Theme for the Week – Quirky Dorset Part 2


So our theme for this week is ‘Quirky Dorset’ which is all about things that are perhaps a bit odd or puzzling. And this is something that puzzled me all my life until a year or two back when I set myself a task to get to the bottom of it!


The Obelisk
The Obelisk on the Clifftop

In fact there are two things that are quirky here really. As an aside, the first is the weather conditions which you see in the picture above. It is quite normal along this part of the coast to see a mist that pours down off the headlands and into the sea, almost like someone has a giant watering can and is pouring water over the land and watching it run off into the sea below. It is quite a spectacle.

But the main thing, and the subject of this blog post, is the obelisk. In fact there are two of them, both identical, one on the coast path itself and one a quarter of a mile or so inland. They are clearly functional rather than decorative so are not a memorial to anything, but their purpose puzzled me all my life as this is one of my regular walking routes. One day, I placed myself between the two and using my walking pole as an aid, I lined the two up and worked out that in order to see one exactly lined up behind the other, you would need to be over the water somewhere near Portland Harbour. Now this was once a major naval port so I guessed that the obelisks must have something to do with the Royal Navy.

The Obelisk
The Inland Obelisk

So my search started there and the next day, I sat at my desk and made numerous phone calls to people who I thought would be able to help and each one added a little bit of information and suggested someone else to contact. Gradually a picture emerged from the various people and it all came together when I made contact with the Hydrographic Office in Taunton.

The Hydrographic Office is the trading arm of the Ministry of Defence and they provide information and data to mariners and maritime organisations throughout the world, and they were most helpful and enlightening. They did some research for me and they found a reference to the obelisks in a publication entitled The Channel Pilot Part 1 (I believe it is a sort of seaman’s guide to the British coast).  This dates from 1908 and the reference actually says, ‘Two white beacons, 24 feet high for the use of His Majesty’s ships when prize firing, have been erected on high land east of White Nose (now known as White Nothe)’.

Portland and it’s Harbour Across the Water

So part of the puzzle had been solved, but what is or was ‘prize firing’?  Well it was the test of a ship’s proficiency for battle and on Admiralty orders this was to be carried out annually.  Basically it was a yearly competition to see if the naval gunners were any good – if they were then they went into battle and if they weren’t then it was back for more training. Interestingly, here is an extract from some 1902 minutes where Prize Firing was discussed:

‘I beg to ask the Secretary to the Admiralty whether his attention has been drawn to the fact that of the 127 ships that took part in the annual prize firing of 1901, while one ship made over 70 per cent, of hits and two ships made over 65 per cent, of hits, seventy-five ships missed the target eighty-five times out of every 100 rounds, and five ships never hit the target at all, and that one Admirals ship, the “Warspite,” was last of its squadron in heavy gun firing.’

Seems like more training might have been needed!

This doesn’t completely solve the riddle as I am still not sure exactly how the obelisks were used. I understand that with Prize Firing, the ship would be moving at 8 knots whilst firing at a stationary target about a mile away but how the obelisks helped that, I am not sure. Clearly, they had to be lined up when viewed from the ship, but that is about as near as I can get.

For my part, I am just happy that I have at least solved part of the conundrum 🙂 !

Thanks for stopping by.

Until tomorrow,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All photographs, poems and words in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and must not be reproduced without permission.


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