Gosport

The town of Gosport grew up in the 13th century on the opposite side of the harbour from Portsmouth. It was a small fishing community for much of its early history, eclipsed by the success of its neighbour.

The first fortification on the Gosport side of the harbour was built the 15th century, when a tower was built on Gosport Point, which became known as Blockhouse Point. Together with an identical tower on the Portsmouth side, it guarded the harbour entrance.

To prevent hostile ships from entering, a chain was slung between the two towers. The chain could be raised and lowered by a capstan on the Portsmouth side of the harbour entrance. In the 1540s under King Henry VIII'the tower was replaced with an 8-gun battery and a small fort called Haselford Castle was built on the coast to the south of Gosport.

These small fortifications were not maintained and did not last long, falling into disrepair as early as 1560. However, as the dockyard at Portsmouth grew, its defence became more and more important. Gosport occupied a strategic location controlling access to the harbour and dockyard.

In 1627 the suggestion was made to move the dockyard to Gosport, and although the idea was not carried out, some storehouses for the docks were built there. The significance of Gosport was made clear in 1642 during the Civil War'when the Parliamentarians bombarded Royalist-held Portsmouth from Gosport.

In the 1660s Charles II became concerned for the safety of England's dockyards and ordered his engineer Sir Bernard de Gomme'to strengthen the fortifications of Portsmouth. De Gomme is responsible for the first major fortifications at Gosport.

His initial plans (see top map) revolved around three strong points; Blockhouse Point, where there was to be a battery, Gosport Hard and Burrow Island, which were to be the sites of two strong towers. There was a small bastioned'trace protecting Gosport. In de Gomme's later plans the town of Gosport was treated more like a fortified town (see the second map).

The fort on Blockhouse Point consisted of a tower surrounded by a powerful seaward battery. Its landward approach was protected by a simple redan. The strength of this position lay in the single approach along a narrow spit of land.

The tower on Burrow Island, called James Fort, was built to prevent an enemy from using the island to bombard the dockyard opposite or the town of Gosport, both of which were within easy range.

The small fort consisted of a tower, 6 metres in height, surrounded by an outer wall at sea level. Inside the tower there were living quarters for the garrison and storerooms. James Fort probably mounted up to 20 cannon in the outer walls and on the tower's roof.

The purpose of Charles Fort, the "Great Redoubt" on the quay in Gosport, is less obvious, since it is within the fortified town of Gosport (so it could not guard against a land-based attack) and any enemy ship would already had to pass the massed firepower of the guns in Portsmouth and on Blockhouse Point (so it would of little value against ships). Perhaps de Gomme felt that it would provide protection against a surprise attack along the beach at low tide.

Charles Fort was larger than James Fort, being 9m in height and having its outer walls farther from the tower. Charles Fort may have mounted up to 30 cannon, with guns on the tower roof as well as the lower battery.

Both towers (James Fort and Charles Fort) were constructed relatively quickly and were complete by 1679. The towers themselves were built of stone but the outer walls were probably earthwork parapets, although they may have been faced with stone.

De Gomme's fortifications of the town of Gosport consisted of a crown'facing west, with simpler defences along its flanks, where the approaches were mostly underwater. There were two wet ditches, two demi-lunes and a covered way.

At the extreme north and south ends of the outworks there were two lunettes'protecting the north and south demi-bastions. Interestingly it seems that these were the only part of the Gosport defences that were revetted in stone (the rest were earthworks), possibly because they were the most exposed to weathering and erosion. There were pallisades running from the town across Oyster Pool Lake (now called Haslar Lake) to Blockhouse Point and across Forton Lake to Burrow Island. These pallisades were put in place to dissuade an enemy from using these routes at low tide as a way of attacking the town. Work on the fortifications designed by de Gomme was carried out in the 1670s, although the outworks were never built.

In the early 1700s during the War of the Spanish Succession'Fort Blockhouse was inspected and found to be in poor condition. From 1708-1714 it was completely rebuilt with a land front of two demi-bastions, a demi-lune and a deep ditch. The new fort mounted 21 guns facing out over the sea, ready to turn back any enemy ship attempting to enter the harbour.

In 1704 Captain Henry Player built a manor house and a brewery on the land to the north of Gosport, known as the Weevil Estate. Later in the 18th century, the Weevil Brewery was supplying the navy with beer and the area was considered strategically important, so plans were made for its defence.

In 1757 the engineer Desmaretz drew up plans for a new line of bastioned earthworks to enclose the Weevil Brewery area to the north of the town. By this time the de Gomme's fortifications had fallen into disrepair and the western side was restored. The new fortifications to the north were not integrated into the 17th century defences, but simply butted up to the central bastion of the town trace (see left).

In 1761 the Board of Ordnance purchased the Weevil Estate and the area known as Priddy's Hard to the north of Forton Lake and Burrow Island. Priddy's Hard was to be the site of a new powder magazine'for the navy. The magazine was built in 1771 and the powder that had hitherto been stored in the Round Tower in Portsmouth was removed after safety concerns. Priddy's Hard had its own small quay for small boats taking powder out to ships in the harbour. The magazine was fortified with a landward front of two demi-bastions.

Over the remaing years of the 18th century the Weevil Estate was developed into a navy victualing yard. This was a consolidation of all the naval stores that had previously been scattered all over Portsmouth. This yard eventually became the Royal Clarence victualing yard.

With the new landward fortifications, the towers James Fort and Charles Fort lost their significance and were neglected. In 1778 a bastioned fort called Fort Monkton was built to the south, on the site of the 16th century Haselford Castle. Its purpose was to counter hostile ships approaching the dockyard from the west. By the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars the landward trace of Gosport's fortifications was confusing and lacked cohesion. From 1797 to 1803, spurred on by the threat of a French invasion, a major renovation of the lines was undertaken.

The renovated fortifications consisted of a coherent trace of bastions leading from the south side of Gosport town all the way up to Forton Lake in the north, enclosing both the town and the navy yard. Priddy's Hard and Blockhouse Point were both linked to the town by ferries. A large workforce was available in the form of French prisoners of war, who were kept on Burrow Island, so work on the fortifications could be carried out at a relatively low cost.

In the first part of the 19th century Charles Fort fell into ruins and was demolished and James Fort was partially demolished for materials. By the 1850s the bastioned system of town defence was long out of date, so a system of 5 outlying forts was built to the west of Gosport, complimenting the Portsdown Forts to the north of Portsmouth. In the early 20th century the central section of the ramparts on the west side of Gosport was demolished to open up the town.

Visiting Gosport

The military presence in Gosport remains strong even today. Although the navy has recently left Priddy's Hard and the Royal Clarence yard, Fort Blockhouse is still in military hands. It is the oldest fortified position in Britain still occupied by the armed forces.

Fort Blockhouse is open for tours in September, but is normally closed to the public. The earliest remains date from the 1708 reconstruction of the fort and the current main battery dates from the mid 19th century.

To the north of Fort Blockhouse a fine, but small, section of the ramparts survives in the form of Bastion No.1, which lay at the southern end of de Gomme's trace but owes its present form to the work carried out during the Napoleonic Wars.

Further to the north, a strech of fortifications comprising the three bastions protecting the navy yard has survived, but is inaccessible today due to being on the edge of the oil depot.

Today Priddy's Hard is being converted into housing, but the magazine built in 1771 has survived and is the home of the museum of naval firepower, called Explosion!. The ramparts are also intact, although currently overgrown and fenced off.

There are some remains of James Fort and it is possible to walk to the island at low tide. Fort Monkton is still government property. As the redevelopment of Gosport continues and the military move away from these sites it is likely that the remaining fortifications will be restored and made accessible. For now, there is not much to see, so my advice is come back in 10 years. Gosport can be reached easily using the ferry from Portsmouth, which is very frequent.

Back to the "Fortresses" page