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History of Fort Nelson

aerial view of Fort Nelson

The Royal Commission of 1860

Illustration of the start of the construction of Fort Nelson
Illustrated Times, 1863. “The town and harbour of Portsmouth”

In the summer of 1860 fortification specialists of the Royal engineers beat their way through standing wheat on peaceful Portsdown, making the best compensation deals they could with the tenants of the Southwick estate.

Their sense of urgency came from the highest level of government. They were marking out on the ground the latest type of European fortification. A vast scheme of mutually supporting forts would girdle Portsmouth by land and sea. Soon the chalk hill would be gouged deeply to form dry moats and ramparts; in the case of Fort Widley excavations were sunk where the townsfolk had previously come to admire the view and take tea.

Fort Nelson was named for the neighbouring column and bust of Horatio, Lord Nelson, a monument which marked England’s greatest naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805, and the death of its greatest admiral.

In Britain, the end of the Crimean War marked the beginning of a century of military anxieties. France under Napoleon III was building up her military and naval strength. ‘Gloire’, the first of a new kind of armoured steam-powered warship, raised doubts as to Britain’s ability to repel an invasion.

These doubts caused Lord Palmerston to set up a Royal Commission to report on the defences of the United Kingdom, with Portsmouth and its Royal Dockyard as the priority. Supported by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, the result was the building of the greatest works of fortification yet undertaken in this country in peacetime.

A start on modernizing the Royal Navy was made with the launch of HMS Warrior, the British answer to Gloire, and Britain’s traditional wooden walls began to be replaced with ironclads. The third element in strengthening Britain’s defences was to augment the small standing army by the raising of a new volunteer corps. Artillery volunteers were especially important and without them the extensive Portsmouth fortress could never have been garrisoned. Fort Nelson, along with the other land works in this huge ring fortress around Portsmouth, was substantially complete by the late 1860s.

The huge armament demands for the Royal Commission forts were never fully met. The threat of invasion evaporated, and Fort Nelson and its neighbours were never put to the test: such was the pace of change both in technology and international relations. By the time they were nearly finished, France had been invaded and defeated by Prussia.

Because the forts were not used to repel an invasion, and perhaps because it seemed as though the forts pointed the wrong way (their guns aim inland), they soon became known locally as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’.

It could hardly be admitted officially that these forts were obsolete almost as soon as they were completed. They were therefore maintained, and formed monumental props in the large-scale manoeuvres of both regulars and volunteers during the later 19th century; spectacles which the townsfolk flocked to watch, bringing picnics once the tea rooms were demolished.

Fort Nelson is part of a massive ring of brick, masonry and earth forts, built to provide the fire power to deter an enemy attack on Portsmouth from inland.

Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval dockyard, building and maintaining warships that were vital to the defence of Britain and her growing empire.

Portsmouth faced the new French dockyard at Cherbourg, only a short 130 km (81 mile) journey for new steam-powered warships.

The threat was not simply a direct naval assault. It was feared that a French invasion force might land elsewhere, occupy Portsdown Hill, and fire their new long-range guns to attack Portsmouth below from its landward side.

However, despite strong words, the French did not steam across the Channel. By the time the Palmerston forts were completed, France had been humiliated by war with Prussia in 1870.

Never used against invaders, the angular forts dominating the chalk ridge of Portsdown were soon called ‘Palmerston’s Follies’.

Fort Nelson and the other Portsdown forts had cost a fortune to build. They were one of the biggest defences ever built in Britain.

The international situation

Britain was the workshop of the world: built on coal and iron, networked by railways, and sending manufactured goods world-wide. Britain’s empire was still growing rapidly, providing both raw materials and a huge market for exports.

Large canon being fired by two men in period costumes with Fort Nelson in the background

Despite material success, Victoria’s Britain was deeply fearful. Other countries wanted wealth and empires as well. Invasion scares occasionally swept Britain in the 1850s.

After the defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo in 1815, Britain enjoyed both a long period of peace, and great (if not entirely deserved) military prestige. During a period of rapid technological and political change, the armed forces remained splendidly aloof.

However, command and supply failings were mercilessly exposed during the Crimean War (1854-56) when Britain, France and Turkey opposed Russian ambitions in the near East.

Anxiety in Britain in the late 1850s was also provoked by the revival of French military power under Emperor Napoleon III. Would he try to invade Britain where his uncle had failed?

‘We have on the other side of the Channel a people, who say what they may, hate us as a nation… and would make any sacrifice to inflict a deep humiliation upon England…’
Prime Minister Lord Palmerston about 1860.

Threat of new technology

Industrialisation in Britain had transformed engineering from the mid-18th century. The Industrial Revolution had created a torrent of manufactured goods. But the military accepted only gradual improvements, such as the change from flintlock to percussion ignition for muskets, and the use of rifling. Artillery in service in 1850 would have been familiar to the Duke of Marlborough in 1700.

Flintlock muzzle loading rifle

However, rifled small arms now threatened artillery’s battlefield supremacy. Prompted by French innovation, Britain hastily adopted rifled artillery and steam-powered armoured ships. Unless the Army and Royal Navy modernised they would be overtaken by other European powers.

Increased range made installations such as Portsmouth Dockyard ever more vulnerable to foreign attack. However, nobody knew what would happen when this powerful new artillery was used in war.