The Solway Artillery Range – what could go wrong?!

The Solway Artillery Range: those behind the scheme

Cammell Laird is, as its website declares, one of the most famous names in British industry. They aren’t exaggerating when they say it is known across the globe – primarily as a ship builder and repairer.

You can find a timeline of its history on the website – and a lot more

What you can’t find is any reference to the Solway Artillery Range!

Solway Artillery Range, Cumbrian Characters,

‘Near North Plain’

That’s not to say heavy artillery and other weapons have never been tested on the shores of the Solway – there seems to have been a firing range at Silloth in the 1920s.

And at Burgh-by-Sands and Mawbray.

But Cammell Laird’s ambition to test-fire guns with a 12-mile firing range along the estuary don’t seem to feature anywhere but a couple of 1905 newspaper reports.

The location of the Solway Artillery Range was to be ‘near North Plain’. (The 1905 reports would have been of interest to some of my ancestors, as one line of my family lived at/farmed North Plain in the 1800s).

Solway Artillery Range, Cumbrian Characters
North Plain Farm – now an RSPB reserve

There was also to be a light railway, connecting the site to Bowness Station. Plus a magazine for the storage of ammuntion.

The light railway would run alongside the road, from Bowness Railway Station to North Plain. While the magazine would be built near the farm.

Solway Artillery Range approved

Wigton Rural District Council approved the application by Cammell Laird in June 1905.

The Workington Star reported: ‘At ebb tide, a three-mile land range is possible, and a 12-miles seaward range westward may be secured’.

One wonders who at Wigton Rural Council couldn’t see the possible flaws in the idea – but then, the West Cumberland Times does say it was approved: ‘on the recommendation of the Highways Committee.’

Had they asked the Agriculture Committee or the Fisheries Committee or the Sea Committee (if they had such things), it might not have been rubber-stamped.

An obvious flaw, really

As it was, those interests (and common sense) did have outside champions, who were quick to raise objections.

There was a Cumberland Fisheries Board, and an Eden Fisheries Board, who had been informed of the proposal by the national Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Then there was the Cumberland Sea Fisheries Committee, and sea fisheries inspector George Holme.

All of whom were anxious to point out that firing heavy artillery up to 12 miles along a firth used by shipping would be a bad idea.

George Holmes said 113 fishing boats operated between Bowness and Silloth and this would put their lives in danger if they continued to sail – or ruin their livelihood if they didn’t.

Fredrick Whyte, bailiff at Port Carlisle, also pointed out the danger to vessels, which were often hard or impossible to spot at low tide, because of the sand banks.

W Little, chairman of the Eden Fisheries Board, had confidence Messrs Cammel Laird and co would be careful not to shoot when there were any fishermen in the line of fire. 

He also thought the light railway would boost traffic for the North West Railway – and create work in the district.

But given the strong view of the Sea Fisheries Committee, felt the Board had to disapprove as well.

A Mr Collingwood thought it was more a matter for the owners than the fishermen. Which suggests a certain disregard for the poor men who might actually become accidental targets of the big guns!

However, he proposed the Board disapprove of the proposal (seconded Mr Coulthard), and the motion was carried unanimously.

And that appears to have been the end of it, certainly as far a local press interest was concerned.

  • If anyone knows any more about the Solway Artillery Range, do get in touch.