A lasting defence still standing strong

Fort Grange in Gosport  Picture: Paul Jacobs  (13263-4)
Fort Grange in Gosport Picture: Paul Jacobs (13263-4)
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This year marks the 150th anniversary of three of the forts in Gosport, each only open to public for a few short days a year. BEN FISHWICK breaches the fortifications to have a look inside.

At one point in history, Portsmouth Harbour was the most heavily fortified place on earth.

The threat of French invasion from the south was so great that a number of forts were built to protect the country.

These are known as Palmerston Forts, named after the Prime Minister in 1860.

In Gosport, five polygonal 73-gun forts make up the town’s advanced line, designed to protect Portsmouth Harbour from invasion from the west.

The line is made up of Fort Elson and Fort Gomer, to the north and south respectively, with Forts Brockhurst, Rowner and Grange completing the line between the two.

The three 300-man capacity central forts, built to provide crossing fire between the northern and southern forts, are now 150 years old.

There is nothing left of Fort Gomer, following its demolition in the 1960s with a housing estate now in its place, with Fort Elson laying overgrown and derelict.

But the three central 30-hectare forts are left standing today, albeit rarely open to the public.

Fort Brockhurst, off Gunner’s Way in Gosport, stands in excellent condition, bar the section bombed during the Second World War, which exposes its construction with eight layers of Fareham bricks.

It is a scheduled monument and is protected by English Heritage.

It stands with a full moat with a bridge leading to the keep at the back of the fort, the last place soldiers would have fallen back to if they were attacked.

Another bridge allows access to the parade ground, which now allows vehicles into the grounds.

Underneath its main west rampart, the business end of the fort, there are casements of barracks where soldiers were based before the military left in 1957.

Two earth ramps divide the parade ground inside the fort into three sections, with the ramps giving access to the terreplein – the platform that cannon were placed on.

But now instead of a vast number of soldiers and their families, it is home – at least during work hours – to Pam Braddock from English Heritage.

She has been the fort’s curator for more than 20 years and gives guided tours when it is open 11am to 3pm on the second Saturday of each month from April to September.

She said: ‘When these forts were finally completed, Portsmouth was the most heavily defended place in the world, not just in England.

‘They did it in other areas, with forts constructed around Plymouth and Chatham but Portsmouth was the real killer.

‘These three forts had the last ever defendable keeps in this country, because they had realised by that time that they were a waste of time and they weren’t going to work so they stopped.

‘That is the significance of them, they’re in a long tradition of military buildings that stopped here.

‘People look at them and think “oh it’s brick and a bit late” but they’re not, these were built by hand – five million Fareham bricks in each fort. They’re incredible feats of engineering.’

She added that after they were completed, French military technology advanced meaning ships could fire at the forts from sea.

The three have identical plans and were built in just four years.

Work started on Fort Brockhurst in 1858 and ended in 1862, and Fort Rowner was completed in 1862.

Fort Grange was started in 1858 and finished 150 years ago, in January 1863.

Forts Rowner and Grange remain in military hands – albeit with the Royal Navy rather than the Army – and are inside HMS Sultan.

Fort Rowner was used by the RAF in the Second World War, later becoming part of HMS Siskin in 1946 and then HMS Sultan in 1956.

It stands overgrown but is open for exploration during Gosport’s Heritage Open Days, to be held in September this year.

Throughout the fort, ex-teacher turned historian David Moore, of Gosport, has produced information boards for the Heritage Open Days.

He said: ‘They were the nuclear deterrent of their age.’

‘If you look at photos of them with the sun shining on the water and the red brickwork of the keep, they’re absolutely masterpieces of construction.’

This year, Fort Rowner will also open on April 20 to support the Royal Navy Submarine Museum’s fundraising bid to restore the submarine HMS Alliance.

Fort Grange was also used by the RAF but much earlier in the First World War and in the Second World War, later joining Fort Rowner as part of HMS Siskin in 1946 and then finally HMS Sultan in 1956.

The keep at Fort Grange is now home to the HMS Sultan Volunteer Cadet Corps, with sports pitches and tennis courts on the parade ground.

A Royal Commission in 1860 saw upgrades to defences following the threat of invasion from the French.

Portsmouth, Fareham, the Isle of Wight and the Solent are home to multiple forts, with the Stokes Bay Lines and Browndown Battery also in Gosport.

Fort Monckton: Originally finished in 1789-90, by 1860 it was out-of-date.

Located in Stokes Bay it has been used by Royal Engineers and later used for training in submarine mining. In both world wars it was used for anti-aircraft purposes. It is still in use by the military.

Fort Gilkicker: Located at Stokes Bay, this fort was completed in 1871 replacing an earlier one from 1856.

By 1905 it was not needed but was brought back into use briefly during the Second World War. It will now be converted into 22 three-storey homes.

Fort Blockhouse: A single tower was built on the site to the west of Portsmouth Harbour during the reign of Edward VI, later becoming Fort Blockhouse in the eighteenth century.

Little work was done to upgrade it.

It defended Stokes Bay beach and later became HMS Dolphin but was made surplus to requirement in the mid-1990s.