Gun Hill Signal Station
Gun Hill, Fusilier Road, St. George 13°1430’16’N, -59°5571’74’W
"Dominabitur a mari us ad mare a flumine us ad terminos orbis terarum"
Gun Hill Signal Station was built in 1818. Two years after Barbados’ only slave revolt and it was the finest of a chain of stations used to signal the approach of enemy ships and the safe arrival of cargo ships and to help in the internal security of the island.
The station is strategically placed on the highland of St. George and commands a magnificent view from East through South to the West – a perfect location! This signal station was restored by the Trust in 1982 and opened to the public. The rooms at the back of the signal tower are filled with an interesting collection of memorabilia from the military.
Gun hill is one of a series of six signal stations which were built and used as rallying points in the event of civil disorder and also for non-military purposes.
Interesting functions of Gun Hill Signal Station:
Conveying of information about meeting of the Council of Barbados. This was executed by the appropriate combination of flags on a Signal Staf at Government House and repeated almost immediately at the other signal stations.
- Time telling – this was done by given special signals (time balls) hoisted at all signal stations
- Hurricane warnings – As soon as there was a drop in barometer pressure, warnings were listed at signal stations. Of interest to note is the fact that when the British Military was withdrawn from the islands in the Caribbean, the British stopped subscription to the maintenance of the signal stations. The Barbados Government then fully maintained the signal stations which then came under the control of the Inspector General of the Police. The introduction of the telephone saw the discontinuation of the signal stations as a means of passing messages.
The structure of the Signal Towers varied from tower to tower.
Gun Hill is hexagonal and indicates that it was rebuilt. There were other minor variations. The stations were built to accommodate two single men. The slits in the walls then enabled the signal man to communicate quickly with their sister stations.
History of Gun Hill
The signal stations had their origin in the slave rebellion of 1816. It was a very small affair; the cause was a false rumour which had been given currency among the slaves that the British Government had approved that they should be given their freedom and that this was being withheld by the authorities in Barbados.
The rebellion was immediately suppressed, but it was the first slave uprising in Barbados history and it gave the white population a severe shock. Since 1780 Barbados had had a garrison of British troops and had been the military headquarters of the Caribbean. During the Napoleonic wars it had been the main springboard for military expeditions against the French islands, and at times there were thousands of troops in the Island, many more than could be accommodated in the Bridgetown area. Some were quartered in barracks, some were billeted on the local in-habitants, and some were under canvas in places as far distant as the coastal area of St. Andrew and Doscobel in St. Peter. After the slave rebellion the military authorities reverted to the practice of maintaining detachments outside the Bridgetown area. The barracks at Speightstown and Holetown were repaired and new barracks were erected at Gun
Hill and Moncreiffe.
These were at the western and eastern end respectively of the escarpment on the northern side of the parishes of St. Philip and St. George, and they comanded a view of the whole of the southern half of the Island. Though no earlier mention of the name Gun Hill has been found, the name was apparently already in use, and the site had military associations stretching back more than a century. At an early date the land belonged to a person called Brigges or Brigs, and in the Militia Act of 1697 Briggs Hill is named as one of the four points where guns were to be placed so that they could be fired to give the alarm in the eve of an invasion.
In 1817 Lord Combermere assumed duty as Governor of Barbados.
As Sir Stapleton Cotton he had distinguished himself as the general commanding Wellington’s cavalry in the Peninsular War, and during his three years in Barbados he took particular interest in military matters.
Soon after his arrival he suggested the establishment of a chain of signal stations across the Island. It is necessary to explain here the respective responsibilities of the military and civil authorities in regard to defence and security. The primary reason for the presence of British troops in Barbados was for defence against invasion.
Internal security was the responsibility of the Governor and the civil power, but if circumstances made it necessary the Governor could call on the army to assist in the preservation of law and order, as indeed he did in 1816.
As the Governor at that time was also the Commander-in-Chief of the army the distinction between internal and external security tended to be blurred, but it was important when it came to a question of who was to pay for what.
Combermere’s proposal, which he managed to get approved by the Barbados Legislature, was that the Barbados Government should pay for the land and buildings and make an annual maintenance grant, and in return he undertook that the stations should manned by military personnel.
Actually they were manned by artillerymen (two at each station), who were paid an allowance for doing this work – perhaps the isolation from the fleshpots of Bridgetown was considered to justify it.
Within a year or two the chain of signal stations was complete. One of them was given the name Cotton Tower to commemorate the fact that it was lord Combermere’s daughter, the Honourable Caroline Cotton, who laid the foundation stone in, 1819. The six stations were:
Highgate, St. Michael Gun Hill, St. George Moncreiffe, St. Philip Cotton Tower, St. Joseph Grenade Hall, St. Peter Dover Fort, St. Peter
Signal Station Functions
Initially the security aspect was emphasized.
Each station was within a palisade to protect it from attack, and the buildings themselves were made secure; one can still see the small apertures in the walls of the intermediate floor of Cotton Tower.
The stations were intended to be used as rallying points in the event of civil disorder. Very soon – perhaps from the start – the stations were also used for non-military purposes. By far the most important was the reporting and disseminating of information relating to shipping. Before the days of wireless telegraphy sailing vessels, and later steamships, arrived without warning; sometimes they met with disaster and never arrived at all. The safe arrival of a ship was always an event, even more so if it was a mail packet. As early as 1787 the local newspaper carried a notice that the arrival of a packet would be notified by the hoisting of a signal at Fort George, a huge fort that had recently been built (but was never used) on a hill a few miles east of Bridgetown. In 1801 there is mention of a signal post being erected for the purpose of notifying the arrival of a packet.
We have no information about the arrangements for disseminating such information to the people of Bridgetown at the time the signal stations were established, but it is quite possible that the station at Highgate was already in existence and performing this function.
A few years later the Chamber of Commerce (then known as Commercial Hall) had a look-out and signal staff above its premises in Bridgetown, and the business community relied on this for information about ships’ arrivals.
The council of Barbados, which met under the chairmanship of the Governor and was the equivalent of the present-day Cabinet, had meetings as often as the Governor considered them desirable.
Hitherto it had been necessary to send messengers on horseback to notify members when the next meeting was to be held.
with the introduction of the signal stations this information was conveyed by signal; the appropriate combination of flags was hoisted on a signal staff at Government House and was repeated almost immediately at the other signal stations.
Before the introduction of time zones as a result of a conference in 1884, each country, and in large countries each town, had its own time according to its longitudinal position.
The public of Barbados relied for information about time on the clocks on the Cathedral and the Main Guard (now the Savannah Club), and the times of these clocks frequently differed by as much as quarter of an hour.
with the expansion of educational facilities it became increasingly important for school-children to know the time, and until the end of the nineteenth century this information was given by special signals (time balls) hoisted at all signal stations.
As late as 1831 there seems to have been no serious attempt to forecast the approach of hurricanes.
In his report on the devastating hurricane of that year the Governor said that he retired to bed without the least suspicion that his rest might be disturbed, yet within a few hours he was taking refuge in the cellar While Government House was collapsing above him.
Soon after this the significance of a drop in the barometric pressure was understood, and henceforth hurricane warnings were hoisted at signal stations and elsewhere.
The Buildings and the Signals
The Army on Gun Hill
As already mentioned, Gun Hill and Monreiffe were military outposts before they were signal stations. At each place there was barrack accommodation, but this was not sufficient for more than two or three officers and a small number of men. Any larger number would have had to go under canvas, and we know that at Gun Hill, where there were 20 acres of land, there was sometimes a whole regiment in camp.
In his History of Barbados, published in 1848, sir Richard Schomburgk says that Ito the stations at Gun Hill and Monrelffe are attached barracks, which are chiefly used as convalescent stations for the troops. We do not know how much they were used for this purpose, but we are told, many years later, of 15 patients from the military hospital being sent to Gun Hill to recuperate.
From time to time during the nineteenth century Barbados experienced yellow fever epidemics, and once (in 1854) a cholera epidemic.
The Garrison invariably fared badly, and usually the barracks were evacuated and the troops put under canvas; the places normally selected were the Garrison Savannah, Brittons Hill, the Dayrells Road area and the old naval hospital site.
The decision to send the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment to Gun Hill in 1842 was exceptional, though Gun Hill was used again in 1852 as a quarantine area for troops who arrived from Demerara because of an outbreak of yellow fever there.
When yellow fever broke out at the Garrison in 1862, the only British regiment there was the 21st (Royal Scots Fusiliers). The regimental surgeon, Dr. Green, insisted on the whole regiment being moved to Gun Hill forthwith.
This should have been the responsibility of the Commissariat, but when the arrangements broke down the regimental quartermaster, George Graham, a Crimean veteran Who had distinguished himself at Balaclava, organized the move himself and completed it in two days. According to a local newspaper report, the move involved 900 officers and men, but it is thought that this is much too high a figure.
What is of interest is that not a single death occurred in the regiment after its arrival at Gun Hill.
From this time, until the departure of British troops from Barbados, Gun Hill was in more regular use for regimental camps. The military authorities no doubt recognized that it was desirable to allow the troops some respite from the heat on the coast during the summer months.
Though Gun Hill was not much used for military camps during the first half of the present century, the buildings were kept in repair and the old station was a favourite terminal point of route marches of the Barbados Volunteers.
The lion is a well-known feature of Gun Hill and is certainly worth a visit.
It is best approached by the road signposted ‘Barracks via Gun Hill’ which turns off the main road at the foot of the hill. Stop at the first parking bay on the right and look back. You will see a footpath with an easy gradient which brings you to the lion in fifty yards.
The full-size white lion has been carved out of the coral rock; its upraised left front foot rests on a large globe representing the world.
Underneath is a Latin inscription in two parts; around the border is a quotation, and in the centre are the name and particulars of the person who did the work.
The inscription is virtually our only source of information about the lion.
The quotation reads:
DOMINABITUR A MARI US AD MARE
A FLUMINE US AD TERMINOS
ORBIS TERARUM (sic)
This passage occurs twice in the Authorised (1611)
Version of the Bible (Psalms 72.8 and Zechariah
9.10) and is translated:
He shall have dominion (also) from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth
The sculptor has, of course used this quotation in a different sense from the original, ‘he’ referring to the lion as symbolic of Great Britain.
It is strongly suspected that the quotation was not taken direct from the Bible.
We are fortunate to have large-scale drawing (plans and elevations) of the signal stations as they were in 1851.
The buildings were similar in design, but there were minor variations.
some, like Cotton Tower, had three floors; others, like Gun Hill, had two.
The buildings shown in the drawings are all square, which suggests that the station at Gun Hill, which is hexagonal, was rebuilt later.
All have quarters for two signalmen. The most striking feature is the mast, which in every. purposes already described.
Three years later a decision was taken to effect substantial economies in British military expenditure, and troops were withdrawn from most of the islands.
The signal stations also fell under the axe. The Barbados Government was Informed that their maintenance was no longer considered necessary for military purposes, and that 1t was intended to discontinue payments from the British Treasury for their upkeep. Henceforth the stations were manned by signalmen under the control of the Inspector-General of Police. With the introduction of the telephone into Barbados in 1883 there ceased to be any need for signal stations as a means of passing messages from one point to another, and within a short time all the stations in the country except Gun Hill were leased, but it was made a condition that time balls should continue to be hoisted and that the Government should have the use of the stations if the need should arise.
Highgate was a special case. The businessmen of Bridgetown still relied on Commercial Hall to give them information about the arrival of ships, and Commercial Hall relied on Highgate for this information.
Wrangling over the financial arrangements continued for many years, but it was not until 1961 that the station at Highgate was finally closed.
which suggests that the station at Gun Hill, which is hexagonal, was rebuilt later.
ALL have quarters for two signalmen.
The most striking feature is the mast, which in every 1 seems that arms and flags could be used in combination. In most cases the signalman could send the same message using either arms or flags.
For example, the message The mall boat with troops on board is aground at Kettle Bottom’ could be signalled, by arms, 12, 7, 5-8, or, by flags, RP, RK, TJ.
We have no details of the mechanism for operating the arms. There must have been some sort of ratchet to fix the arms in one of three vertical positions; there must have been a ratchet to allow the signalman to change the arms quickly from one side of the mast to the other; and it must have been possible to swing the arms around from facing north and south to icing east and west.
Though the rods for operating the semaphore arms presumably went through the roof, the flags were hoisted from outside.
At Cotton Tower there is an outside platform, but no platforms are shown on the drawings of 1851, and there does not seem to have been one at Gun Hill.
Signalling instructions mention certain signals which should be hoisted on the small staff’, and an accompanying illustration shows a free-standing flagstaff a short distance from the representation of a signal station. It is thought that the stations in the country did not have a small staff.
New signalling instructions were issued then the International Commercial Code of Signals was introduced in 1870, and a list of official signal stations is given. There were five in the country (Gun Hill, Moncreiffe, Cotton Tower, Grenade Hall and Dover Fort) and six in the Bridgetown area (Highgate, Queen’s House, Needham’s Point, Government House, Central Police Station and Commercial Hall).
By this date most of the signals probably related to the arrival of vessels, and this information was given in more detail at Highgate and Commercial Hall. These two stations. for example, hoisted the appropriate house flags of the local shipping firms, and at Commercial Hall.
A completely different method of signalling, involving cross yards with six hoisting positions, was used. Most of the signals from Government House were to summon meetings of the Council, and for this purpose three special flags (red, white and blue) were used.
Red over white meant that the next meeting would be held on Wednesday; red over white over blue meant that members of the Council should attend forthwith.
A pennant hoisted above the flags meant that the meeting would be held at Government House.
Of most of the eleven signal stations in existence in 1870 very little now remains.
There are no longer signal staffs at Government House or the Central Police Station, and Commercial Hall, which was on the site of the Carlisle car park, has been demolished. The station at Queen’s House, which has also been demolished, was at the western end of the Queen’s College property, and one can still identify the site by the steps cut into the face of the rock at the side of the main road. Nothing at all remains of Moncreiffe, which was half a mile east of District C Police Station;
it is shown in one of the illustrations in Schomburgk’s History of Barbados.
There is not much to see at Needham’s Point or Grenade Hall, and nothing at all at Dover Fort. The building at Highgate still stands, but it is now used by the Police for radio communications and is not open to the public.
The only signal stations still recognizable as such are Gun Hill and Cotton Tower.
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