Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:11 pm
To the north of Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, is Portsdown Hill, a long chalk elevation that dominates the city and harbour 400 feet below. And on the top of Portsdown Hill, the Victorians placed five large forts – from east to west: Fort Purbrook, Fort Widley, Fort Southwick, Fort Nelson and Fort Wallington. Redoubts were dug slightly to the east, at Farlington and Crookhorn. Another fort was built at nearby Fareham, and a further five on Gosport to the west of Portsmouth Harbour. Four further forts were constructed in the Solent itself, and off the coast of the Isle of Wight. Additional fortifications were established at other locations in the UK – for example elsewhere along the south coast, around the Bristol Channel and the Clyde.
What on earth was this all about?
The short answer is – fear of French invasion. France had been a rival for years, of course, but in the late 1850s, under Emperor Napoleon III, was revitalising its military power. At the same time, the Crimean War of 1854-56, when Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid against Russia, had exposed weaknesses in the organisation of Britain’s armed forces. Britain was also slow to modernise its armaments, such as introducing breech-loading rifled small arms and artillery; France was not. Many in Britain felt insecure and concern about potential French aggression was widespread. Whether justified or not, Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister, maintained that the French hated the British and would lose no opportunity “to inflict a deep humiliation”. In 1859, France launched La Gloire – the world’s first screw-propelled, steam-powered, iron-clad battleship. Even Queen Victoria was said to be worried. The new naval base at Cherbourg was but a short distance away for a modern, powerful, steamship; Portsmouth, with its premier Royal Dockyard essential for the maintenance of ships protecting Britain’s growing empire, looked dangerously vulnerable to attack – despite the much-vaunted supremacy of the Royal Navy – and despite the fact that Britain itself launched the world’s first armour-plated, iron-hulled warship, HMS Warrior, in December 1860 – which rendered La Gloire obsolete.
Palmerston set up a commission to “Consider the defences of the United Kingdom”, which reported in February 1860. Amongst other things, the commission recommended a chain of coastal defences, which included an intensive programme of fort building to protect the Royal Dockyards. The estimated cost was in the region of £11.85 million – which I believe is equivalent to about £1.22 billion today – including the cost of land purchase, construction and armaments. By 1888, Parliament was advised that the cost had spiralled to £17 million – about £1.83 billion at today’s prices – and the programme had still not been completed.
The irony for Britain is that the French army was annihilated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and whatever threat of invasion there had been from across the channel evaporated. Indeed, Britain’s future rival was more likely to be Germany, newly created under Prussian domination; and any German fleet would find the relatively undefended east coast of England a little easier to get at than the well-fortified south. By 1900, the defences on Portsdown Hill had been declared obsolete.
So, we are left with the remains of this massive network of very expensive brick and masonry fortifications, some of which have decayed or disappeared, and some of which have found other uses. You may conclude that all of this was a staggering waste of money that could have been put to better uses; I couldn’t possibly comment. Of course, these days the British Government never wastes public money. Unsurprisingly, the fortifications are collectively known as “Palmerston’s Follies.” In an attempt to be fair, there is a view that they served as a deterrent – though against whom, it is hard to say. Fort Southwick was certainly put to good use – with a network of secret tunnels deep under the hillside, it was a communication centre for Operation Overlord (the invasion of France) during World War Two and continued as an operational base under Royal Naval command well beyond that, though it seems the Ministry of Defence sold it in 2002.
In any event, Fort Nelson was at the cutting edge of How To Defend Yourself Against Military Attack in the 19th century. It is now open to the public and houses the national collection of artillery. You will find a fascinating labyrinth of passages, tunnels and rooms which, as you explore its huge 19-acre site, make you realise the expertise and ingenuity that lay behind the design and construction – even if its original purpose may have been misplaced. Like its sister-forts, Fort Nelson existed primarily to defend Portsmouth. Interestingly, the fear was that an invasion force would come ashore elsewhere along the coast and bring long-range guns to bear down on the naval dockyard from the rear, the north – so the major defences of these forts actually face inland. And they are impressive – an enemy would be confronted by a low profile fortification dug deeply into the chalk, with a moat, massively thick walls, bristling with guns and mortars, and where the 220 defenders could stream ‘enfilade’, or flanking, fire onto the attackers.
The first troops were stationed at Fort Nelson in 1871, but the big guns did not arrive until the 1880s and were removed in the early 20th century. The fort then seems to have been used as a combination of barracks and warehouse until the Second World War, when it became a munitions store for the extensive anti-aircraft batteries defending Portsmouth and its environs.
£3.5 million was spent transforming Fort Nelson into an amazing place to visit. In the ‘Voice of the Guns’ gallery you can see, amongst other things, captured French guns from Waterloo, an amazing Turkish cannon from 1464 which fired a 25-inch diameter stone ball and, at the other extreme, a section of Saddam Hussein’s infamous 512 foot long ‘supergun’, constructed in the UK and seized by HM Customs & Excise in 1990, shortly after its Canadian inventor had been mysteriously assassinated in Brussels. In the artillery hall is the slightly smaller 18-inch calibre railway howitzer, designed to demolish trenches in the First World War, but never used because it had not been finished by the time peace broke out. There are also examples of the very successful British 3.7 inch AA gun and its German equivalent, the lighter, more flexible. and feared 88mm. At 1pm every day – sorry, 1300 hours – a vintage World War Two 25-pounder is fired; I assume they use blanks.
Despite being dedicated to artillery, Fort Nelson is not just about lots of big guns. There is much about the fort’s own story, the men (and women) who lived there – and various displays such as a recreated barracks room from the 1890s. The views from the fortifications are good, too. Personally, I just enjoyed wondering about – because it is fascinating; I was particularly impressed that they built a separate tunnel for troops passing by the magazines, so that sparks from their boots did not ignite the munitions. And there’s a decent café – what more could you ask?
Fort Nelson is lovingly cared for by the Royal Armouries, the same people that bought you the Henry VIII armour experience. It was named for the neighbouring monument to Horatio, Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest admirals and victor of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson sailed from Portsmouth before the battle and his flagship, HMS Victory, has been moored in the dockyard there since 1922. The last time I called in on Fort Nelson and HMS Victory was several years ago; revisits are long overdue.