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Old cannon re-used as bollards

by Martin H. Evans.

 

Was that bollard once a cannon?

 

In many towns, cities, villages and ports one comes across things that look like this:
 

bollard at Staithes bollard at Chatham

Are these things old cannon that have been re-used as bollards, or are they commercially made bollards, made to look like an old gun with a cannonball jammed in the muzzle? Well, in the case of these pictures, the bollard outside someone's door in Staithes, North Yorkshire (on the left), was made for civil use to a traditional pattern. The one on the right is a real cannon outside the main gate into the original Chatham Dockyard. It is one of a pair (see the gateway photograph at the end). It had been one of the Royal Navy's biggest smooth-bore muzzle-loading (SBML) guns but when it was no longer fit to be used on a warship it was buried breech-down to protect the brickwork of the gatehouse from damage by carts and other vehicles. The muzzle has been sealed off with a cross-shaped piece of iron.

In various blogs and other internet sites one finds a range of opinions and statements about bollards. At one extreme are assertions that at one time many of London's bollards were French cannon captured from French warships by Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. At the other end of the spectrum are people who question whether any bollards had ever been created by burying one end of an old cannon. The purpose of this note is to show that the truth lies somewhere between these points of view.

There is no doubt that old guns, which were of no further military use, did get used as posts and bollards in the past. Blackmore wrote, when referring to an old iron 9 pdr ("nine pounder"; i.e.: a cannon designed to fire an iron cannon-ball weighing 9 pounds. See glossary below.):

"Preserved from a number of guns of the same pattern formerly used as posts on Tower Hill and removed for scrap in 1940 … The practice of using old iron guns as road posts or bollards was started at least as early as the 17th century ('Iron Gunns Broken sett into ye ground')"

(Blackmore 1976, p. 70, catalogue no. 47. See also his notes for catalogue numbers 46, 70 and 150).

There is a print in Blackmore, p. 37, reproduced from "The Graphic" of 1885, which shows a row of old iron guns used as bollards and railings along Tower Wharf. The dust-jacket of Blackmore's book is illustrated by an unidentified old print which shows road posts in front of the Tower of London, and bollards placed to protect corners of the building, that appear to be poorly-drawn cannon buried breech-down with cannon-balls jammed into the muzzles. The print used for the dust-jacket seems to date from about 1800 – 1810.

part of Blackmore's dustjacket

Evidently a lot of road posts and bollards were at one time created by burying one end or the other of unwanted old iron cannon. In England it seems to have been usual to bury the breech end. The muzzle might have been closed off by hammering in an over-sized cannon-ball, or in some other way, but more often the muzzle was simply left open, perhaps after filling the bore with something such as cheap mortar or even earth.

Old unserviceable cannon did have a scrap value. In the case of bronze guns this was considerable, and when these guns were scrapped they would usually be melted down again for re-casting. Bronze cannon barrels are sometime incorrectly called "brass" guns. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries these barrels were composed of an alloy of about 86-92% copper, up to 9% tin, with small amounts of zinc and lead (McConnell, 1988). This bronze 'gunmetal' was much stronger than brass (copper alloyed with zinc) and was favoured for land warfare artillery because the barrels were lighter than the thicker-walled cast iron equivalents (Dawson et al, 2007). Cast-iron guns were cheaper to make: in the second half of the 18th century the English Board of Ordnance was usually paying the gun-founders £14 to £20 per ton of gun for new cannon. In the case of old iron cannon, the scrap value would have been low enough for it to have been economical for civil authorities or businesses to buy them, when strong bollards were needed, rather than have purpose-made road posts or bollards cast by a commercial foundry. It can be assumed that this practice would have been commonest in urban areas close to ports, and especially, close to naval dockyards and military depots.

Where did the old iron cannon come from?

Many would have been sold for scrap by the Office of Ordnance, a department of the Board of Ordnance, which was responsible for the development, testing and supply of cannon for military use in England (and later for Britain) from 1597 until it was succeeded by the Ordnance Board in 1855 (Skentelbery, 1965). It is surprising to find that during this period the Royal Navy did not own the "great guns" which armed the Navy's warships. They were supplied by the Board of Ordnance, and installed in the warships from depots of cannon designed for "sea service". Names like Gun Wharf, at Wapping, Portsmouth and Chatham are a reminder of this system. When a warship was paid off, her guns were often sent ashore and returned to the Ordnance depot.

Sales of unwanted military scrap were advertised by notices in the press, and a search of the London Gazette locates many. The sales were usually by sealed tender for large lots, rather than a public auction or sale "by inch of candle". Even during the Napoleonic wars the Office of Ordnance was selling large amounts of unwanted cannon and shot. For example, this entry in the London Gazette of 2 July 1803 (Issue 15598):

"Office of Ordnance, June 28 1803.
The Principal Officers of His Majesty's Ordnance do hereby give Notice, that they are ready to receive Proposals at their Office, in St. Margaret Street, Westminster, from such Persons as are willing to purchase the following Articles of Old Iron Metal, now lying in the Ordnance Stores at Woolwich Warren:
Old Iron Guns, about 2800 Tons.
Metal arising from unserviceable and unsizeable Round Shot and Shells, about 3000 Tons.
Unserviceable Double-Headed Shot, about 100 Tons.
Old Iron Mortars and Iron Beds, 25 Tons.
No Offer will be accepted for a less Quantity than 100 Tons; and the Purchasers must engage to remove their several Lots within Two Months from the Day of Sale, under Pain of forfeiting the Deposit Money. The Proposals to be delivered sealed, and marked on the Outside "Proposals for the Purchase of Old Metal." No Proposal will be received after the 14th July next. By Order of the Board.
R. H. Crew, Secretary."

There was a similar invitation in the London Gazette of 14 September 1811 (Issue 16522) to tender for about 150 tons of unserviceable shot and cast iron, lying at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, in minimum lots of 10 tons.

Part of Britain's strategy during the 1793 to 1815 wars with the French Republic and Napoleon's Empire was to capture foreign bases, in order to secure the very profitable trade between Britain and regions such as India and the Caribbean. A lot of foreign ordnance was captured in these conquests. Detailed inventories of captured guns and ammunition were sometimes published in the London Gazette. It is possible that some of these captured guns may have been brought back to Britain. Certainly by 1815, when Napoleon's army had been defeated at Waterloo, large numbers of foreign guns were in British possession. Much field artillery was comprised of bronze pieces. These would have been valuable as scrap, apart from guns that were retained as trophies by Army units. The majority of the guns on warships were iron pieces of less immediate value. Again, some were retained as trophies and can be seen in our Naval museums and at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Not all unwanted iron cannon were of Board of Ordnance origin. Most of the iron guns were bought by the Board from iron foundries who made them to an approved design (Dawson et al, 2007). Commercial foundries, including the Carron Company, also cast cannon for private sale to ship owners, because it became common to arm whalers and merchantmen during the war years, to give them protection from privateers (Henry, 2004). When peace came, these merchants probably chose to sell their guns.

As at the end of most wars, there was a large surplus of weaponry after 1815. The foreign cannon were manufactured to fire ammunition (round-shot, cannon-balls) of different dimensions from the standard British equivalents (Dawson et al 2007). That made them even less desirable as working ordnance, so the stocks in British depots were eventually scrapped. It is probable that an invitation to tender for foreign guns, advertised in the London Gazette on 9 August 1836 (Issue 19408) and again on 12 August 1836 (Issue 19409) represented old wartime captures being finally disposed of, 21 years after Waterloo! For some reason the depots in this case were on the island of Jersey.

"SALE OF UNSERVICEABLE IRON ORDNANCE AND SHOT, IN THE ISLAND OF JERSEY.
Office of Ordnance, August 5, 1836
The Principal Officers of His Majesty's Ordnance do hereby give notice, that they are ready to receive tenders for the purchase of the under-mentioned.
Unserviceable Iron Ordnance and Iron Shot at Jersey, viz."

Then follows a list of 71 pieces, all "foreign guns" in 10 lots, totaling about 114 tons, plus several tons of cannon-balls. The pieces ranged from two 24 pdr guns down to two 6 pdrs, the majority being 12 pdrs. The buyers would collect their guns at St. Helier's Pier, and the round shot at Elizabeth Castle, on Jersey. The order was signed by the then Secretary to the Board of Ordnance, R. Byham.

Similar sales followed from time to time. An announcement in the London Gazette in August 1838, dated "Office of Ordnance August 13 1838", included the statement that "One of the trunnions will be knocked off from the iron guns, previous to delivery to the purchaser." Perhaps by then the Board of Ordnance had become mindful of the possible danger in selling serviceable cannon to private buyers. As most of the surviving old cannon still in place as bollards in Britain have been buried breech-down, with the trunnions below ground level, one cannot easily tell whether both trunnions are present or not.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw radical changes in artillery design. Rifled barrels and breech-loading systems for cannon were developed in mid-century. By the 1870s these two innovations had made the muzzle-loading smooth-bore gun obsolete for military purposes in Britain. It seems certain that large numbers of old iron guns would have been sold for scrap soon afterwards. As this was also a period of rapid growth in many British cities, some of these cannon might have been reused as street furniture.

The Trafalgar question

Could some of these guns, re-used as street bollards in London and elsewhere, have been French cannon captured by Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805)?

Several personal 'blogs' about London's bollards assert that some were guns from French ships captured by Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This is so unlikely that it seems certain to be a fanciful romanticised 'urban myth'. The evidence against this myth is:

By the end of the battle on October 21st, Nelson's fleet had captured 17 French and Spanish warships (Adkins, p. 219; Clayton & Craig, p. 252). All had severe battle damage and had lost one or more masts - as had most of the English ships-of-the-line. Eight captured ships ('prizes') were completely dismasted (James, Vol. 3, p. 452). The next day a violent storm began that lasted nearly a week. The storm, and a brief counter-attack by enemy ships out of Cadiz, made it necessary for the English ships to stop towing the captured 'prizes' and turn them loose. The French 74-gun Redoutable had been severely damaged early in the battle before surrendering. Around midnight on October 22/23 she sank in the storm (James, Vol. 3, p. 453). A very few captured ships were able to escape back to Cadiz (e.g.: Santa Ana and Algesiras). Most of the other shattered 'prizes' were driven ashore by the storm and wrecked on the coast of Spain during the next few days. In the end, only 4 'prizes' remained in British hands: 3 Spanish warships and the Swiftsure (Adkins, p. 249 & 297; Clayton & Craig, p. 372).

Only three captured 'prizes' were eventually brought back to England: the English-built Swiftsure, and 2 Spanish ships (Bahama and San Ildefonso). Thus, no French-built warship captured at Trafalgar was ever brought back to England, making it virtually impossible for a large number of the French naval guns used in this battle to have become bollards or street furniture in Britain. Even the Spanish 'prizes' might have had their great guns thrown overboard to help them survive the storm, a common practice at that time.

The Swiftsure had been an English ship, built at Deptford and launched on the river Thames in 1787. She was an "Elizabeth" Class "Third Rate" 74-gun two-decker ship-of-the-line (Lyon, 1993; Lyon & Winfield, 2004). In 1801 she had been captured by a French squadron in the Mediterranean and was in French hands for just over 4 years until she was recaptured at Trafalgar. She had a re-fit at Toulon, where it seems likely that the French navy would have installed some of their own guns. However, there is some evidence that not all the British cannon were replaced by French ones, and she continued in French service with a mixture of French and British cannon. Having survived the storm (and it is possible that guns, French or otherwise, might have been jettisoned to help her stay afloat) she was repaired at Gibraltar before sailing to Chatham (Winfield, 2007). If she had been fitted with French cannon, they might have been put ashore in Gibraltar. She was later renamed Irresistible and became a prison hulk in the river Medway. There is perhaps a possibility that some French cannon might have remained aboard her until she reached Chatham.

The argument which I have just presented applies specifically to the Trafalgar guns. There is no doubt that many French warships were captured at various times between 1793 and 1815. For example, in the battle off Ushant in June 1794 ("The Glorious First of June") the fleet commanded by Admiral Lord Howe captured 6 French warships and brought them to Plymouth (James, Vol 1, p. 187). The French are said to have lost "upwards of 500 pieces of cannon" (James, Vol 1, p. 195). Some French cannon from these 'prizes' went to the Royal collection in the Tower of London (see below) and at least one gun of similar appearance is still in place as a bollard in Bishopsgate (below). The Royal Navy continued to capture French warships throughout these wars. Two weeks after Admiral Lord Nelson's defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, four French ships-of-the-line under Rear-Admiral Dumanoir which had managed to escape from that battle were found by a Royal Naval squadron commanded by Sir Richard Strachan. After a fierce battle, all four French warships surrendered and were taken as 'prizes' to Plymouth (James, Vol 4, pp. 3-12). The repeated successes of the Royal Navy in capturing French warships led to the circulation of the joke that "the most important supplier of ships to the Royal Navy was France". Lists of captured ships can be found in Lyon (1993), Winfield (2008) etc. By 1815 the Ordnance depots will have held hundreds of French naval cannon from captured 'prizes' and it is likely that many of these were later recycled into becoming bollards. But it is very doubtful whether any were guns that were aboard French men-of-war during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Photographs of genuine old cannon that have been re-used as bollards, etc.

The photographer Maggie Jones has a large number of photographs of "Bollards in London" on the flickr website. Most of these show commercially made bollards but there are a number of old cannon bollards in her collection.
John Kennedy used to maintain a blog-site called "Bollards of London", which also showed very many commercial bollards and a few old cannon, but this site is now run by someone else and is no longer a useful source of images of recycled old cannon.
The Geograph Britain and Ireland project, which is supported by the Ordnance Survey, is assembing a huge database of photographs of the British Isles. There are many photographs of cannon, some reused as street furniture, or adapted for other purposes. It has a good search facility.
English Heritage maintains an Images of England web-site that is searchable. A search for 'bollard' reveals several photographs of what are almost certainly re-used cannon.
David Jones has pages about cannon bollards, aka corner cannons, still found in Dartmouth, Halifax, Nova Scotia, to protect street corners etc. Also old archive photographs of Nova Scotia that show cannon bollards, especially in the Royal Engineers Garrison.

Some images from the sources given above, or other sources:

1. Street furniture bollards that do seem to be re-used smooth-bore muzzle-loading (SBML) cannon

Outside St Helens Church, Bishopsgate: photographed by Maggie Jones, and by John Kennedy. This is definitely an old cannon, probably French, buried muzzle-down. The breech end closely resembles Blackmore's Catalogue No. 144:

"Two iron guns, 36 pdrs, French, dated 1787" … "These two guns belong to the series of French naval guns introduced in 1786, the design being attributed to Jacques Charles de Manson, when Inspecteur Général de l'Artillerie des Colonies … The guns were part of the armament of one of the French ships captured in Earl Howe's victory off Ushant on 1 June 1794 … and are first referred to in the 1845 Guide."

Old bollards, which look like old cannons. Photographed at Woolwich, these bollards are very corroded but look like real guns.
Old cannon now a bollard. On the Thames Path at Woolwich.
an old canon with canon ball, now a bollard Blackwall Basin, Isle of Dogs.

There is an old gun near the Thames not far from the modern replica of the Globe Theatre. It had not been buried very deep, so one can see where the trunnions were, although most of them have been removed. It appears on two web-sites: Knowledge of London and Mandy Barrow's Hidden London, from Woodlands Junior School, Tonbridge. The gun in the Historic UK page "French cannons as street bollards" seems also to be the same one.

Bermondsey, at Stoney Street. and Stoney Street, Bermondsey Market. This bollard has the right muzzle profile to be a real cannon.
There is also a bollard nearby, on the corner of Bedale Street and Borough High Street, that might be an old cannon, but it needs closer inspection (18/3/16)
In Grove Street, Deptford, the entrance to the old Victualling Yard has four old cannon standing muzzle-upwards. They can be seen in Google StreetView. There is also a cannon-bollard used as a corner-protector on Tower Wharf. (My thanks to "nemo" for this information).
A bollard in Hampstead, Camden. This one, near Cannon Place, looks as though it might be a real cannon.
Cannon Lane, Hampstead. Another one in Hampstead, with a convincing profile.
Cannon set into wall in Steyne Road, Seaford. This is east of Newhaven, Kent. The old gun is severely corroded.
Faversham, Kent. This rather corroded bollard has the profile of an old SBML cannon, but it is hard to say whether it is "Late C17 or early C18", as described.
Gosport, Hampshire. This bollard just off the High Street is said to be an ex-naval 24 pdr gun. The trunnions are visible just above ground level.
Portsmouth. An old bollard in Bathing Lane, which looks convincingly like an old SBML gun.
Lydd, Kent. It is unusual in that it has been set muzzle-down. The cascabel and trunnions are clearly visible on this old gun in Cannon Street. The design is quite distinctive.
King's Lynn. A rather short-barrelled SBML gun. The trunnions are visible at ground level.
King's Lynn. As above.
King's Lynn. A taller bollard, off the Tuesday Marketplace.
A bollard at Rochford, Essex. This is almost certainly an old SBML cannon, because the trunnions are just visible at ground level.
Southwold. The old cannon had once been set as a "knocking post" at the brewery. It has now been mounted on a modern copy of a naval carriage.

2. Bollards that might be genuine old cannon. Further checking needed:

A street-corner bollard in Wapping that is shown on two web-sites belonging to "Ian Visits": An Old Napoleonic Bollard in Wapping? and also Old cannon-style bollard in Wapping.

The note to this photo of Cannon Hall at Hampstead, London, states that the bollards are cast-iron cannon, but the image is too small for one to judge.
Cast Iron Bollard in Greenwich. It is said to be a parish boundary marker. It might be an old gun.
St Alfege's Passage, Greenwich. Note added April 2014: this bollard has an octagonal base and is clearly one made commercially as a bollard, in a traditional design.
There are some bollards at Fishmonger's Hall Wharf, near the north end of London Bridge. Some are commercial bollards but some might be old cannon. Further inspection is needed. Viewable on Google Street View.
Great Yarmouth. A bollard in King Street that might well be an "Early C19" gun.
Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House.
"Faded London" blog.
King's Lynn. A bollard at the corner of Chapel Lane. Said to be an early C19 French cannon. The profile of the muzzle-swell is distinctive.
King's Lynn. A bollard at South Quay.
Devonport Heritage Trail mentions a cannon-bollard near Mutton Cove in South Devonport. One would expect to find several old naval cannon being reused in this old Naval Base.

3. Mooring bollards made from old cannon:

Abercastle, Pembrokeshire.
Abercastle, Pembrokeshire.
Clovelly, Devon.
Rotherham. This cannon, cast by the great iron-founders Walker & Co, had been reused as a mooring bollard but has now been restored and mounted on a modern copy of a naval gun carriage, outside Rotherham Town Hall.
St Clements Bow.
St Michael's Mount, Cornwall.
Another old gun buried muzzle-down, with its trunnions exposed, for use as a mooring bollard, is at Lynmouth Harbour.

4. Cannon placed as marking points:

Hillingdon. A cannon, at Hillingdon near Heathrow Airport, is said to mark the north-western end of Major-General William Roy's 1784 Ordnance Survey baseline.
Hampton, Richmond and another view of a cannon at Roy Grove, which marks the south-eastern end of Major-General William Roy's OS baseline.
Two photographs: one and two, of the muzzle of a gun said to mark a 1794 OS baseline in Wiltshire.

5. Cannon buried for other reasons:

On Steep Holm Island, off Somerset, the Geograph web-site has five photographs taken by Chris Allen, showing old Georgian-period smooth-bore muzzle-loading cannon buried to form pivots for Victorian period rifled coastal-defence artillery. The profile of the muzzles of the pivot-guns is that of the Blomefield design, introduced in the 1780s and still in use into the second half of the nineteenth century (Lavery, 1989; Dawson et al, 2007). Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4 and Link5

A cannon used as a gatepost on a farm near Cranstal, Isle of Man.
An old gun buried near Port Quin, Cornwall, in a tumulus.
A damaged cannon on the Green at Wiveton, Norfolk.

Some of my own photographs:

Chatham Dockyard Main Gate The Main Gate into Chatham Dockyard, with the Royal Arms over the archway. Two large cannon have been set in the ground on either side, to protect the brickwork of the gatehouse. Their muzzles have been sealed off.

Mooring bollards Chatham Historic Dockyard.
Two 32 pdr muzzle loaders have been set up as mooring bollards at the head of No. 3 dry-dock. They are not identical, and the muzzle of the nearest one has been badly damaged - perhaps in battle. This dock was built in 1820. Although SBML guns as big as 64 pdr were sometimes used to arm Royal Navy ships in the early 19th century, the 32 pdr was normally the largest calibre cannon in common use, from about 1720 into the 1860s (McConnell, 1988)

Colonnade of old cannon Chatham Historic Dockyard.
An impressive colonnade of old guns, used to support a lean-to roof in the alley between the rope-works and the quay-side warehouse. This must have been put up at a time when there was a large surplus of unwanted old muzzle-loaders at Chatham.

Colonnade of old cannon Chatham Historic Dockyard.
Two of the old muzzle-loaders that form part of the colonnade.

gun protecting a corner Chatham Historic Dockyard.
An old gun set up to protect the brickwork on the corner where two narrow alleyways meet.

two old cannon-bollards Chatham Historic Dockyard.
Two old cannon re-used as bollards in the dockyard. The furthest one, near the steps, has an unusual bulbous muzzle. It is possible that it might have been a foreign piece.

 

It seems that at one time there were many posts, bollards and other things that were in fact old re-used cannon. Some were taken for scrap iron in the 1940s "war effort", as referred to by Blackmore (above). In Exeter, for example, Napoleonic-period cannon were removed from a Wellington Memorial during the 1939-1945 war, and melted down as scrap iron. Many other old cannon-bollards have since been removed during development work, and now only a few survive. I suggest that these remaining examples ought to be protected as reminders of our military history.

This essay is currently "work in progress". I shall be grateful for comments and constructive criticism, whether it is just a note about a "typo" or a whole condemnation of a major error. Information about other cannon-bollards is very welcome. Please contact me at:   mhe"onethousand"@hermes.cam.ac.uk   (Replace the anti-spam letters "onethousand" with the appropriate 4 numbers without the quotation marks).

Martin H. Evans. © 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016.

First draft: 22nd March 2012. Additions 6 & 21 Sept 2012, 15 April 2014, 5 July 2014, 16 Jan 2015, 18 March 2016.
Web-site URL: http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mhe1000/bollards/cannonbollards.htm

Abbreviations and glossary

Cascabel or Cascable: the knob or handle at the rear of a muzzle-loading cannon, behind the breech. It was useful when handling the gun and as an attachment for a controlling rope in the case of naval guns.
Pdr: pounder. If a gun is classed as a 12 pdr - "a twelve pounder" - it means that the gun was designed to fire a projectile weighing 12 pounds. In the case of smooth-bore guns, the missile would usually be a spherical iron cannon-ball, weighing a nominal 12 Imperial pounds in the case of a British gun. In practice, British 12 pdr cannon fired a 5.4 Kg shot 112 mm in diameter. The bore of the barrel was about 117 mm. The difference of about 5 mm was to allow for manufacturing tolerances and was known as "windage" (Dawson et al, 2007).
SBML: smooth-bore muzzle-loader. The normal military cannon from the 16th century until the middle of the 19th. 'Rifling', the spiral grooves inside a barrel that made a close-fitting projectile spin during its flight, had been used in costly hunting rifles from the 16th century, but it was not effectively used in heavy ordnance until the mid-nineteenth century. Some very early cannon were made so that the cannon-ball and the charge of gunpowder could be loaded at the breech of the gun. However, the development of more powerful cannon led to problems in sealing the breech that were not overcome until after 1850. In the intervening period all cannon were cast with a solid breech for strength and the powder and cannon-ball (or other missile) were rammed down from the muzzle.
Trunnions: the stubby axles that project from the sides of a gun-barrel, that sit in grooves in the gun-carriage. The barrel can swing up and down on the trunnions, which are usually just in front of the centre of gravity, so that the barrel normally rests on wooden blocks or a wedge or a screw under its breech, adjusted to give the necessary elevation.

Bibliography and references

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