One of the chain of Victorian forts built to defend Milford Haven from perceived attack by the French when Napoleon 111 was casting envious eyes on British territory, sits on the summit of Thorn Island which guards the southern side of the entrance to the Waterway.
The rocky island is perfectly sited strategically, with a commanding view to the south west through the harbour entrance and in sight of two companion forts to the north at West Blockhouse and Dale Pont.
The fort on Thorn Island was built in 1854 with a casemated battery of nine guns. It was improved in 1860 to provide an arc of fire all round, and when it was decommissioned after World War Two, it became a unique hotel, accessible only by boat from Angle on the mainland.
It was one of the chain of forts which became known as ‘Palmerston Follies’, because critics of Viscount Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s Whig Prime Minister from 1855 to 1858, felt he was over-reacting to the French threat and that his massive programme of fort building all round the southern coast of Britain was a costly mistake brought on by unnecessary panic.
Thorn Island was the scene of a celebrated shipwreck in January 1894, a disaster which might well have been the author Compton Mackenzie’s inspiration for his book “Whisky Galore” which was later made into a successful film. The story echoes exactly what the sailing ship Loch Shiel did for the villagers of Angle. The Loch Shiel carried not only whisky, but gunpowder, and both these highly combustible commodities were ‘spirited’ away into local homes, each in its different way used to celebrate weddings and other happy events down the years. The whisky was also directly responsible for the deaths of three local men, one from alcoholic poisoning, the other two by drowning when their boat capsized as they tried to tow a keg ashore. The ship was on passage from its home port of Glasgow bound for Adelaide and Melbourne when she went off course in heavy seas and struck Thorn Island. The ship was sinking rapidly by the stern, and the Master Thomas Davies, odered the boats to be launched. A mattress soaked with paraffin was set alight as a distress beacon - a rather risky action in view of the cargo - and St Ann’s Head Coastguards alerted Angle lifeboat, which was launched from its station two miles away. The lifeboat’s bow was manoeuvred skilfully to the mizzen rigging of the sinking vessel, from the top of which six men were brought to safety. The lifeboat then went to the lee side of the island where the remaining passengers and crew had climbed along the jib-boom onto the rocks. Together with Lifeboatmen Edward Ball and Thomas Rees, the Lifeboat Secretary, R. W. Mirehouse, who was on the lifeboat, crawled along a narrow cliff ledge with a rope and lantern to rescue the 27 survivors, then made the difficult journey back the same way.