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Fort Nelson's History

Built in the 1860s as one of a ring of Victorian artillery forts to guard the naval dockyard against a feared French invasion that never materialised, this fort now houses one of the finest displays of historical artillery pieces on display for public viewing anywhere in Europe.

Fort Nelson was built as a response to invasion fears at a time of rapidly changing military technology and of British suspicion of the ambitions of France under Emperor Napoleon III. Fort Nelson is an extensive artillery fortification forming part of the defences of the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth.

This great ring of forts was developed by Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister who adopted the recommendations of the 1860 Royal Commission, which reported on weaknesses at major British ports. Thus was built the most costly and extensive system of fixed defences undertaken in Britain in peacetime.

However, the fort soon became out-dated in the face of ever larger and more powerful artillery. Furthermore, France was removed as a potential enemy with the capture of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It is hardly surprising that the forts around Portsmouth, never attacked, soon became known as ‘Palmerston’s Folly’.

Fort Nelson is an example of the ‘polygonal’ system of fortification. A series of self-contained forts were sunk into the hill with a surrounding dry moat to give a low profile. Barrack accommodation was provided at the ‘gorge’ – the rear of the fort – protected by the ramparts on which the main armament was mounted and by a thick covering of chalk.

At Fort Nelson the gorge and entrances were defended by flanking fire from the barracks and ‘redan’ – a V shaped projection, while the dry moat was covered by fire from ‘caponiers’ – protected gun-emplacements reached by tunnels from the barracks. Both original gates were defended also by a device borrowed from medieval technology – they had drawbridges. Generally, though, the Fort relied on the weight of metal of the main armament on the ‘terre-plein’ – top of rampart – to destroy an enemy approach and to give flanking fire in support of its neighbours.

Fort Nelson is unique in having so many examples of its correct armament emplaced. The main armament would have been heavy 68-pounder cast-iron smoothbore guns of 95 cwt which could fire solid shot to a range of about 3,000 yards, although effective range was far less, explosive shell with time-fuse and case-shot; the 68-pounder was becoming obsolete so by the time the Fort was finished newer equipment was proposed.

With restored ramparts, guns and living quarters, as well as the renowned collection of artillery of other periods, Fort Nelson is becoming a popular centre for the study and enjoyment of artillery and fortification history.

Covering nearly 19 acres and now fully restored, Fort Nelson sits majestically atop Portsdown Hill, with amazing views of the Solent and the Meon Valley. The Fort stands today as a monument to the skills and ingenuity of Victorian engineering and architecture.

In 1995 it became home to the Royal Armouries collection of artillery. Fort Nelson has over 350 big guns and historic cannon on display, all part of the National Museum of Arms and Armour. From the Great Turkish Bombard of 1464, that once protected the Dardanelles to Saddam Hussein’s infamous ‘Supergun’ and covering every period of history from every corner of the world – including 3 Guinness world record holders.

Did you know?

First commercial steel melting

Benjamin Huntsman of Sheffield is widely credited with the first commercial melting of steel in around 1740, using his crucible process. However, the melting of steel had long been practiced in central Asia and India and was known as Damascus steel.