Family and many friends gathered to pay tribute yesterday to Dennis Whannell, the late Penarth builder and developer who, in the 1960s and 70s, against considerable odds – built the Uppercliff housing development on Penarth Head.
The cliff top site – and an area of the foreshore below – had been owned by the War Office which had installed two huge concrete gun-emplacements on the cliff top to defend the approach channel to Cardiff Docks.
The site also contained a massive underground ammunition store where the live long-range naval shells were stored, metal chutes down which spent shell-casings were dropped and a winch system which hoisted up the live charges to feed the guns. Several flights of concrete steps ran down the cliff face to the foreshore where powerful searchlights were mounted on concrete towers.
Also on the site was a military look out post, a guard-room, an officer’s bungalow, and the remains of a decaying Victorian mansion – Uppercliff House.
The mansion and the surrounding land had once been the home of shipbuilder and philanthropist John Batchelor (whose statue stands in the Hayes in Cardiff).
However the building was in a sorry-state after being used as Garrison Officer’s Mess in both World Wars, had been subsequently badly-converted into flats and was in too parlous a condition to be saved .
Mr Whannell once told the South Wales Echo that older residents near the cliff top could recall hearing the big guns being fired during the First World War and that the whole Old Fort site was not dissimilar in appearance to the movie “The Guns of Navarone”.
When the site was put on the market no other builders were prepared to take-on the formidable task of clearing the land.
But Dennis Whannell was undaunted. He’d been an army officer in Italy during WW2 – spoke fluent Italian and had organised the Allies’ vital fuel supplies. He was such an exemplary man-manager that the grateful team of Italian Prisoners of War who worked for him in Italy had even thrown a party for him when the time came for him to return to Britain.
He was also someone who always relished rolling his sleeves up and getting stuck-in. True-to-form, he set-to with an old crane and a wrecking-ball on a 15-year mission to turn the disused military fort into a site for scores of new homes.
Dennis Whannell was not only a builder but a steam-engine enthusiast. Many of the tools accumulated in the course of a lifetime’s work are being donated to the Balmoral Trust which operates the passenger pleasure ship M.V Balmoral from Penarth Pier. The trust had all its tools stolen over the winter and his posthumous donation will enable them to replenish what has been lost.
Other equipment is being donated to the Forest of Dean Railway Society and an extensive stock of brass water-taps is to be sent to be Black Country Heritage museum in Birmingham where it will be melted down to enable the museum to manufacture the brass name-plates it makes for sale, as a source of much-needed income.
Mr Whannell died aged 94 on April 7th 2016. He leaves a wife Caroline and daughter Yvonne. His funeral service was held yesterday at Thornhill Crematorium.