The Solent Forts

The Solent Forts

Approaching Portsmouth from the sea, early in my sailing career, I was most surprised to come across four large, round structures, sitting in the eastern Solent and the approach to Portsmouth harbour. I've sailed past them many times since then, but never really bothered to find out why and when they were built there and what use, if any, they have today.

Their History

Known as "Palmerston's Follies", after the Prime Minister of the time, the four forts were built for the protection of Portsmouth and the eastern Solent from attack by sea, probably by the French. However they have never been used in anger which is presumably why they are referred to as "Follies". Horse-Sands, No Mans Land, St Helen's and Spitsand were built between 1865 – 1880.

When Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, became President of the French Second Republic in 1848, his ambitions, power and large army aroused concern in Britain. Although there was a temporary alliance with France during the war against Russia, suspicions about France's intentions remained and the government set about reinforcing the fortifications in the Solent. As usual the wheels of government ground slowly and it was not until a Royal Commission had put forward conclusions, these were debated in Parliament and the Fortifications Act passed in 1860, then part of the plans were shelved and later re-instated, that the construction was eventually started.

The forts were designed by Captain E H Steward who was on the staff of the Assistant Inspector General of Fortifications, Colonel W F D Jervois. Sir John Hawkshaw, a noted civil engineer, was the advisor concerning foundations, while the ironwork and shields were designed by Captain Inglis and Lieutenant English. The two outer forts, Horse Sand and No Mans Land, are identical, being 200ft in diameter and fully armour plated. The other two are 150ft in diameter, with iron plating only on the front. The cost of building the forts, (excluding armaments) ranged from £424,694 for Horse Sand Fort, to £123,311 for St Helen's Fort, which was two or three times as much as land forts, due to the difficulties involved in constructing foundations on sandbanks 20 to 30 foot under water.

By the time the forts had been completed, the invasion scare was over and although they have been armed and re-armed as technology has advanced, they have never been used in the capacity for which they were originally intended. During the First World War, two were used as naval signal stations, even though they were armed. By the Second World War they were suffering from years of neglect and were not able to play an important role. They were not able to support heavy anti-aircraft guns for air defence, but they were brought to war-readiness for the seizure of French warships anchored off Portsmouth in 1940, after the fall of France. This was the only time that their guns were trained on the targets for which they had been originally built and even then, there was so little opposition that the guns were not actually fired.

After the war, the forts were deactivated and used for coastal artillery until 1956. Since then they have all fared differently and have had a variety of uses.

Spitsand Fort (also referred to as Spitsbank Fort or simply Spit Fort)

Located nearest to Portsmouth harbour, it is smaller than Horse Sand and No Man's Land and its main purpose was as a last means of defence for ships that successfully made it past the two main forts. It was originally armed with 15 rifle muzzle loader guns, but from 1884 they were replaced by more modern breech loading guns, which were in service until after World War 1. In 1898 its role changed and it was fitted with two 4.7" guns and searchlights, as defence against light craft, and since then minor upgrades have continued through the years. After being declared surplus to requirements by the Ministry of Defence, it was eventually sold in 1982 to a private buyer who restored it. For a time it was opened as a museum, but with its 50 rooms, dance hall and restaurant it was also available for private functions with limited accommodation. In 2002 it was used as a location in a TV show. "Banged up with Beadle" was a live insert in "Ant and Dec's Takeaway". It also featured in an episode of "Most Haunted". In 2009 it was the venue for the Coalition Festival and hosted other functions and parties before being put up for sale for £800k and advertised as "a detached home" with "lovely sea views". It was sold at auction, reputedly for more than £1m and is now owned by a holiday firm who advertise it as a luxury, exclusive retreat. There are few venues which can offer similar stylishness, privacy and funkiness.

Horse Sand Fort

This is one of the larger forts, with two floors and a basement. It was originally intended that the guns be mounted in turrets, but these were never fitted. It was built on large concrete blocks with an outer skin of granite blocks, the interior being filled with clay and shingle and covered with concrete. At the top of the fort was a lighthouse, as well as chimneys and ventilators. The lower floors provided storage of armoury, guns and provisions for the men stationed on the site. This fort has its own Artesian well, providing fresh water. During the Second World War, a submerged barrier was built in the form of large concrete blocks, about 2 metres below sea level and running from the fort to the shore at Southsea. This acted as an extra defence against shipping and it still remains to the present day.

No Man's Land Fort

Almost identical to Horse Sand Fort, but with a more chequered history, it lies closer to the Isle of Wight and because of its remoteness it has been used as a luxury home and hospitality centre for high-paying guests. It now boasts an indoor swimming pool and two helipads, as well as 21 ensuite bedrooms, jacuzzis and a gym, a roof garden, amusement arcade, 5 bars, 4 dining areas and 3 meeting rooms. In 2004 it was forced to close after Legionella bacteria was found in its water system. It was eventually put up for sale but in 2008 the gentleman who claimed to still be the owner, barricaded himself in the fort as a protest against the administrators. It was eventually sold in 2009 for £910,000 after being valued at more than £14m. Like Horse Sand Fort it has been used a filming location, in this case, in 1972 for an episode of Doctor Who, with Jon Pertwee in the title role.

St Helens Fort

This was constructed differently due to the soft and unstable nature of the ground. A ring of iron caissons was sunk into the sea and used as foundations, but due to their unstable nature the construction began to tilt and the superstructure was built on the centre of the foundations, making its appearance different from the other forts. Lying closest to the Isle of Wight, just off Bembridge, it can actually be reached by land, at extremely low tide. This usually happens in August when a causeway appears along which the original building materials were carried from the quarry at St Helen's Old Church. It has become a tradition to have a mass walk from St Helen's beach to the fort and back, with a barbecue on the beach. The fort is now in private hands and not open to the public, although it was offered for sale in 2003.

So finally, however you view these strange and wonderful structures, by air, by sea or by land, just remember their chequered history and consider the fact that although you may deem them to have been a waste of time and money, yet they do add a certain quirkiness to this wonderful country of ours.

Author – Dee White

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