A Short History of the Blockhouse

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A Short History of the Blockhouse

#1 Post by silveryfox » Mon Apr 08, 2013 8:34 pm


I first published this article for review in the VIP section in two parts, before consolidating them and adding new content and references. The article is quite long (for which I apologise!), however as I say in the conclusion at the end the article uses documentary evidence to prove that the Blockhouse was (probably) built 40 years later than is generally accepted.

I hope you enjoy the article, and I welcome any comments.

Best Regards

Blockhouse Island is a small island just inside the mouth of Carlingford Lough(1), and lies close to Haulbowline Lighthouse. The Island is the southern-most offshore part of Northern Ireland, and is so-named because of the old blockhouse, (or artillery fort), which was constructed on it in times past, however just when and why this was built are not precisely or conclusively known.

The Island was was granted along with Green Island and other parcels of land on both sides of the Lough to Arthur Bagenall via a Royal Patent in 1615. These land titles passed from the Bagenall family to the Needhams and thus to the Kilmorey Estate(2) , which in 1968 gifted both islands to the National Trust (3). Blockhouse and its companion islands became a sanctuary for bird life, but this is less true today than it was 40 years ago, with bird populations having largely moved off the island due to the progressive and ongoing impacts of erosion and rising sea levels.

Blockhouse Island was previously known as Ennis Moore (Great Island)(4) , and as Nun’s Island(5) , (note there was also a Nun’s Island at Narrow Water(6) ).

The blockhouse itself was previously known as Carlingford Fort(7) , and is said by different sources to have variously been built in the mid to late sixteenth century, in 1602, ((towards the end of the Irish Wars in Queen Elizabeth the First’s reign), in the early to mid-1600s, or finally during the Napoleonic Wars (1790-1815), and it is also said to have been built to guard and defend against Spanish, Irish, Scots, English Parliamentary Forces or French invasion.

Despite its exposure to the weather, a substantial part of the blockhouse still remained in the mid-1950s, when archaeologists photographed and measured it in preparation for future activity, however today all that is left are a part of one wall and a few scattered stones, and the archaeologists have concluded that there is little hope or point in preserving what is left.

Ulster Television’s Coasts and Outposts series featured the Blockhouse in 2010. The programme displayed a 20th Century postcard view of the Blockhouse. A National Trust spokesman also stated that the blockhouse was probably built around 1605 to deny the Spanish access via the Lough to Newry and to the rest of Ulster via Armagh, (citing an entry in the Calendar of State Papers of Ireland of that year, which recommended the construction of a blockhouse), before suggesting that the current ruinous state of the building was probably caused by the Royal Navy using it for target practice.

In April, 2005, as part of the Bi-Centenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar, (which took place on 21st October, 1805, and was fought between the Royal Navy and the combined Spanish and French fleets), funding was allocated for a collaborative effort between experts of the National Trust, Environment and Heritage Service and the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Ulster at Coleraine to investigate the blockhouse remains, and also the shore of the island and the surrounding waters.

Excavations were kept to a minimum, and “three small box-sections were cut through the deposits to assess the potential for surviving archaeological material. Two of these revealed a marine deposit of coarse sand and shells some 0.35m deep above the natural bedrock of the island. The third uncovered a 0.25m-thick deposit of the same wave-deposited material, but this lay on a 0.15m-thick layer of clean grey clay above the irregular surface of the bedrock. The clay is unlikely to have been a natural deposit and, as it occurs on the projected line of the northern wall of one of the gun platforms, it may have been brought to the island when the platform was being built or repaired. One possibility is that it was used to level up the surface of the island and provide a bed for the foundations of the platform and it may also have provided a degree of weatherproofing at the base of the masonry(8) .”

In the Archaeological Survey of County Down (1966) the blockhouse was described as “originally consisting of an apsidal-fronted tower flanked by a pair of gun platforms(9)” . An apsidal fortification is semi-circular in shape, with the rounded face facing the direction of the threat, (in this case towards the mouth of the Lough). This shape is significant in that apsidal-fronted blockhouses, forts or towers were a feature of Welsh rather than English or Irish fortification design.

Margaret Gowen wrote an article for the Clogher Record in 1980 (10), which stated when covering the decade 1641-1651 “.....the blockhouse was re-used.”, however she qualifies this statement by saying in a footnote “A date of late 16th century has been suggested for this blockhouse on the basis of structural similarity to Brownsea Castle (1540) (Jope, 1966, 230). However, in the light of an S.P. entry in 1602 proposing that “a fort.....be cast up in the bay there” (CSPI [Calendar of State Papers of Ireland] 1601-03, 378), it is likely to have been built sometime after 1602.

Most other modern sources also quote 1602 as the year of construction. The justification for this construction date is an entry in the Calendar of State Papers of Ireland, (CSPI), a collection of papers from Lords Deputy and other functionaries of the English government in Ireland of King Henry VIII, Queens Mary, Elizabeth I, and successive English monarchs.

On 28th April, 1602 the then Lord Deputy of Ireland, (Charles Blount, sixth Baron Mountjoy, later first Earl of Devonshire), sent a letter to members of Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council in which he wrote “.....With a view to meeting the designs, present or future, of Spain we have considered the placing of forts to countenance some great towns and secure some of the harbours. Unless the places mentioned are fortified and well garrisoned, we think there will be danger of invasion, and that the Spaniards will be encouraged to make another attempt; but if they hear of our fortification works they may desist, and turn their malice another way.....” . The letter then recommends new, repaired or extended fortifications at Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, Kinsale and Carlingford.

For Carlingford the letter recommends “A fort to be cast up in the bay in the island there. This will secure the harbour against the enemy though he come with a strong fleet. It may be thought that the enemy will not venture his fleet so far between two hostile lands but if he does, and gets in past the island, he can capture Carlingford and Newry and so all the North east of the Bann.” (11)

However, while a number of coastal artillery forts were built in Ireland during the period 1601-1604, notably at Kinsale, the CSPI documents provide no confirmation that the Carlingford blockhouse was actually built during this period. Fynes Moryson in his An history of Ireland, from the year 1599 to 1603 notes “her Majesty gave allowance....to build a fort at Galway, and at Carlingford, (but this last was not effected, his Lordship less fearing the descent of foreign forces within St George’s Channel)”(12)

The Irish Wars, as they were known, concluded around 1603, with the Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill - one of the Irish leaders), being granted a pardon and retaining all of his lands in the area. However over the next several years the Earl became increasingly aware of political activity intended to ruin his reputation and confiscate his properties, and this plus the punitive activity against Roman Catholics generally after the war decided him to flee in 1608 along with other family members and retainers to Europe (this became known as “The Flight of the Earls”).

The next mention of any building of military defences in or around Carlingford Lough in the Calendar of State Papers of Ireland (CSPI) occurs in 1644. Three years earlier, on 22 October, 1641, there was an Irish uprising, a detailed description of which is beyond the scope of this document, (however its background is described elsewhere(13) ). The next day Newry was taken by the forces of Sir Con Magennis.

On 3 April, 1642 Major-General Robert Monro landed at the head of a 10,000-strong Scottish relief army at Carrickfergus, (then called Knockfergus), sent by the Scottish Parliament. The army's purpose was to ensure the safety of Scots settlers, primarily in Down and Antrim. His army set off southwards, and re-took Newry.

At the end of July, 1642 Owen Roe O’Neill (nephew of Hugh, and also known as Owen Mac Art), landed at Doe Castle, County Donegal, with his officers, money and arms. He was an experienced military commander on the Continent, and at once began to recruit and train an army. The next month the English Civil War commenced, (the English Parliament against King Charles I), further complicating an already complicated situation.

In October, 1642 the Old English, native Irish and clergy formed the Council of the “Confederate Catholics of Ireland” at Kilkenny. This pitched them against the English forces, however the Old English contingent were eager to cut a deal with Charles 1 and on 15 September 1643 a truce or “Cessation of Arms” was agreed with the Marquis of Ormonde, who commanded the Royalist forces in Ireland.

In late 1642 the Earl of Antrim had gone to court at Oxford to tell the King he could provide 10,000 Irish recruits to take the field in Scotland against the Scottish Parliamentary forces. The King was interested in the proposal of troops for Scotland, and instructed the Marquis of Ormonde to arrange it, working with his Scottish commander, the Marquis of Montrose. Carlingford was at this time the only port under Ormonde's direct control, more Southerly ports being both under the control of the Council at Kilkenny and/or blockaded by English Parliamentary forces. On 10th February, 1643, the Marquis of Ormonde sent a letter to the Marquis of Montrose, in which he said “.....I already foresee the greatest difficulty may be shipping, for transportation of men, which yet I hope to procure; but if your lordship could send vessels, either of burden or force, to Carlingford, (where I will immediately build a fort to secure the harbour), it would much facilitate the work.....

On 21st March, 1644 the Marquis of Ormonde wrote to the Council of Kilkenny, referring to Carlingford and saying “......we have a good while since given order to build a block-house in the mouth of that harbour, which we hope is in good forwardness by this time, and will be finished before your men be there.....

The headquarters of the Scottish forces were at Carrickfergus. Up to the 27th of April, 1644, Monro had the command only of the Scottish army, but on that day the English Parliament gave him a commission, under their new Broad Seal, to command in chief all the English, as well as the Scotch forces in Ulster:

"The English officers, [who were loyal to King Charles I rather than his Parliament], greatly troubled about what course they should take in these new circumstances, met to consider their position in Belfast, on Monday, the 13th of May. They met in the evening, and, adjourning their consultation to the next morning, had retired to their lodgings, when a soldier of Colonel Chichester's regiment, coming from Carrickfergus, brought advice that Monro had given orders for the garrison of that place - Colonel Hume's and other Scotch regiments — to be ready to march at two o'clock next morning to Belfast. The guards thereupon were strengthened, and every officer ordered upon duty. This being done, some horse were sent as scouts to make discoveries, who, returning about six in the morning, positively affirmed that they had been within three miles of Carrickfergus, and that the whole country was clear, without a man to be seen.

Upon this advice the guards were all discharged, except the ordinary watch, and the officers, who had been all night upon duty, retired to their rest. About an hour after Monro was descried within half a mile of the town, advancing with great speed towards one of the gates, which (before the drum could beat and the garrison be drawn together to make opposition) was opened to him by a sergeant of Captain MacAdam's and the soldiers of the guard ; so thus he marched orderly through the place till he came to the opposite or south gate leading to Lisnagarvey [now Lisburn] and then directed his men, in several parties, to possess themselves of the bulwarks, cannon, and guards.

The garrison was, in fact, betrayed, the scouts having been bought over by Monro."

A Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Mathew marched a small number of troops out of Belfast the same night to reinforce his Newry garrison; he was the Governor of Newry, Narrow Water, Greencastle and Carlingford castles. Previously he had briefly been Governor of Belfast and of Lisburn (then known as Lisnagarvey).

Edmund and his brother George Mathew were from the Radyr, Glamorganshire branch of the Mathew family, and had both emigrated some time in the period 1610-1620. George had married the widowed Dowager Countess of Thurles, mother to the Marquis of Ormonde, and subsequently was Manager of the Marquis's landholdings. Father Theobald Mathew (the "Temperance Priest"), who consecrated St Peter's Church in 1841 is a descendant of this family.

Edmund Mathew saw the Scots as the major military threat to Ormonde's forces and interests, and undertook significant efforts to complete the upgrading of military defences under his command. The following incident reinforced this belief.

In July, 1644 Mathew sent the following message to the Marquis:

"Newry, July 14, 1644.
Most Honorable, — This last Friday I had intelligence of the Scotts marching towards this town, who had lain the night before at Dundalk, and behaved themselves very civilly towards that garrison, not attempting anything to the prejudice of that place, as I was informed by the four troops of Lisnagarvey, who had the van that day. But when the General Major came up with the rest of the army, he drew up on a hill before the town, little more than musket shot. Afterwards he came down himself, my Lord Montgomery, Major Rawdon, and other gentlemen towards this town, who when I saw I commanded the gates to be opened, coming as I conceived in a peaceable manner. And meeting him at the parade where our men were drawn up, he demanded passage to march through the town. I replied and told him there was a highway road by the town which was as convenient as the town; upon which he, in a great rage, demanded of me whether I durst deny him way through his own garrison, attempting to lay his hand to his pistol, and riding up to the musketeers with his cane, in a great fury, commanding them off their duties. But presently I gave order to cock their matches and present. Captain Parkins, being at the head of a party, drew his sword and gave order to fire. My gentleman was assuaged and very calm, desiring leave to march with his artillery through the town, by reason the waters were so high they could not pass over. Presently I commanded the men to return their matches, and answered him that I had warning sufficient of Belfast ; neither would I suffer either artillery or anything else to come within the gates as long as I was able to defend myself. He still pressed the garrison to belong to himself, being within the province of Ulster. But I told him I was not placed nor had it by him, neither ought I to give account to any but your excellency. And for the affront he so directly offered me in my command I would not be so rash as he, but would give him liberty to go out as freely as he came in. Then calling for some beer drank two or three cups with him, and gave orders to open the gates. Within an hour after he sent a drum and a sergeant to me with this message, wishing me and the rest of our officers to advise by the next morning whether his men might be suffered to march through the town. But to be short, I told the messenger that I would not vary from the answer the General-Major had himself received of me. "Then," saith he, “you must hear the other part of my Lord's will," which was that if we would not give him way he would force his own way, and therefore bade us be upon our guard. Whereupon, having four colours, I caused them to be stuck upon the top of the castle, the church, our main guard, and those places that we thought to defend, and manned the walls the best we could, being both officers and soldiers all of one mind..

Afterwards he sent Sir James Montgomery, my Lord Blayney, and other English officers to persuade me to give way for him to come through the town, who courted me as if he had been to have wooed his mistress. I told him it was to no purpose, for we were resolved to lose our lives rather than hazard such an affront as was formerly given at Belfast. All that night we were upon our guard, and expected the next morning an assault. About eight o'clock they marched with their bag and baggage through the river, within carabine shot of our trench; went very peaceably away, but threatened within a fortnight to bring artillery should fetch down our colours off our castles. This hath been the passage between us, some part whereof his bearer, Mr. Brackenbury, was an eye- witness and can testify to your Lordship.

Your Excellency,
Most obedient and faithful servant,
Ed. Mathew"

On 27th August 1644 the Marquis wrote to Edmund Mathew, saying “You now, by Captain Ellis, receive the two chambers [or cannon] you writ for by yours of the 24th of this month, each capable to shoot a ball of four pound according to the captain's directions in that behalf. You also receive by him thirty muskets (to furnish part of these men that have lately come to you unarmed), being all that in present we can spare out of these stores ; whence we cannot furnish you with any of the other particulars, as is desired, there being none thereof in the store. We have understood by the said captain that you are in a great want of a gunner, and have therefore in supply thereof sent you Henry Barrett to be employed in that behalf. You are to allow the gunner now sent five shillings weekly pay, which we shall add to your list.

On 7th November, 1644 the Marquis of Ormonde wrote “.....I have struggled, as long as I am able, to keep a garrison in the Newry; but that with other charges are grown so unsupportable by me, that I fear I must shortly quit it ; I pray endeavour to make me hold out, till I hear from the Councillors.....

In those days the Marquis of Ormond was expected to spend his own money on provisioning military forces, in anticipation of remuneration by a grateful King, or, after the Cessation of September, 1643, from the Council at Kilkenny.

On March 27th 1645 Mathew wrote to Ormond, saying “I am hastening forward the fortifying of the Island ; the greatest difficulty is to burn lime which I have all in readiness. Other necessaries, of crows, pickaxes, and shovels I have expected before this time, with the rest of the Artillery.....My Lord, our month's victuals is at an end, and I have sent on purpose this gentleman Captain Poyntz for another supply. Some herrings are yet left but we want bread-corn, and the officers their monthly allowance, which I desire your Excellency speedily may be remedied. Those few inhabitants at the Newry are soliciting me daily for moneys that I borrowed from them formerly, but I persuaded them to forbear till I go up myself.

On the 14th June, 1645, the Marquis of Ormond said in a letter to the Earl of Clanricard “.....By a letter from Colonel Mathew, I find he doubts the new Scots, in the absence of these to march, have a design upon the Newry, Greencastle and a little island of great importance that I am now fortifying as fast as I can get wherewithal.....

On 23rd August, 1645 Colonel Edmund Mathew wrote to the Marquis of Ormonde “The gabboat arrived here, very safe, and we have mounted the guns upon the fort, which is now defensible against all the strength of Scotland (having provision). The corn distributed amongst the several garrisons will serve for three weeks' provision.

In October, 1645, Colonel Edmund Mathew “.....succumbed, not to Munro and the Scots, but to death, brought on by his constant fatigues in strengthening Newry and his out garrisons of Greencastle and Carlingford, and in building blockhouses on the rocks in the mouth of Carlingford Bay against the ships of the Parliament” (14)This statement was made by John Patrick Pendergrast, an eminent Dublin lawyer and archivist, who was directly involved with the collation and transcription of the CSPI papers and their interpretation. Note his use of the plural “blockhouses".

So, was the Blockhouse ever used in anger?

King Charles I was beheaded by the English Parliamentiary Army in January, 1649, and Oliver Cromwell's forces landed at Dublin in August of that year. Cromwell laid siege to and took Drogheda (then called Tredagh) with much slaughter, before turning South to Wexford, leaving Colonel Robert Venables to push Northwards. A warship was loaded with siege cannon and despatched from Drogheda to Carlingford, while Venables and his men marched overland. Venables summonsed and took Carlingford, Narrow Water and Newry before pressing onwards to Armagh and Belfast.

On 27 September, 1649 Cromwell sent a letter to the Speaker of the Dublin Parliament; in it he said "I had not received any Account from Col. Venables (whom I sent from Drogheda to endeavour the reducing of Carlingford, and so to march ' Northward towards a conjunction with Sir Charles Coote) until the last Night. After he came to Carlingford, having summoned the Place, both the three Castles and the Fort commanding the Harbour were rendered to him; wherein were about 40 Barrels of Powder, seven Pieces of Cannon, about 1000 Muskets, and 500 Pikes wanting 20. In the entrance into the Harbour Capt. Fern, aboard your Man of War, had some Danger, being much shot at from the Sea Fort, a bullet shooting through his Main Mast. The Captain's entrance into that Harbour was a considerable adventure, and a good service

Owen Roe O’Neill died in November, 1649, and the English Parliamentarians routed the Irish forces at the Battle of Scariffhollis in June, 1650. Charlemont Fort, the last Northern stronghold of Irish forces, surrendered on 14th August, 1650. Occasional fighting continued until Philip O’Reilly surrendered in April, 1653, when the uprising was considered formally over.

The blockhouse was kept manned for some years afterwards, however with the building of a good road system the need for sea defences declined, and its use changed to that of providing quarantine for goods from foreign countries. In 1825 the House of Lords examined a Mr James McNeil (Tide Surveyor and Pratique Master at Carlingford, County Louth):

"Vessels with foul bills have arrived at Carlingford? — Yes, repeatedly I understand.
They have never been subject to any opening of their cargoes ? — Never more than taking it on deck, at least in my recollection ; at the entrance of the port there is a block-house, and it is mentioned in that proclamation that the goods are to be aired there.
Have they ever been so? — Not that I know of, I have heard of goods being aired at the block-house.
Is that block-house in a state of repair still? — It is not.
If a ship arrived with a foul bill, would you not think it necessary to have recourse to landing them there? — I do not think a cargo could be aired there ; a nautical gentleman to whom I have spoken thinks it could not, on account of the run of the tide there is at that spot; it is immediately at the entrance of the bar, and there is bad anchorage. I think I have heard that goods have been aired at it; but it must be in very good weather; it would be impossible to get at it in bad.

By "foul bills" what is meant are vessels which arrived at Carlingford without a signed affadavit from their last port of call that the vessel was plague-free. While medical science was not advanced at that time, it was assumed beneficial that the cargoes of such vessels were exposed to the open air for a time to get rid of "foul humours" in advance of the vessel reaching port.

The Customs post was transferred from Carlingford to Newry as early as 1726, and the Coastguard function soon thereafter, leaving Carlingford itself and, by association, the Blockhouse, to begin a long, slow decline.


I think there is sufficient documentary evidence here to show that building of the Blockhouse commenced in 1643-1644 (rather than repaired and/or re-used), and completed around 1645. Further, it was built specifically to assuage fears of a Scottish rather than an Irish invasion of the area. This would make it one of the last such blockhouse fortifications built in the British Isles.

Pendergrast's use of "blockhouses" above is interesting. In 1748 Thomas Wright published a book entitled Louthiana, (15), containing descriptions of of military buildings and other older antiquities in County Louth. In his description of Carlingford Castle he states ".....On one side of it there appears to have been a platform or battery, which some time or other may have been adapted for the Defence of the Harbour, which is one of the finest in Ireland" A draft Conservation Management Plan for Carlingford Town Walls(16), notes "A doorway in the east wall at basement level leading to an external platform are probably post-medieval additions which may represent a gun-port and gun-platform." but omits to note that the doorway is walled up, making the platform inaccessible from the rest of the castle structure.

On the suggestion that "the current ruinous state of the building was probably caused by the Royal Navy using it for target practice", I've found nothing to support this, however the 8th April, 2013 issue of The Argus, a Dundalk, County Louth newspaper, contains a Yesteryear section, with selected extracts from the 18th October, 2002 issue of the same paper; included is the following statement:

"The ‘Block House’ at the mouth of Carlingford Lough which had helped guard the approach to the Lough for 400 years was swept away by high winds and tides."(17)

(1) Latitude +54.03, Longitude -6.08, Grid Reference J2556 0969
(2) See http://www.proni.gov.uk/introduction_ki ... 2638-2.pdf
(3) The islands are leased to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which manages them at no cost to the Trust.
(4) See http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.anc ... AMES/E.htm
(5) See http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9x4w ... ns&f=false
(6) See http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nRcF ... &q&f=false
(7) Oilean: A Guide to the Irish Islands David Walsh Page 29 (see http://www.iol.ie/~dwalco/oileain.htm )
(8) See http://www.excavations.ie/Pages/Details ... n&id=13423
(9) An Archaeological Survey of County Down 1966 E.M. Jope (Editor)
(10) 17th Century Artillery Forts in Ulster, Clogher Record, 1980, Margaret Gowen
(11) Calendar of State Papers of Ireland (CSPI) 1601-03, 78 Note that copies of these are available online via the Internet Archive - see http://www.archive.org
(12) See http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/A ... edir_esc=y
(13) Multiple sources are available via a Google search, however the Wikipedia entry is a good starting source (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Rebellion_of_1641
(14) The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland 1872 (see http://archive.org/details/journalroyalhis03irelgoog)
(15) Louthiana: Or, an Introduction to the Antiquities of Ireland. in Upwards of Ninety Views and Plans: . Divided Into Three Books. See http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookD ... Dlouthiana
(16) Carlingford Town Walls, County Louth, Conservation Management Plan, Draft Text, May 2007 - see http://www.louthheritage.ie/content/fil ... anComp.pdf. For a modern graphic of the Castle layout see http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-r ... -johns-ca/, with the gun platform to the right of the structure - in the upper part of the graphic the doorway is labelled "blocked door under"; in the lower part of the graphic the blocked doorway is labelled as "modern" in origin, the next earliest category being "15th-16th Century".
(17) The Argus, 8th April, 2013, Yesteryear Section (see http://www.independent.ie/regionals/arg ... 19041.html)

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Re: A Short History of the Blockhouse

#2 Post by Brian » Tue Apr 09, 2013 12:17 am

Well done Jim, an excellent article and well researched :D

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Re: A Short History of the Blockhouse

#3 Post by Deirdre » Tue Apr 09, 2013 7:41 am

Thanks so much Jim.. I am currently reading a book called Dissolution. So was researching more on Cromwell. Then your article appeared. Thank you again. Most interesting. Great research..

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Re: A Short History of the Blockhouse

#4 Post by dabarry » Tue Apr 09, 2013 10:43 am


Thank you for posting a very
interesting article.

Well researched and enjoyable read.

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