Site Records

Site Name: Fort Southwick

James Callaghan Drive
Portsmouth, Hampshire
OS Grid Ref: SU628069

Sub Brit site visit 3rd December 2002

[Source: Nick Catford with text on Palmerston Forts on Portsdown Hill by Linda Evans]

Several generations of Portsmouth people have given the nickname "Palmerston's Folly" to the Victorian forts on Portsdown Hill. The forts on the crest of the hill overlooking the town and harbour face inland and to some people look the wrong way. The development of new armaments plus the perceived threat of invasion led Prime Minster, Lord Henry Palmerston, to commission a revue and implement new defences to strengthen Portsmouth and the surrounding area. If there was an attack on Portsmouth from the north, none of the existing fortifications would be able to protect the dockyard and harbour against bombardment from Portsdown Hill.

The Royal Commission received its instruction in August 1859, that it should begin work by considering the defence of Portsmouth. The report was submitted in 1860, the recommendations were:

1 To prevent landing from the enemy on the Isle of Wight
2 Protection of the anchorage at Spithead.
3 Defence of the Needles passage
4 Protection of the harbour mouth
5 The land defences

These were divided between the Gosport defences and the hill forts.

The War Department purchased the necessary acreage along Portsdown Hill from the Lord of the Manor. Approximately 900 acres were taken over completely and clearance rights were obtained for another 1000 acres.

The Royal Engineers were responsible for the basic design of the hill forts, with Colonel, later Lieutenant General, Sir W. R. Drummond Jervois RE in charge. The design was that they should be surrounded by a deep ditch on the west, north and east sides. Access being gained from ramps down to the bottom of the ditches from the fort entrances on the south side at the back of the fort. There was also a dry moat with varied depth from 40 - 60 feet and width from 30 - 70 feet around the five forts.

The escarp is about 10 - 15 feet thick backed by earthwork and surmounted by a rampart. The platforms on the inner side of the rampart were for additional guns firing over the parapet. On the south side, two storey accommodation was living quarters for about 250 men; there was also married quarters for twelve soldiers.

Photo:The east entrance
Photo by Nick Catford

There were single storey rooms and a stable on either side of the barrack block. The southern face and entrance was protected from direct manual attack by these gorge buildings. The walls had loopholes for rifle fire. Underground tunnels went from the barrack block to the caponiers in the moat. The barrack block walls were 4 - 5 feet thick with a thick reinforced concrete roof.

The five forts were Fort Wallington, (completed in 1865), Fort Southwick, (1870), Fort Purbrook, (1870), Fort Nelson, (1871), & Fort Widley.

A military road was built along the crest of the hill, passing behind the forts on the south side; this then enabled good communications between them.

Construction of Fort Southwick started in 1861 and was completed by 1870, along with Fort Nelson it was designed to house a larger compliment of men in an inverted 'U' shaped barrack block in the centre of the gorge. Its dry ditch is revetted on the scarp with the counterscarp in brick and flint. It has one full caponier at the north projection to defend the ditch with two smaller demi caponiers at the shoulders. A small musketry gallery crosses the ditch at the south west angle to cover a minor branch of the ditch. Behind the demi caponiers and set into the rampart are mortar batteries of five mortars each.

Plan of the upper level of the fort
Copyright Palmerston Forts Society

In 1893 the forts armaments were nine 64 pounder RML's (rifled muzzle loader), eight 7" RBL's, (rifled breech loader), two on Pattern II Moncrief disappearing mounts and six on wooden traversing platforms betweeen the 64 pounders on the flanks and six 8" RML Howitzers, (replacing the mortars which were never fitted) that could fire at an elevation of 45 degrees. These were not, however, emplaced in the mortar pits; three were on ground platforms at the salients and three more were on travelling carriages.

A central spiral stair from the parade ground gives access to the four main tunnels running from it radially. These lead to the barrack block and caponiers with stairs to the mortar batteries and chemain de ronde. The main magazine is located along the tunnel to the barrack block with a 'D' tunnel bypassing the magazine.

Plan of the middle level of the fort
Copyright Palmerston Forts Society

Fort Southwick occupies the high point of the hill and held the water storage tanks for the other forts, feeding them through a brick lined aqueduct.

The fort was disarmed in 1906 but was retained as a barracks. It was also used by the army to train soldiers how to capture and hold a fort. For three years after WW1 it became a demobilisation centre before being taken over by the Ordnance Survey (along with Fort Widley) as a cartographic training centre.

Plan of the lower level of the fort. Underground features and tunnels are coloured yellow
Copyright Palmerston Forts Society

For further information and photographs of Fort Southwick click here
Gallery 1 Entrance to the fort and the barrack block ...........
Gallery 2 The parade ground, dry ditch & Chemin de Ronde
Gallery 3 Victorian gun emplacements .................................
Gallery 4 Victorian tunnels, magazines and caponiers ..........
Gallery 5 Underground Combined Headquarters ................
Gallery 6 Underground Combined Headquarters ................
Paulsgrove Quarry - Underground radio station..................
1974 NATO Commcen

[Source: Nick Catford]

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