Aerial view of Fort Nelson

The Life and Phases of Fort Nelson

What did Fort Nelson look like?

Over the past 150 years there have been many changes to the Portsdown Hill forts.

As international threats altered, and the power of artillery increased, Fort Nelson played several different roles. Not needed for its original purpose, this ‘Palmerston’s Folly’ was adapted to serve through two World Wars and beyond.


British troops first occupied the fort on 27 September 1871 when 178 men of the 4th Regiment of Foot marched in. Building work was still in progress and there were no guns in position. The soldiers were infantrymen and already the site’s role had changed from its original purpose as an artillery fort.

The original 1861 design of the fort had changed. Plans to accommodate soldiers under the ramparts were omitted, as was an elaborate Keep, in favour of a more functional Redan – probably to save money. As a fundraising measure, the War Department had let six acres around the fort in 1869 for cattle grazing.

The defeat of France by Prussia earlier in 1871 meant that the installation of guns at the Portsdown Hill forts had become less urgent.

Included among the first occupants were eighteen soldiers’ wives and 24 children. Two horses were kept for the movement of supplies.


Finally the fort was armed with 23 guns and two machine guns. This had taken over twenty years to achieve.

Improvements were also made to the living quarters and stores. The fort’s residents now numbered 203 and included three horses.

Fort Nelson had received its first guns between 1882 and 1886, more than a decade after its completion. Two important changes caused this delay: invasion fears had faded and artillery performance improved. The smooth-bore guns planned for the original armament had become outdated. To mount the new rifled guns required concrete emplacements on the ramparts, which can still be seen today.

Small cottages for eight married soldiers and their wives had been built over the road and two artillery and side-arms sheds on the Parade.

Detachments from the 5th Battalion Rifle Brigade and the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers occupied the fort.


By 1900 the Portsdown Hill forts had been declared obsolete after only 30 years. Soon Fort Nelson’s fixed guns were removed.

A battery of Royal Garrison Artillery were stationed at the Fort with 60-pounder guns.

With the start of the First World War in August 1914, these soldiers were sent to fight in France – and the Fort’s role changed again.

Five buildings existed on the Parade: two for horse equipment, one for vehicles, a recreation room and a large stable.

Fort Nelson housed some of the ‘Kitchener’ volunteers who quickly joined up when the World War started.

‘It’s like living in an opening hole, the cliffs rise up above the grim old fort shutting out all sunshine but not the wind by any means. And the officers are a mardy (grumpy) lot.’
Private George A Weston of 10th Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment posted to Fort Nelson in November 1914


Fort Nelson saw little military activity between 1918 and 1938. A caretaker was left in charge and animals were allowed to graze on the Parade.

That changed dramatically when it was chosen for conversion into the anti-aircraft (A/A) ammunition depot supplying batteries defending this part of Britain’s south coast. Ten ammunition stores were built across the fort’s Parade and a new gate cut into the west gorge wall, still in use today.

When full, over 42,000 rounds of 3.7-inch and 5.25-inch ammunition could be stored. The Victorian underground magazine, off the main tunnel, was converted to store 40 mm A/A rounds.

Fort Nelson supplied ammunition to 58 anti-aircraft guns defending Portsmouth, Southampton and beyond. Among these was a battery of 3.7-inch A/A guns built at nearby Monument Farm and called ‘Nelson Camp’.


Fort Nelson was rescued from decay for preservation as an important fortification and to develop into a great museum. It now presents artillery through the ages and helps tell the stories of the defence of Britain.

The Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson first opened in 1995. There are nearly 3000 artillery-related objects on display and in the study collection.

When Hampshire County Council bought Fort Nelson in 1979 much of it was derelict and overgrown. The site was cleared and the buildings renovated. The important fortification has been preserved as a community facility and monument.

Royal Armouries, the national museum of arms and armour, recognised Fort Nelson as a wonderful location to display artillery. Some of the guns for its defence in Victorian times are now mounted in their correct positions. Gun-firings, children’s activities and military re-enactments bring the collection and site to life for visitors.

A multi-million pound redevelopment programme for the Fort has transformed it into a museum for the 21st century with new galleries, café, visitor centre and state of the art classrooms.

Did you know?

Is newer better?

The last cast-iron British smoothbore cannon – the 68 pounders – were the same calibre (8 inches) as the heaviest guns of King Henry VIII three hundred years earlier. Their performance was probably not very different either!