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:
- To prevent landing from the enemy on the Isle of Wight
- Protection of the anchorage at Spithead.
- Defence of the Needles passage
- Protection of the harbour mouth
- 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.
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.
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 Widley commenced in 1861 and was completed in 1870 at a cost of £93,980. It is six sided in trace and is symmetrical about a north south axis. It is identical to Fort Southwick, apart from one small deviation. The east and west dry ditches are enfiladed by small two storey demi caponiers whilst the main north ditch is covered by a full caponier. The return angles of the gorge ditch and protected by small musketry galleries.
In 1893 the forts armaments were 10 X 7” RBL’s, (rifled breech loader), 4 X 64 pounder RML’s (rifled muzzle loader), 4 20 pounder RBL’s, 2 X 8” RML Howitzers, 5 X 6.6” Howitzers and 8 X 32 pounder SBBL’s (smooth bore breech loader).
A central spiral stair from the parade ground gives access to the four main tunnels running of it radially. These lead to the barrack block and caponiers. The main magazine is located half way along the tunnel to the barrack block on the west side. There is a semi circular tunnel bypassing the main magazine. The magazine was constructed as a single barrel vaulted room, 57’ X 27’, for the storage of 2,500 barrels of powder. It was later subdivided into two rooms for shells and cartridges. A narrow passage runs round three sides of the magazine, there would originally have been glazed apertures in the magazine walls where oil lamps would have been placed for lighting the magazine. Further stairs from the parade ground lead to two mortar batteries and chemin de ronde.
The fort was disarmed in 1907 but remained in military hands being used as an army barracks for the Royal Artillery until 1939. During WW2 the fort saw a variety of uses; from 1940 it served as an ‘Action Post, Fire’ and in 1941 it housed a Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Unit. From 1942 it was used briefly to house POWs and from 1943 it was used as an alternative control centre for Southwick House (HMS Dryad).
On 19 February 1952, the Civil Defence Committee of Portsmouth Borough Council proposed the construction of a new main and group control for the Borough to be used in the event of a nuclear attack; it was decided this should be established at Fort Widley.
It was suggested that the main underground magazine and the ground floor of the barrack block should be adapted. Work on the conversion started in 1953 when further modifications were made to the main magazine and the Borough Control was officially opened by General Sir Sidney Kirkman, Director General of Civil Defence, in January 1955. It continued to perform this function until the end of the cold war and the Portsmouth District Council Emergency Centre, as it was by then know, finally closed in 1992.
The fort was bought by Portsmouth City Council in 1972 and some restoration has been undertaken and it is occasionally open at weekends for public tours. Private tours can be arranged at other times by appointment. The area surrounding it is designated as a conservation and study area.
Fort Widley (and Fort Purbrook) are now administered by the Peter Ashley Activity Centre and Fort Widley houses The Fort Widley Equestrian Centre including a licenced riding school and pony care and saddle club with fully qualified instructors.
The gun emplacements on the ramparts, have been stabalised with some excavation and restoration. Two Moncrief pits can be seen at either end of the northern rampart, these mounted 7” RBL’s on disappearing carriages. Between the two Moncrief pits there are two pairs of open emplacements that mounted 68 pounder RML’s. Covered expense magazines can be seen alongside each emplacement, ammunition would have been brought up to these from the main magazine.
The two mortar batteries were originally going to be fitted with 13” mortars but eventually 6.6” howitzers (high angle guns) were installed. 32 pounder SBBL’s were mounted in the caponiers and in the keep. Between the two pairs of RML emplacements in the centre of the northern rampart there is a gunnery direction officer’s position consisting of a raised metal platform with a short ladder for access.
One of the mortar batteries has been adapted as a training area for the International Rescue Corps with a number of wooden structures being built within the tunnels to simulate collapsed buildings etc.