes to form staging. 2400 tons of concrete blocks were placed in position each week and faced with granite. Raised to a height of 32 feet. 14,000 tons of masonry rubble thrown on top. Walls of the fort were14 feet thick. 15 guns were provided on 3 floors and magazines could hold 1500 barrels of gunpowder. Fort built by Messrs Henry Lee & Sons from London.

1871 Concrete wavebreaker was positioned to afford extra protection from the heavy seas.

1928 The first of over 100 wavebreakers was installed.

What will happen next? Will rising sea levels and climate change take its toll?

Get Involved

You can join the Old Plymouth Society today! Help support the society today by signing up to an annual membership.