Maps and views blog

05 February 2014

For the defence of Plymouth: a map and a report


by Magda Kowalczuk

Maps often accompanied military reports, and it was a treat to come across a neat example of such a set of documents whilst cataloguing maps of the UK in the Topographical Collection of George III.  ‘A Report on the general Plan of Defences, for the security of the arsenal of Plymouth, by Lieutenant Colonel Dixon chief engineer of the Division’ (Maps K.Top.11.79.), dated 10 January 1780, comes in a form of a stitched booklet on three sheets  of watermarked paper with golden edges. ‘No expense spared’ – as one of my fellow cataloguers put it.


Matthew Dixon, 'A general plan of Plymouth Sound and the adjacent country...' London, 1780. MS. (detail) British Library Maps K.Top 11.79 PUBLIC-DOMAIN-LABELi

The author, Matthew Dixon, was appointed a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1777, and later become a Chief Engineer Colonel, assigned to the Plymouth Division. He was also involved in surveying the county of Devon, drawings of which were retained by the Ordnance Survey (see corresponding maps in the British Library here).

As a Chief Engineer Colonel Dixon reported the necessary changes to the plan of defences of Plymouth Sound to the Master General and to the Board of Ordnance, as follows:

'[…] as the harbour of Plymouth became of importance to the Navy, several alternations were made to the batteries fronting the sound and the North Channel, as well as to the batteries on St. Nicholas Island; yet, I am of opinion, their united strength as established in preceding years, could not have defended the North and West Channels, without the aid of other batteries placed on high ground, to take ships in stern as they might attempt to penetrate the Harbour'.

After explaining the ‘reason for removing the guns which presented inwards to the harbour’, the Colonel moves to alterations made to the placement of batteries and their artilleries:
‘The battery on the right of the lines marked C on the Plan, is furnished with 6, 24 pounders, and is intended to cooperate with the battery on Mount Wise in the Defence of the interior passage of Wester-king.’

‘The cavalier battery on the left of the lines marked V on the Plan, is furnished with 7, 12 pounders, and is intended to cover the Ordnance Arsenal and to strengthen the weaker part of the lines.’
The Colonel then goes on to propose that ‘the positions for ships to serve as floating batteries at the entrance as also within the harbour’, where

‘The ships marked 9, 10 & 11, are proposed to be armed with heavy artillery, to defend the interior passage near the Navy Yard, and to annoy the Enemy, after they had taken possession of Maker Hill, and to oblige them to send batteries to drive them away, before they could advance to the attack of the Obelisk redout’.



As for the map itself, it is a skilfully drawn plan of Plymouth Sound, including St. Nicholas Island and the citadel, docks and fortifications. A three-dimensional impression of the area is achieved by means of shading and pictorial relief, both executed to perfection. The background is filled by the Colonel with inland batteries, marked A to Z, and with “floating batteries”, marked 1 to 15.

There is a human quality to even these military objects. As clichéd as it may seem, there is something surprisingly touching in the fact that the Colonel’s handwriting is not equally immaculate throughout the whole report, revealing a slight rush or impatience towards the end; the fact the map had to be ‘revised and corrected’ by somebody else and shows the marks overwritten and altered. The Colonel’s strategic arrangements unravel right in front of our eyes.
They were subsequently revisited and revised to be fit for a presentation to the Board of Ordnance. Nevertheless, the human element in this particular object is apparent and it is a pleasure to be able to describe it in a slightly different way to how it is described in a bibliographic catalogue record.

PORTER, W. , (1889). History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, volume I. London, Longmans, Green.
HODSON, Y., Ordnance Survey drawings 1789-c. 1840. Introduction: T. Campbell. Research Publications, 1989.