The well at Fort Regent

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The well at Fort Regent

This article by William Davies was first published in the 1970 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Earth-moving operations

During the construction of Fort Regent as a defensive complex many fine engineering achievements were realised. These largely comprised gigantic earth-moving operations to form artificial ditches and other military hindrances, as well as the manhandling of large pieces of masonry into precipitous situations.

Indeed, the average weight of the stones forming the outer face of the scarp of the Fort is in excess of half a ton and even with to-days mechanical aids, the masons who have recently worked on the conversion of the Fort soon found that they had cause to respect their forefathers.

Local labour

I say forefathers without fear of contradiction since we know that most of the labour, and certainly the principal craftsmen, were of Jersey stock: John Gallie was the master-mason, John Le Sueur the master-smith, whilst Charles Le Bouef was the master-carpenter.

But it is doubtful if perhaps the greatest individual accomplishment can be attributed to Jerseymen: this particular item was the sinking of the enormous well through the com¬pact syenite of Ie Mont de la Ville and as it necessitated the highly specialised craft of mining by explosive, it seems more probable that this task was undertaken by troops of the half-company of Royal Military Artificers (later the Royal Sappers and Miners and later still, the Royal Engineers) then stationed in the island under the command of Lieut¬Colonel John Humfrey RE.

In 1550 Edward VI decreed that the townsfolk should move lock, stock and barrel to the top of Mont de la Ville, on the grounds that it was easily defensible, but nothing was done about it, which is not suprising because although the town was of a modest size in those days, it was still a tall order.

Lack of water

However, it is unlikely that this was the only reason for rejecting the King's dictum and ET Nicolle in his book "The Town of St Helier" was probably near the mark when he asserted that the lack of water at the top of the hill was the crux of the matter.

Certainly, there are many instances in history to show that a shortage of water has reduced otherwise formidable strongholds to speedy capitulation and Humfrey, when preparing his plans for Fort Regent, readily appreciated this defect. The Colonel had much personal experience of well-sinking and tackled this particularly difficult under-taking on le Mont de la Ville with dogged determination.

The sinking of the well commenced in December 1806, and was not completed until nearly two years later in October 1808. Progress was not swift, which is understandable bearing in mind the appalling conditions the men were working in, and as a plain and sobering thought the amount of stone removed from the shaft exceeded 1,400 tons.

Slow progress

In these tortuous circumstances it is not surprising that the average rate of sinking was barely more than ten feet per month, but an official document shows that in February, 1807, only three feet was excavated, giving a fair indication of the difficulties that were encountered.

Needless to say, in order to achieve the overall average better months were recorded, but even these - December 1806 and June 1808 - only accounted for a modest thirteen feet each.

Considering that excavations during the first mentioned month were virtually at ground level, the credit must go to the latter, since at that time the depth of excavation was of the order of 170 feet, and it is all the more remarkable if one gives thought not only to the crudity of the explosive used, but more particularly to the simple and temperamental time fuses that created ignition - sometimes.

Work appears to have stopped entirely during the month of April 1807, and the reason for this has not been ascertained with certainty but it is likely that the Commanding Royal Engineer of the Jersey Station had more urgent needs for his miners, either at the Fort itself or on the numerous military structures and highways that were hastily being constructed during these troubled and desperate years.

Whatever may be the explanation, we may accept that Humfrey was much too realistic and practical to waste the talents of these highly specialised men parsimoniously.


Most of the facts concerning this well are fairly thoroughly documented in a professional paper published by the Royal Engineers in 1840. This was written by Major Harry D Jones, who was stationed at the Fort in 1839. There can be no doubt that his investigations were thorough, even though some of his statistics differ from those given on a drawing dated 1814.

Whilst these discrepancies are not of particular importance, they are nevertheless worth noting: the drawing asserts that the depth of the well is 226ft, whereas Jones claims it to be 235ft, and the former indicates that the casemated cisterns under the Parade have a capacity of 12,000 gallons, against 16,000 suggested by the Major.

Jones' statistics coincide with those of the last RE survey of the Fort carried out in 1932 (it is acknowledged that these may have been gleaned from his data) and there is no reason to dispute them, since it is apparent that he did a lot of personal research on site and he seems to have been a painstaking man. In any event, whichever information is correct does not detract from the magnitude of the task under consideration.

Fascinating reading

Major Jones' description of the culminating moments in this relentless search for water on le Mont de la Ville makes fascinating reading:

"After sinking through 235 feet of compact rock, and upon firing a blast, the spring was laid open, the water from which rose in the shaft to a height of 70 feet, and has rarely since been lower. During the progress of the work water had been found at different points, but not in any quantity sufficient to retard the workmen, until the lucky blast above mentioned, when it poured in like a torrent to the great astonishment of the miners, who were suspended in the bucket, waiting the effects of the explosion".

No one will deny that the miners of those days were made of strong stuff, and it is also probable that they had become accustomed to their tomb-like working conditions, but to suggest that they were only subjected to great astonishment when this startling incident occured surely is an understatement of considerable measure.

The sheer experience of suspension in an open bucket in a deep dark shaft whilst a hearty charge was exploded beneath must in itself have been unenviable, but to have listened to this great surge of water in the unrevealing murk, wondering how soon it would envelop them, must have been a fearsome experience. For my part, I would have used stronger words than Major Jones.

Thus an abundant water supply for the new island citadel was at last realised and this must have given enormous satisfaction to the Lieut-Governor, General Sir George Don, since it meant that Fort Regent now was so much better equipped to withstand siege, should that desperate state of affairs arise.


The tenacity of the miners was duly rewarded and the Storekeeper's records show that 976 lb of candles, 1,659 bushels of coal, 2,848 lb of gunpowder, 82 gallons of lamp oil and 9,852 miners' tubes were consumed in this operation, which cost £2,599 8s 7½, slightly more than £10 per foot. This charge, however, was exclusive of pumping machinery and other incidentals.


The pump was manufactured by Henry Maudslay, an outstanding marine engineer of the day, and its modus operandi is illustrated in general terms on Humfrey's drawing.

Regrettably the Maudslay Historical Society is unable to identify this particular installation in its records, but according to the indefatigable Major Jones:

"The pump is 4 inches diameter, with brass bucket and valves, with 195 feet of wrought iron rod, jointed every 10 feet, and 18 ten-feet lengths of 5-inch iron pipe. Cost, £495 15s."
"The machinery for working a bucket from the horse-wheel, independent of the pump, consisting of a barrel on the horizontal shaft, with clutch box, lever, and pulleys for leading the ropes, cost about £35. In the casemate over the well room are two hand pumps for raising water from the cisterns, to prevent waste, and for the convenience of the troops: these cost about £24. Thus the total cost of the well, including excavation and machinery amounted to £3,267 3s 9½d.

Although both Humfrey and Jones refer to the use of horses as the motive power, it is doubtful if these ever were used - certainly if the present means of access to the pump room is in its original form. The pump lifted water through a height of a little over two hundred feet and Major Jones claims that:

"Twenty-four men working for two hours, without fatiguing themselves, can with ease pump into the cisterns 800 gallons of water".


The identity of the person or persons who located the spring in the first place unfortunately is not on record, but it is unlikely that it was left entirely to water-divining. If it was, the poor man responsible must have suffered many moments of trepidation during the 22 months of well-sinking, for if water had not been found in abundance it would have been a costly failure in terms not only of money and effort but also to the security of Fort Regent as a defensive stronghold.

Even to this day water-divining has a touch of mystery about it, being an ability which some people possess whilst others do not, though it is one thing to locate a spring but quite another matter to assess its depth and yield.

To apply this ability at a depth in excess of two hundred feet, and bearing in mind that the supply had to be sufficient to serve a garrison under siege, the problem is one of unbelievable enormity and it is questionable whether even the most renowned diviner could do this with reasonable certainty.

But it is a known fact that Colonel Humphry had previous experience of well-sinking at Sheerness and Harwich, and there is evidence to suggest that he carefully surveyed existing wells around the periphery of the hill.

Major Jones declares that:

"There were no springs upon the surface of the hill, nor anything indicating on the faces of the scarped rock that it contained such an abundant supply of water: it must consequently have been the conviction that water would be found by sinking to the same level as the water stood in the pigeon-pump, in Hill Street, (240 yards distant from the point where the well in the fort has been sunk) that Major Humfrey (sic), the Commanding Engineer, was induced to recommend the attempt being made".

This is but one indication that Humfrey approached the problem scientifically, though Major Jones' paper leaves no doubt that he personally was intrigued by the ethereal art of water-divining, and it is tempting to believe that he first learned of the technique in Jersey.

In September, 1839, through the good offices of the Lieut-Governor, Major General Sir Edward Gibbs, who "procured the attendance of a M Ingouville, a respectable farmer about 70 years of age, who came prepared with his baguette divinatoire ... " the Major witnessed a demonstration with obvious astonishment. He states that:

"The baguette is a forked twig of hazel, about 18 inches long from the fork; it is held in the hand .... and as the person approaches the spot where the water is to be found, a tremulous motion is observed in the twig, which, as the holder of it advances, by degrees commences bowing its head ... ".

There is no suggestion in the paper that M Ingouville was responsible for locating the spring at Fort Regent, though judging by his age he would certainly have been around at the time it was established, and we must suppose that this monumental exercise was undertaken in a more sophisticated manner.

Whatever the full explanation might be there is no question other than that it was an unqualified success, since the level of water at the present time is much the same as that claimed by Major Harry Jones to whom I owe my deepest gratitude in the preparation of this brief account of the well at Fort Regent.

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