Wight Life

More of Palmerston's Follies

by M. Morely

Picture of Golden Hill Fort

Golden Hill Fort

SCONCE POINT is about two miles west of Yarmouth and is named for an old defence built there by order of an ex-island governor called Carey. In the year 1857, on this site was erected Fort Victoria. Built in the shape of a redan, it was armed with muzzle-loading guns, the whole of the building being surrounded by a water-moat. It is a fact that when it had been completed it was found to be already rather out-of-date, with the old muzzle-loading guns and brick built walls. (Brick walls were discovered to be no defence against the heavy armaments of the day and were stated by certain pundits of the time to be a serious death-trap tothe soldiers serving within them.

Victoria was probably never fully garrisoned by troops, although it had z barracks built within, and by the year 1886 all the armaments had been removed. With the advent of the major world wars, it served mainly as a store base for the army and, right up until 1960, was used and partly occupied in conjunction with Golden Hill fort by the waterborne division of the army, being a RASC target base. It has since been demolished. There is, however, a part of the outer walls that contain the remaining gun rooms and one can clearly see the large iron rings set into the walls,which were used to train the guns. There are also a few of the outhouses and living quarters still standing, now being used by various industrial companies. Prince Albert is thought to be one of its designers.

If you travel westward along the coast approximately 1½ miles, you would until recently have come across a very formidable looking building standing on the water's edge. Backed by a clay cliff, it looked out over the narrowest point of the Solent towards Hurst Castle. This used to be Fort Albert. Again it was built on the old military idea of defence in which the cannons were located in enclosed rooms with a small window out of which to fire! The snags of this system were that powder smoke from the guns virtually choked the soldiers; the brick-built gun rooms were very vulnerable to destruction by enemy shells, and the guns' arc of fire was restricted by the window openings.

Picture of Fort Albert

Fort Albert

After Fort Albert was completed in 1856, it was found that the ammunition became damp due to the fact that the magazine was on the bottom floor of the fort, which was itself close to sea level. This problem was common to other forts like Yaverland at Sandown Bay. So although Albert was capable of garrisoning three hundred men, it is very unlikely that it was ever called upon to do so and soon after 1880 it was abandoned as a defence and used as an experimental base for an early conceived torpedo. This part of its career was kept rather secret for obvious reasons but visible evidence still remains as to the way in which the torpedoes were launched — by steel guide rails leading into the water. Albert was also used for searchlight development, but during the two world wars it was equipped with suitable armament and reverted to its original defence role as well as serving as a supply depot. Now of course it has become the basic structure for a block of luxury flats, surely the strangest role it has ever been called upon to play.

Fort Cliff, which was built on the hill immediately to the rear of Albert, introduced the 'barbette' structure of defence. This consisted of open gun emplacements protected by mounds of earth, everything being strengthened by stone-work. The new Fort Cliff of the 1870s was very adequately armed with four 10-inch muzzle-loaders and six 12.5s . These 12.5s are the giant guns which were discovered during the conversion of Fort Albert into flats. Despite their weight of over forty tons, their range was only four miles. Forts Warden, Hatherwood, Needles and Redoubt are also of the 'barbette' design, built to protect the west of the Island. It was strongly thought at the time that the French and possibly the Russians, both of whom were smarting from wounds inflicted by the British, would try to take Portsmouth, and with this line of forts it was hoped to give a rough passage to those involved in the attempt.

Neither Cliff nor Warden had living quarters, the soldiers being housed at Golden Hill Fort, and every morning they would be marched from their base to these batteries.

Warden, which is just along the coast, shows what one can really do with such a building. It was bought in 1960 and converted into a holiday camp with many small chalets clustered within its walls. Although its sombre face has changed to a very neat and tidy holiday centre, the complete outside wall still remains for posterity. It was built in 1863, had eight 9-inch muzzle-loaders, and in 1886 was selected to be re-armed with modern 13.5-inch coastal defence guns: they did not however prove to be successful, probably because they were too cumbersome.

Hatherwood Battery is practically placed in Alum Bay. Some people call it Headon Hill, also Eden Hill, but the name given it by the military designers was Hatherwood. It was built about the same time as Warden, armed with two 12.5-inch and four 9-inch guns. It was reduced to two 12.5s and two 9-inch after 1886 and given up as a defence around 1920, although it is most likely to have been manned as a small defence during the second World War. It has since been demolished but one or two gun emplacements still survive and can be reached from a small turning on the right, approximately two hundred yards before the entrance to Alum Bay car park.

Below: The Needles Fort

Picture of The Needles Fort

On the left hand side of the road, immediately before the car park, lies a road that winds its way up the cliff, right out to the most westerly point of Wight. On the edge of the chalk cliff stands Needles fort. Again on the 'barbette' design, it was built about the same time as the rest of the supporting batteries, equipped with six 9-inch muzzle-loaders and surrounded by a dry moat cut into the chalk cliffs. It is now a coast guard station and most of its armament is still lying on the rocks many hundreds of feet below, having been thrown over the edge of the cliff when of no further use.

Picture of Fort Warden

Fort Warden

Needles was replaced by New Needles which is located further along the cliffs. Again, this was discarded by the War Office many years ago and although it was rented to the British Hovercraft Corporation for the development of the Black Arrow rockets, it has now fallen into disuse.

Last but not least, there is the Fort Redoubt in Freshwater Bay. Redoubt is also surrounded by a dry moat cut in the chalk and a tunnel gives access down into Freshwater Bay from the cliffs above. It was built in 1856 to mount two 64 pound muzzle-loaders plus three 8-inch smooth bore howitzers, the latter being designed to drop shots on to an enemy in the bay. It was the scene of a very serious accident in 1901 when one of the 12 pound breach loaders exploded, killing four men and injuring two others.

Redoubt was bought from the War Department in the '30s by a Mr Henry Crinage and has since been up for sale again.

The original intention of the Palmerston Commission was to build forts in all the bays along the back of Wight. But in view of the enormous cost of all the previous constructions — in excess of two million pounds — and of their apparent uselessness, further expenditure on these follies was curbed. Instead, the military road was constructed, giving quick transportation along the back of Wight. A viaduct along the road, quite plainly from this period, is still visible.

Golden Hill was the controlling fort and was capable of holding eight hundred men. Constructed in 1869, it was hexagonal in shape so as to give a good view all round and it was defended by 18 light guns. One extra purpose was served in that, should an enemy force a landing and march up from the south of the Island, Golden Hill would fill the gap to the rear of all the coastal defence forts. In the year 1888, a practice camp operated there to give firing practice out into the Solent. This carried on up until 1904 when it became mainly a training establishment. In this role it did service in conjunction with Fort Victoria right up until 1960. In 1964 it was sold and is now a small industrial estate.

That really completes the round-up of Palmerston's Follies. It is not easy to obtain information on them but they are beginning to be recognized as part of our history. Before we lose them all for good, maybe we should consider whether it would not be worth saving just one on our Island for our grandchildren to see.

I would like to thank Mr P Sprack and Mr G Weeks for their great assistance in the gathering of information. Both gentlemen would be most interested to see old photos or documents connected with the history of these forts.