The forts where the guns never fired shots in anger

Horse Sand Fort in unusual livery
Horse Sand Fort in unusual livery

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The forts where the guns never fired shots in anger

The giant defences which march along the top of Portsdown Hill around to the coast at Gosport and then out to sea like a giant’s stepping stones, were the brainchild of Victorian prime minister Lord Palmerston.

Fort Purbrook in the 1930s

Fort Purbrook in the 1930s

They were constructed as a defence against the threat from the French, who by this time had guns with rifled barrels which gave them greater accuracy and fire power.

Palmerston had called for a royal commission to examine the question of the country’s defence and from that report the construction of the forts came about.

However, in the event the French threat declined and the forts forever became known as Palmerston’s folly.

It was thought the French would land from the north so the forts were constructed to face outwards.

Fort Nelson, now home to the Royal Armouries exhibition

Fort Nelson, now home to the Royal Armouries exhibition

From the south they are a familiar sight, but from the north they are all but invisible.

Fort Elson and Fort Gomer at Gosport had already been built so the new defences were added to the line.

Forts Purbrook, Widley, Southwick, Nelson and Wallington were built along the ridge of Portsdown Hill and each cost nearly £100,000 apiece.

To protect the western approaches Forts Fareham, Brockhurst, Rowner and Grange were added to the list.

And in the Solent four free-standing forts were built to foil any approach from the sea.

These were Spit Bank, No Man’s Land, Horse Sand, and the tiny St Helen’s huddled in the lee of Bembridge Harbour.

Most of the forts still stand.

Fort Brockhurst (English Heritage) is open to the public as is Fort Nelson with its impressive collection of armoury. It is home to the Royal Armouries national collection of artillery – The Big Guns.

Fort Widley is owned by Portsmouth City Council and is home to the Fort Widley Equestrian Centre. Fort Purbrook houses a young people’s activity centre.

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please e-mail Chris Owen at chris.owen@thenews.co.uk or write to him at The News, The News Centre, Hilsea, Portsmouth,PO2 9SX