I didn’t expect to fall over anything from the period when I went to visit Bamburgh castle for a friend’s birthday, but as it turned out one of the first things we found was a row of late 18th and early 19th century cannon on the castle wall.
The first, and smallest, was an 18 pound cannon supplied (or at least promised) by the king in 1781 ‘for the protection of ships passing’.
By this time the castle was already in the hands of Lord Crewe’s charity, having passed out of the hands of the Forster family.
A larger 32 pound gun was added a few years later – bought, this time, and transported by a local ship to save on delivery costs.
In between are two 24 pound guns probably acquired in 1798, when the French were threatening to invade.
These guns are marked both with the government ‘broad arrow’, and the stylised N which shows they were intended for naval use, as well as figures indicating the weight of the gun and carriage.
You don’t really expect castles to be carrying on a defensive role by this period, but it is a very good position for watching the sea.
Various charitable activities were carried on in the castle, including schools and a hospital, and during the wars, when grain prices were high, a mill was set up to sell flour to locals at a reduced price.
Another project was the ‘signals made use of… in case ships or vessels are perceived in distress, and of the charitable institutions established there for their assistance and relief’ as the Newcastle Trinity House described them in 1771 – two years before the first lighthouse was built on the Farne Islands.
These smaller guns were fired as a warning to let the locals – custom officers and castle tenants – aware of ships on the rocks in need of assistance.
As well as the guns, a bell was to be rung in fog, to warn ships from the rocks, and watchers set during storms. A flag was hoisted on the castle to let a ship in trouble know that it had been seen – in return, ‘Masters and Commanders of ships or vessels in distress, are desired to make such signals as are usually made by people in their melancholy situation.’
Once rescued, shipwrecked sailors were provided with bed and lodging for a week, while any dead bodies were given a coffin and funeral services, and goods washed ashore could be stored in the castle until claimed by their owners.