History

 

Sconce Point overlooks the western entrance into the Solent and provides a 'back door' access to the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth beyond. It has been fortified since the sixteenth century with the first structure being Worsley Tower. This was a small octagonal artillery tower built circa-1525 by Sir James Worsley. The guns installed upon its roof had an effective range of around one mile enabling it to cover the main shipping channel. However, it was overlooked by high ground and so a new fortification was built slightly further east. This new structure was Sharpnode Blockhouse and was constructed in 1547 concurrently with Yarmouth Castle. The new blockhouse was a simple square earthwork with twin angled bastions extending from its landward side. After the Spanish Armada of 1588 it was completely rebuilt by the Island's Governor, Sir George Carey, concurrently with other defensive upgrades such as at Carisbrooke Castle. The new fortification was a star shaped fortification which became known as a Carey's Sconce (also known as Sharpnor Castle). However, when the threat from the Spanish declined, following the peace of 1604, this earthwork was neglected.

 

No further fortification is recorded at Sconce Point until 1803. With the Napoleonic wars at their height, invasion fears swept through Britain prompting investment in coast defence. The subsided and collapsed earthworks of Sharpnor Castle were excavated and enhanced. A three gun battery was installed which, paired with upgrades to Hurst Castle, provided coverage of the passage into the Western Solent.

 

The defeat of the Franco-Spanish Navies at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) ended the immediate fear of invasion but it wasn't long before instability in France once again caused concern. In 1852 Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France prompting Britain to anticipate war. This resulted in construction of new fortifications and the sea passages around the Isle of Wight were deemed particularly at risk. Accordingly the same year work commenced on the first Victorian fortification on the Isle of Wight - Fort Victoria at Sconce Point.  Fort Albert followed shortly after.

 

Although originally planned to be more extensive, Fort Victoria was built in a simple triangular configuration protected by a ditch and with earthen mounds both in front and astern of the gun positions to absorb enemy shot. Gun batteries on the two seaward sides consisted of ten casemated gun emplacements plus an additional position at the apex of the triangle. The landward side consisted of barrack blocks. The roof of the structure was topped with loopholes for hand held weapons on the landward side whilst six 32-pounder guns were fitted to augment the seaward facing firepower of the casemated guns below. A drawbridge and portcullis restricted access and a pier, built in 1856, was the main method of resupply for the garrison.

 

Almost as soon as Fort Victoria had been started its purpose seemed to be overtaken by events. The invasion scares of 1852 evaporated the following year as Britain and France allied themselves against Russia in the Crimea War (1853-6). However, building of the fort continued and in only a few years relations between the two countries once again became strained. By the mid-nineteenth century the British Isles and Empire were protected by the size and superiority of the Royal Navy - a force larger than the next two Navies combined. However, in 1858 this superiority was reset when France launched the first seagoing Ironclad warship, the Gloire. Invasion fears swept through Britain and in 1859 a Royal Commission was assembled to review coastal defence arrangements. This Government of Lord Palmerston accepted its recommendations and initiated the biggest peacetime military building project in British history predominantly consisting of chains of forts to protect both the land and sea approaches to key dockyards. The Solent received significant upgrades and, although Fort Victoria was a relatively new structure, it was brick of built which was deemed vulnerable to the high powered weapons that could be carried on the new Ironclads. Accordingly new installations were built at Cliff End Battery, Hatherwood Battery, Needles Old Battery and Warden Point Battery. Fort Victoria was disarmed and converted into a barracks.

 

In 1888 the fort was used as a site for searchlight tests. The development, in the previous decade, of the electric carbon arc lamp gave an option for powerful long distance lighting. Aside from obvious benefits for lighthouses, the military sought to use it for searchlights at coastal choke points. Fort Victoria was the site of a 'see-saw' light - an experimental attempt to use a mirror to reflect the main beam out to sea rather than expose the floodlight itself to enemy fire. A few years later, in 1891, the Royal Engineers took over Fort Victoria in order to support their work on a remotely controlled submarine minefield across the entrance to the Western Solent. This key defence, which was only laid in a time of war, enabled the placement of remotely controlled mines that could be exploded from the fort. Numerous structural changes were made to support this new role including enclosure of the casemates.

 

The Royal Engineers left in 1920 and the fort was mothballed until World War II. Upon the outbreak of hostilities it was used as a training base for coastal artillery but by 1943 had become a logistics base for the Royal Army Service Corps. The fort's pier made it an ideal location for supply boats to replenish units in and around the Solent and it played a key role in the run-up to - and the immediate aftermath of - the Normandy offensive of 1944. After the war this role was changed to Water Transport Training supporting amphibious operations and in the run up to the 1956 Suez crisis it saw a flurry of training activity. However, with the end of National Service in 1960, such training was consolidated into a single site in Gosport and Fort Victoria became surplus. It was decommissioned in 1962 and the barracks were demolished in 1969. The fort has now been incorporated into the Fort Victoria Country Park with the casemates hosting shops and cafes.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Allen, R (1976). English Castles. Batsford, London.

Cantwell, A and Sprack, P (2011). The Needles Defences. Gosport.

Dyer, N (2011). British Fortification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fareham.

King, C.D.J (1983). Castellarium anglicanum: an index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales and the Islands.  Kraus International Publications.

Saunders, A.D (1966). Coastal Defences since the introduction of artillery.

What's There?

Fort Victoria is a mid-nineteenth century, single storey, brick and concrete Victorian Fort. It has been converted into modern shops and a car park but the ramparts are fully accessible and give superb views over the western Solent. The concrete remains of a see-saw searchlight emplacement are nearby. Fort Albert can be be viewed a short walk along the beach (at low tide only!).

Fort Victoria. The fort was a single storey brick built structure designed to withstand attack from wooden warships. However, just a few years after Fort Victoria was completed the French launched the first seagoing Ironclad warship, the Gloire. New fortifications were required, and the new waterline defences were built in granite and concrete augmented with Iron plating. Examples can be seen in the wing batteries at Hurst Castle and at the Needles Old Battery.

Western Solent Defences. Whilst the easiest way into the Solent was via Spithead in the east, the western entrance provided attacks with a back-door to Southampton and Portsmouth. Anti-ship fortifications were built to defend the entrance from the Tudor period onwards.

Western Solent (from Fort Victoria). The narrow gap of water into the Western Solent was defended by Fort Albert (just visible to the left) and Hurst Castle (on the right).

Searchlight Emplacement. The remains of a ‘see-saw’ searchlight emplacement directly adjacent to Fort Victoria. The electric carbon lamp, capable of a strong beam for target illumination, had been invented in the 1870s. However the bulb was vulnerable to enemy fire so it was protected in the emplacement whilst a large mirror, attached to the end of the ‘see-saw’ reflected the beam across the water.

England  >  South East (Isle of Wight)

FORT VICTORIA

Built to counter wooden sailing ships, the introduction of Ironclad warships made Fort Victoria obsolete before it was even completed. Accordingly it was replaced by other gun batteries and was instead used as a command centre for a submarine minefield. During WWII it served as a Logistics base supporting ships preparing for Operation Neptune (D-Day).

Getting There

Fort Victoria is the main shopping area for the Fort Victoria Country Park. It is sign-posted and there is a car park within the fort’s perimeter. Fort Albert is nearby.

Fort Victoria (including Car Parking)

PO41 0SA

50.706743N 1.521598W

Fort Albert

PO40 9XA

50.700352N 1.534302W