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The Cat's Coffin World War II pillbox, Old Town, St Mary's

A Scheduled Monument in St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly

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Latitude: 49.9124 / 49°54'44"N

Longitude: -6.3012 / 6°18'4"W

OS Eastings: 91324.039797

OS Northings: 10228.324

OS Grid: SV913102

Mapcode National: GBR BXTX.JKP

Mapcode Global: VGYC4.QGPH

Entry Name: The Cat's Coffin World War II pillbox, Old Town, St Mary's

Scheduled Date: 2 July 1999

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1016514

English Heritage Legacy ID: 15531

County: Isles of Scilly

Civil Parish: St. Mary's

Traditional County: Cornwall

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cornwall

Church of England Parish: Isles of Scilly

Church of England Diocese: Truro


The monument includes a World War II pillbox, known as the Cat's Coffin, in
the village of Old Town and behind Old Town Bay on the south coast of
St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. It is built against the northern side of a
raised bank carrying the modern road around the rear of the bay. When built,
the pillbox occupied the edge of a small field, subsequently developed for
housing so that it now straddles the southern edge of two gardens.
Externally the pillbox has a rectangular plan; internally the south east and
south west corners are truncated as small wall facets to accommodate gun
loopholes. A concrete raft floor supports walls largely faced by a double skin
of mortared concrete blocks infilled by a solid concrete core; the exception
to this is the southern, forward, face of the pillbox which was effectively
camouflaged to resemble an innocuous wall by an outer skin of random mortared
granite rubble where it projects 1m above the raised level of the adjacent
road and kerbing, broken only by the gun loopholes and their concrete frames.
The flat shuttered concrete roof is edged by the topmost course of the walls'
outer skin. Internally, the pillbox measures 3.7m long, east-west, by 2.75m
wide and 2m high; a 0.7m wide doorway at the centre of the north wall retains
remains of its wooden door frame in an outer face rebate. A former covering
wall in the interior 0.9m behind the doorway is evident from its surviving
upper course of mortared concrete blocks still in place beneath the roof and
from corresponding ghosting visible in the floor's surface.
The pillbox has five rectangular gun loopholes; the largest are set in the
centre of the south wall and in the internal facets of the south east and
south west corners giving a field of fire ranging across Old Town Bay. The
loophole apertures are roughly 0.25m wide and 0.3m high, with surrounds
chamfered on the inner face, stepped on the outer face. Two smaller loopholes
were provided in the north wall, one to each side of the doorway, to cover the
approach to the rear of the pillbox.
Contemporary sources record an anti-invasion system of 27 pillboxes and
defended gun positions around the coast of St Mary's, within which this
pillbox is designated `Pillbox No.24'. As a potential landing beach giving
easy access to Hughtown, the islands' administrative centre and main
population focus, Old Town Bay was identified as especially vulnerable and
provided with three pillboxes, all of which survive largely intact: that in
this scheduling had a field of fire across the rear and mouth of the bay,
giving close cover across the seaward approach to Old Town itself. Another
pillbox 140m to the WSW gave closer cover across the western side of the bay,
towards Old Town Church; the third pillbox is located on Tolman Point, with a
view directly across the mouth of Old Town Bay to the south west, and the
mouth of Porth Minick to the east.
This pillbox was built as part of a wider system of anti-invasion defences
erected around St Mary's between January and April 1941. This particular
pillbox appears in operational instructions issued in July 1941, designed to
counter any enemy landings on St Mary's. In those instructions it was
specified to be manned by the 2nd Platoon of the island's Home Guard, who were
to be armed with Browning guns and automatic rifles.
All post-war fittings and stored items and materials within the pillbox,
together with all garden fences, fittings and furniture, the modern litter box
and the surfaces of the modern road and kerbing outside the pillbox, where
they fall within the monument's protective margin, are excluded from the
scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west
England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains
from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the
islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English
Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many
unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social
development of early communities.
Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the
islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its
exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change
against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of
archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands'
The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually
expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post-
medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic
location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works
reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the
mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post-
medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard
for the nation's shipping in the western approaches.
The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has
long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of
documentation, including several recent surveys.

World War II pillboxes are built and heavily protected defensive gun
positions, mostly for infantry with rifles and machine-guns but larger forms
housed light artillery, notably anti-tank guns and light anti-aircraft guns.
They are generally grouped around vulnerable or strategically important nodal
points, installations and areas, or arranged along linear defensive systems
designed to obstruct the enemy's advance across the country. Pillboxes first
appeared widely as a defensive element in the relatively static trench warfare
of World War I. Gradual development over the following two decades was
superceded in early 1940 by design principles born from the practical
experience of British troops in France, giving a shell-proof reinforced
concrete construction whose hexagonal plan had a gun loophole in each facet
giving all-round cover, strongly influencing designs issued from May 1940 by
the War Office and by the Chief Engineers of the regional Commands.
Nationally, pillbox construction began in late May 1940 as a key part of the
rapid programme of anti-invasion defences initiated after the fall of France
to German troops. By October 1940, over 14,000 shuttered concrete pillboxes
had been built, supplemented by large numbers in other construction techniques
and a small number of commercially-produced pillbox designs. Various forms of
camouflaged facing were employed and others were hidden within existing
structures, depending on local circumstances. By early 1941 however, the
tactical concepts underlying pillboxes, especially their deployment to provide
linear defensive lines, were becoming criticised as being too inflexible,
costly and impracticable as an effective defensive system, with increasing
reliance being placed on dug fieldworks around vulnerable points and the use
of mobile troop units. This shift in policy culminated in February 1942 in an
order requiring no more to be built as they were deemed unsuitable, by which
time over 20,000 pillboxes had been completed.
World War II defences on the Isles of Scilly were largely directed to the
protection of St Mary's, and particularly Hughtown and the Garrison, with only
isolated machine-gun posts on some off-islands. Provision of its anti-invasion
defences came relatively late, with a system of 27 pillboxes and defended gun
positions built around the St Mary's coastline between January and April 1941
by the 14th Battalion Royal Fusiliers under guidance from 231A Fd Coy Royal
Engineers. Most were sited around the Garrison and the bays immediately
adjacent to Hughtown, with single or small groups of pillboxes overlooking
other potential landing beaches. Most adapted standard issued designs, but
some were ingeniously masked within existing structures, especially around the
Garrison. Of the original 27, nine survive virtually intact, with remains of
two others subsided from their former positions. The remainder were
demolished, mostly in 1946, though visible traces survive of at least five of
those. This latest defensive phase on Scilly complements the well preserved
remains from a 400 year sequence of national defensive systems deployed on the
islands, providing a rare and valuable resource for studying developments in
military technology and strategic thinking over that period. Consequently the
nine virtually intact pillboxes still in their original positions are
considered worthy of protection.
The Cat's Coffin pillbox at Old Town survives substantially intact; its
rectangular plan is unusual among the pillboxes erected on Scilly and it is
the only example outside the Garrison to use camouflage facing. Its position
and grouping with the other two pillboxes around Old Town Bay show clearly the
tactical thought which underlay the siting of pillboxes. Its role within the
overall anti-invasion system on Scilly is amply confirmed by its relationship
with the other surviving pillboxes and their remains, and by the detailed
documentary sources which bear on both that system and this particular

Source: Historic England


Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3 Extracts in Osborne as below, Appendix aj, War Diary of 13 Btn West Yorks Regiment, July 1941, (1941)
Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3, Extracts in Osborne as below, Appendix ak, War Diary of 14 Btn Royal Fusiliers, Jan-May 1941, (1941)
Title: 1:10000 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 91 SW
Source Date: 1980

Title: Map of St Mary's pillbox locations and Nos by 14Btn Royal Fusiliers
Source Date: 1941
Osborne's Scill War Diary 39-45 vol 3

Source: Historic England

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