The folly of Fort Nelson

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:11 pm

Fort Nelson, Mallet's Mortar, Visit PortsmouthTo 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?

Portsmoyth Harbour, 19th centuryThe 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.

Fort Nelson, Visit, Hampshire, cannonPalmerston 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.

Fort Nelson, Hampshire, military museumsThe 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.

Fort Nelson, ramparts, PortsmouthSo, 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.

Fort Nelson, guns, artillery, Royal ArmouriesIn 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.

Fort Nelson, underground, artillery museum, Royal ArmouriesThe 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.

Fort Nelson, Turkish cannon, museum of artillery, Portsmouth£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.

Fort Nelson, Victorian, kitchenDespite 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, 3.7 inch, AA, 88mm, flak, gun, Royal ArmouriesFort 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.



18 thoughts on “The folly of Fort Nelson”

  1. I visited it in 2013, although that railway gun was not there yet. It was a thoroughly fascinating place to explore and well worth spending time in. My only regret is not seeing that 18″ er. It is on my bucket list for a return visit if ever I get down there again.

  2. Completely in love with that kitchen! And funnily enough, in Brittany, I live surrounded by buildings that were made in fear of a British invasion either under Louis 14th’s reign or by the Nazis during WWII.

  3. Hi Mike – fascinating to see read about and see some of Fort Nelson – we’ve a Redoubt here in Eastbourne … which I hope sometime will be restored … though there’s extensive wear and tear – let alone the sea … Certainly Fort Nelson is a place to visit sometime … cheers Hilary

  4. Yet another place I have never visited (Portsmouth) and a part of our heritage I never knew existed! I have seen the Martello towers and knew of the forts and defences near Hythe and Winchelsea but somehow I’ve never been to Portsmouth. I must rectify this as soon as I can. ((Yet another place to add to the lengthening list). This is such an interesting, well researched and beautifully illustrated post, Mike! I also wonder how many bricks were used to construct these fortifications. The Victorian brick was much smaller than those we use today and I often marvel at the skill of those brickies who constructed enormous railway arches and viaducts as well as these forts.

  5. Following on from Carla’s comment …
    This is perhaps a boys delight to go and see this …
    Very interesting to read about the History and see your photographs.

    All the best Jan

  6. Blue Sky Scotland

    Great history lesson. Hopefully the EU will not inflict ‘deep humiliation’ on us in the near future. One against one then or at the most two against one with France and Germany. 27 voices against one this time is not good odds however way you look at it. Where’s our modern cannons now :o)

    1. Thanks, Bob. Wholly different circumstances, of course. These days, I’d like to think there’s more mature mutual respect than for any of us to entertain the notion of inflicting ‘deep humiliation’ on close friends and allies, especially as it’s hard to see any reason or purpose for it. And in 100 years, however things turn out between the UK and the EU will be just another chapter in our history.

  7. A family of four is ready for this tour. My boys would LOVE this. I shared the post with them. They said, “We need to visit MOM!”
    Thank you for sharing.

  8. Well I don’t know that I’d so readily judge it as insane, as your first commenter mentioned, to protect the coast from a known enemy. As far as the amount of money spent, our government wastes money all the time. At least you’ve got something to show for it. Sounds interesting.

  9. artandarchitecturemainly

    When we think about the huge amount of resources and man power poured into protecting the coast against French invasion, it seemed insane. Yet paranoia is still as powerful today, perhaps even more so.

    I had a good look at martello towers, the small defensive forts that were built across the British Empire from the time of the French Revolutionary Wars on. Over 100 towers were built in the south, set at regular intervals along the coast from Sussex to Suffolk, Jersey and Guernsey.

    1. Yes, I guess some people are still paranoid – though personally I’m not anticipating a French invasion anytime soon. It was a more realistic prospect when the Martello towers were built, though.

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