Henry Ince and Soldier-Artificers

Early life

The young Henry Ince is shrouded in mystery. Records suggest he was born at Penzance, Cornwall, in 1735 or 1736 and became a nail-maker and miner, but only his mining occupation is certain. For some reason he was in Ireland in 1755 and enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of Foot. He possibly became a Methodist in Ireland, where John Wesley was at that time preaching. The regiment next moved to the Isle of Man and in 1768 to Gibraltar. Ince, now a sergeant, wrote to Wesley lamenting the lack of religion among the soldiers, particularly Methodism. His involvement with Methodism is discussed, along with other details, in an article by Sue Jackson in Gibraltar Heritage Journal 16 (for 2009).

Soldier-artificers

Gibraltar’s defences were being strengthened under the direction of the Chief Engineer, William Green. As the army engineers were officers, the actual work was done by civilians, which Green felt was unsatisfactory. In 1772 he was given permission to form a soldier-artificer company of skilled military workmen, which was a great improvement, and Ince was recruited into the company as a sergeant. One of its first tasks was the construction of the massive King’s Bastion. During the subsequent Great Siege, the soldier-artificers proved invaluable, and decades later the engineers and soldier-artificers were amalgamated into a single unit that eventually became the Royal Engineers.

Tunnel vision

After the sortie, the Spaniards rebuilt their siegeworks, gradually moving closer to the sheer north front of Gibraltar. Because it was difficult to fire at these siegeworks, it was decided to mount guns on top of an outcrop called ‘the Notch’ or ‘the Hook’, about halfway up the cliff face. It would act like a bastion, giving a wide field of fire over the siegeworks. To gain access to this rock platform, they needed to drive a tunnel through the limestone rock.

North front of Gibraltar, facing Spain, with ‘the Notch’ far left (with two later gunports)

and three of Ince’s gunports centre and right

The legend

One story is that Ince, now a sergeant-major, proposed the idea after one bombardment:

‘the Governor [Eliott] attended by the Chief Engineer [Green] and staff made an inspection of the batteries at the north front. Great havoc had been made in some of them by the enemy’s fire, and for the present they were abandoned whilst the artificers were restoring them. Meditating for a few moments over the ruins, he [Eliott] said aloud, “I will give a thousand dollars to anyone who can suggest how I am to get a flanking fire upon the enemy’s works”.’

At this point Ince supposedly suggested a tunnel, but no evidence exists that the reward was ever offered or paid, because Eliott had already issued official orders for such a tunnel, after discussions with Green.

Against the clock

The cutting of the tunnel began on 25th May 1782, with 12 miners led by Ince using basic tools and gunpowder for blasting. The rubble was cleared by hand, and the tunnelling was slow and dangerous, with several deaths and injuries. By early July, the tunnel was 82 feet long and 8 feet high. With an assault by French and Spanish forces expected any day, the miners started to work in shifts night and day, but the smoke and dust made conditions intolerable. It was agreed to blast a ventilation hole through the cliff face, but the amount of gunpowder was overestimated. Ensign Drinkwater recorded the result:

‘the explosion was so amazingly loud, that almost the whole of the Enemy’s camp turned out at the report. But what must their surprise be, when they observed from where the smoke issued! The original intention of this opening was to communicate air to the workmen, who before were almost suffocated with the smoke which remained after blowing the different mines, but, on examining the aperture more closely, an idea was conceived of mounting a gun to bear on all the Enemy’s batteries.’

Because of this accidental formation of a gunport, it was realised that the tunnel could be used as a gun battery now, with cannons set up in additional openings through the cliff face.

Cannon mounted through the cliff face towards Spain

The end in sight

The Notch was never reached before the Great Siege ended in February 1783. Even so, the tunnelling continued, making a formidable battery within the cliff face itself. This work by Henry Ince was the very first tunnel cut in the Rock of Gibraltar, but nowadays there are over 30 miles of tunnels and underground chambers, providing a popular tourist attraction.

During the siege soldiers were encouraged to grow whatever food they could, and Ince used a plot of ground on the western slope. After the siege he was allowed to rent this land on a long lease, and the location is still known as ‘Ince’s Farm’. He was discharged from the soldier-artificers in 1791, but continued to oversee the mining. In 1796 he was commissioned as an Ensign in the Royal Garrison Battalion and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1801. His life then becomes a mystery once more, but at some point he left Gibraltar for England. He died on 9th October 1808 and is buried at St Michael’s church in Gittisham, Devon. The inscription on his gravestone reads:

‘In Memory of Lieut. Henry Ince, late of the Royal Garrison Battn. Gibraltar; the works of which Fortress bear lasting testimony to his skill industry and zeal. After serving his Majesty 49 Years he retired full of honor to this place and closing in piety the remains of an useful life, died October 9th 1808 Aged 72. His principal service was in the Soldier Artificer Company the first unit of the Corps of Royal Engineers.’

See more in our book Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History.

Gravestone of Henry Ince at Gittisham, Devon

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