The short answer is fear of French invasion. France had been considered a rival for years, but in the late 1850s was revitalising its military power under Emperor Napoleon III. At the same time, the Crimean War (1854-56) had exposed weaknesses in the organisation of Britain’s armed forces. Britain was also slow to modernise its armaments, such as introducing breech-loading rifled small arms and artillery; France was not. Many in Britain felt insecure and concern about French aggression was widespread; whether justified or not, Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister, maintained that the French hated the British and would loose no opportunity “to inflict a deep humiliation”. In 1859, France launched La Gloire – the world’s first screw-propelled, steam-powered, iron-clad battleship. The new naval base at Cherbourg was a short distance away for a modern, powerful, steamship; Portsmouth, with its premier Royal Dockyard essential for the maintenance of ships protecting Britain’s growing empire, looked dangerously vulnerable to attack.
Palmerston set up a commission to “Consider the defences of the United Kingdom”, which reported in February 1860. Amongst other things, the commission recommended a chain of coastal defences, which included an intensive programme of fort building to protect the Royal Dockyards. The estimated cost was in the region of £11,850,000 – which I think is equivalent to about £870 million today – including the cost of land purchase, construction and armaments. By 1888, Parliament was advised that the cost had spiralled to £17 million – about £1.48 billion at today’s prices (?) – and the programme had still not been completed.
The irony is that the French army was annihilated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and whatever threat of invasion there had been from across the channel evaporated. Indeed, Britain’s future rival in Europe was more likely to be Germany, newly created under Prussian domination; and any German fleet would find the relatively undefended east coast of England a little easier to get at than the well-fortified south. By 1900, the defences on Portsdown Hill had been declared obsolete.
So, we are left with the remains of this massive network of very expensive brick and masonry fortifications, some of which have decayed or disappeared, and some of which have found other uses. You may conclude that all of this was a staggering waste of money that could have served better purposes. Unsurprisingly, the fortifications are collectively known as “Palmerston’s Follies.” There is, of course, a view that they served as a deterrent – which I mention in an attempt to be fair. Certainly, Fort Southwick was a working Royal Navy establishment well into the second half of the 20th century, and may still be owned by the Ministry of Defence.
In any event, Fort Nelson was at the cutting edge of How To Defend Yourself Against Military Attack in the 19th C. It is now open to the public and houses the national collection of artillery. You will find a labyrinth of passages, tunnels and rooms which, as you explore, make you realise the expertise and ingenuity that lay behind the design and construction, even if it may have been misplaced. Like its sister-forts, its purpose was to defend Portsmouth; the fear was that an invasion force would come ashore elsewhere along the coast and bring long-range guns to bear down on the naval dockyard from the north – so the major defences of these forts face inland. And they are impressive – an enemy would be confronted by a low profile fortification dug deeply into the chalk, with a moat, massively thick walls, bristling with guns and mortars, and where the 220 defenders could often stream ‘enfilade’, or flanking, fire onto the attackers.
The first troops were stationed at Fort Nelson in 1871, but the big guns did not arrive until the 1880s and were removed in the early 20th century. The fort then seems to have been used as a combination of barracks and store until the Second World War, when it became a munitions store for anti-aircraft batteries defending Portsmouth and its environs.
£3.5 million has been spent transforming Fort Nelson into an amazing place to visit. In the ‘Voice of the Guns’ gallery you can see, amongst other things, an amazing Turkish cannon from 1464 and, at the other extreme, a section of Saddam Hussein’s infamous ‘supergun’. But despite being dedicated to artillery, this place is not just about lots of big guns. There is much about the fort’s own story, the men (and women) who lived there – and various displays such as a recreated barracks room from the 1890s. The views from the fortifications are good, too. Personally, I just enjoyed wondering about – because it’s fascinating; I was particularly impressed that they built a separate tunnel for troops passing the magazines, so that sparks from their boots did not ignite the munitions. And there’s a decent café – what more could you ask?
Fort Nelson is lovingly cared for by the Royal Armouries, the same people that bought you the Henry VIII armour experience – their website is HERE. It was named for the neighbouring monument to Horatio, Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest admirals and victor of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
You’ll find Fort Nelson near Fareham in Hampshire on Portsdown Hill Road - west from the A3 or north off the A27 onto Downend Road. From the M27, come off at J11.