Built in 1852-5 at Sconce Point1, Fort Victoria was the very first Victorian fortification built to defend the Isle of Wight2. Fort Victoria was also the last of the Victorian Forts to remain in military service, staying in use until 1962.
Fort Victoria was the fourth fortification built on the site, though Worsley's Tower had been built nearby at Round Tower Point and Yarmouth Castle was a short distance away across the river Yar. There was also an invasion beacon here in 1324. The first fortification actually built on the site was Sharpnode Blockhouse, a wooden-clad earth coastal blockhouse3 armed with two cannon. The Blockhouse was diamond-shaped with two triangular tails on the southern and eastern points to form bastions4 facing inland to defend against attack from the higher ground. From eastern bastion point to west it was 60 feet wide. It was completed in 1547.
Despite being small and simple, Sharpnode Blockhouse was the third fort in Britain to have angle bastions, after Sandown Castle and Yarmouth Castle, both also on the Isle of Wight.
In 1589, after the threat of the Spanish Armada, Sharpnode Blockhouse was rebuilt. Although still an earth and wood structure, its shape was now a five-pointed star-shaped fort and it was renamed Carey's Sconce. This was named after the Island's governor, Sir George Carey5 and Sconce, a word derived from 'Schans', the Dutch word for Fort. This fort was labelled as 'Sharpnor Castle' on Speed's 1611 map of the Isle of Wight, as before the fort was constructed this area was known as Sharpenode Point. This fort was later neglected, abandoned and allowed to subside, with no trace remaining save for the name Sconce Point.
The third fort built on the site was constructed in 1803. During the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to invade Carey's Sconce was replaced by the earthen Sconce Point Battery. Armed with three cannon, it overlooked the Needles Passage, defending the Isle of Wight side while Hurst Castle defended the mainland side of the channel to the north. After the French were defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar, this final earthwork was no longer in military use. It was converted into a coastguard station to fight smuggling.
The Victorian Invasion Panics
In 1851, Louis Napoleon was re-elected President of the French Republic and in 1852 he was declared Emperor. This sparked an invasion panic, with fears that the French were prepared to land 60,000 troops in Britain overnight. In 1852 it was decided to protect the Needles Passage with a new fortification, and Sconce Point was the natural place to built it.
Shortly after the panic, Britain and France allied themselves against the common enemy of Russia in the Crimean War (1853-56), which had invaded the Ottoman Empire.
The Original Plans And Construction Of Fort Victoria
The original plans were actually rather different from the actual Fort Victoria. It was designed to be a two-storey diamond-shaped fort built at Sconce Point, with the strongest point facing out to sea. Square towers would protect the side points of the diamond, one in the middle of each flank, with the two landward sides to be loopholed walls. This plan, however, was considered to be too expensive and so the design was amended.
The new, reduced design was simpler and triangular in nature. The triangular brick fort's apex pointed out to sea at a right angle, with gun batteries on the west and north sides facing enemy shipping coming round Sconce Point. The rear, landward side of the fort consisted of two-storey barracks blocks on the east and west sides, with a two-storey loopholed gorge wall surrounding and protecting the fort's entrance. Entry via the fort's gate was protected by loopholes from the barracks blocks and by a portcullis which, if lowered, automatically raised the drawbridge.
The two seaward sides of the fort each had ten gun emplacements, plus an emplacement at the fort's point. Known as casemates, these emplacements were enclosed with arched roofs, with openings to the front and rear. This was done so that enemy shells would pass straight through the gun emplacements, rather than explode among the guns and gunners. Behind the two rows of gun casemates was a thirteen foot high earth mound called a parados. This was to absorb the enemy fire through the casemates and protect the rest of the fort, and also contained the latrines and shell stores. The main magazine and shell store was on the ground floor of the western barracks. The magazines were lit from behind glass windows to prevent sparks entering the room, and all men entering the magazines were required to remove all metal objects and wear special cotton clothes and shoes to minimise the risk of sparks.
In front of the casemates was a wet ditch or moat as well as a glacis – an earth slope which would help absorb enemy shot. The moat was the only feature protecting the front of the fort from enemy infantry.
The fort was similar in style to the forts built in Russia in the 1830s, which were to prove effective defences against naval attacks in the Crimean War 1853-56.
Fort Victoria was originally armed with ten 68-pounder smooth bore guns in the western casemates and ten 10-inch smooth bore shell guns in the northern casemate (plus one in the central point casemate). The fort was also armed with six 32-pounder guns mounted on the roof of each of the barracks blocks. These were able to fire over the one-storey casemates at the front of the fort. The fort was even constructed with embrasures on the barrack blocks' first floor facing seawards to allow further guns to be installed, yet none were. Each gun could be positioned by used of a central pivot and racer tracks, and required a gun crew of ten men, each with an assigned role.
In 1856 the Royal Engineers built the pier that is next to the fort. This was on the site of a former coastguard landing pontoon used when the site was a coastguard station, and was the third pier built on the Isle of Wight, after Ryde Pier6 and Cowes Fountain Pier. As the water off Sconce Point is surprisingly deep (eighteen feet at the pier head, even in the lowest tide), the pier was quite short but used as the main supply route to Fort Victoria.
History Of Fort Victoria
Fort Victoria was finished during the height of the Crimean War, and as a consequence most of Britain's regular army was overseas. Because of this, the first detachment to garrison Fort Victoria was the Isle of Wight Militia, a group of part-time volunteers. Militia units had sprung up nation-wide following the invasion scares of the 1840s and 1850s. The Isle of Wight Militia installed the guns and equipped the fort, before being replaced by the Royal Artillery's 5th Company of the 8th Battalion, after the Crimean War ended in 1856.
In 1858 Fort Victoria's defences were tested when the army fired at the earth bank in front of the fort to measure its defensive effectiveness. In 1861 three new Armstrong 7-inch breechloaders were installed in the fort's salient corner casemates.
By the mid 1860s newer forts were constructed on the Island as a result of the 1859 Royal Commission. The first forts, Fort Victoria and Fort Albert, were no longer as important – having been built out of brick, they were now vulnerable to shells fired from rifled guns and were considered obsolete as fortifications. In 1872 the 7-inch guns were removed from the fort amid proposals for the fort to be demolished. The remaining guns were removed in 1876, although a small saluting battery of eleven 24-pounders were nearby, east of the fort. After 1876 Fort Victoria was used as a barracks for local infantry until 1885, when the fort was fully vacated. The saluting battery was removed in 1891.
The Royal Engineers
In the 1880s the Royal Engineers used Fort Victoria as a barracks from which to stay whilst searchlight experiments all along the Island's north-west coast were conducted.
In the 1870s the electric carbon arc lamp was developed. This discovery was quickly developed into searchlights capable of illuminating battlefields and shipping lanes at night, and the Western Solent was a natural place to develop and test searchlight designs. Fort Victoria, along with many other West Wight forts along the coast, had experimental searchlight emplacements constructed in the 1880s.
In 1888 an experimental 'see-saw' emplacement was built to the left of the battery. The experiment was to try and construct a searchlight that would not be vulnerable to enemy fire, with the searchlight attached to a counterweighted girder, nicknamed a see-saw, which was sunk in a protected concrete pit. The searchlight could shine from either the top of the pit in peacetime or the bottom of a pit and have its light reflected off a mirror. Experiments with this equipment took place at both Fort Victoria and Warden Point Battery. Although the searchlight lamp was protected from enemy fire, the mirror was still vulnerable and the destruction of the mirror would force the defenders to risk exposing the searchlight itself to enemy fire, and so the experiment was not considered a success. Fort Victoria still retains the remains of the see-saw pit, the last one to survive.
Twelve replacement concrete searchlight emplacements were constructed along the north-west coast of the Island, from which searchlights were protected within a defensive structure. Three of these one-storey concrete searchlight emplacements were located in the vicinity of Fort Victoria, one west and two east of the fort, and were used to illuminate and monitor the adjacent minefield.
In 1891 the Royal Engineers took over Fort Victoria completely as their submarine mining depot, having also used the nearby Cliff End Battery since 1886. Submarine mines, now known as sea mines, were underwater mines operated by the Royal Engineers. At the time, sea mines were the responsibility of the army rather than the navy, specifically the Royal Engineers. Fort Victoria was occupied by No 22 (Submarine Mining) Company, Corps of Royal Engineers.
There were two types of mine commonly used:
Observation Mines were laid on the seabed connected by electric cables. If an enemy vessel was seen above the mines, the operator could select the mines closest to the target and ignite them.
Electro-Contact mines were moored to float beneath the water's surface and, if a ship struck the mine, could either explode automatically or send a signal by cable to an operator who would check whether the vessel was friend or foe.
The second system was considered to be more reliable, especially on foggy nights when dense fog patches could render searchlights useless.
In order to fit its new role, Fort Victoria undertook some changes. The parados was removed to form a flat parade ground, where more offices and storerooms were constructed. Also built was an 18-inch narrow-gauge railway, known as the tramline. This ran from storage sheds on the parade ground, through several casemates (the ones now the Underwater Archaeology Centre and the Planetarium) and out to Fort Victoria Pier. Here the mines could be loaded onto boats to be transported or laid. The mines were not permanently in place, but the Royal Engineers were prepared to be able to complete the mining of the Solent within three hours.
The north half of the moat was used to store cables and covered over. The casemates themselves were enclosed and used to store sea mines and in the hillside behind the fort the test room from which the mines could be detonated was constructed.
By 1905 the responsibility for submarine mining had passed to the Royal Navy; however the Royal Engineers stayed at Fort Victoria until 1920, manning the Needles Passage searchlights during the Great War.
While the Royal Engineers were stationed at Fort Victoria a ship was wrecked off Sconce Point. HMS Gladiator was a 12-year-old twin-screw 5,750-ton Arrogant-class cruiser with a crew of 250 men. On 25 April, 1908, a foul misty and snowy day, she set sail from Portland to Portsmouth at 10.30am, whilst at 12.30pm the American 11,630 ton mail liner SS St Paul sailed from Southampton on her way to New York. The St Paul and the Gladiator entered Hurst Race at the same time, at a time when the snowstorm was at its height. The two ships did not see each other until they were less than half a mile apart, heading on a direct collision course.
The Gladiator was moving at 9 knots, the St Paul at 13. Although standard convention decrees that if two ships are on a collision course both ships should swing their helms hard to port, meaning their bows swing to starboard so that they pass on the port side, on this occasion things went wrong. Captain Passow on the St Paul ordered the helm hard to port to swing the bow to starboard, yet the St Paul signalled 'Going to port'. Captain Lumsden on HMS Gladiator wrongly assumed that the St Paul was swerving the wrong way, and went hard to starboard. The bow of the St Paul headed straight for the cruiser and at 2.30pm crashed straight into the cruiser's starboard side, killing at least two men instantly and causing irreparable damage.
The sea rushed into the Gladiator through the hole created by the St Paul, and despite the desperate sealing of watertight doors, water still poured into the ship at an alarming rate. The ship slowly turned over and heavily listed onto her starboard side, throwing many men into the water.
The captain of HMS Gladiator grounded her on Black Rock, off Sconce Point, only 250 yards from the shore. Many men jumped into the sea in an attempt to swim to the Island, not knowing that the tidal current off Sconce Point is one of the most dangerous in Britain's coastline. Only four boats from the Gladiator were launched as many had been smashed by the collision with the St Paul, and as the Gladiator rested on her side, those on her port side were unable to launch. Of the four boats, one sank immediately, another only made one journey ashore before sinking, leaving only two.
The St Paul was also powerless to help, with the ropes and pulleys that launched the lifeboats frozen and blocked with ice. It took almost half an hour before the first boat could be launched, only for it to be driven away from the men in the water by the wind.
Fortunately Sconce Point was the site of Fort Victoria and its Royal Engineer garrison. The fort's gig and three dinghies were launched to rescue the sailors, with many men wading and swimming in the ice-cold water to rescue them. Corporal Stenning is reported to have dived into the icy water and saved seven men, before he himself was rescued from the sea, suffering from exposure. Sergeant Major Creeth saved four men before commandeering one of the St Paul's lifeboats and returning to rescue yet more. Over the next hour, the Royal Engineers rushed the sailors onboard HMS Gladiator to Fort Victoria. HMS Gladiator was fully evacuated, with many of her sailors recovering in nearby Golden Hill Fort's Military Hospital. Only one officer and 28 men had died: two killed by the collision, and 27 believed to have drowned.
After 5 months work, HMS Gladiator was stripped of her armament and righted, by which time she became almost a macabre tourist attraction for sightseers in hired boats including royalty from Osborne House. Six months later, she was towed to Portsmouth Harbour and finally sold for scrap for £15,125. The St Paul returned to Southampton for repairs, and was soon ship-shape again. The men of Fort Victoria were lauded as heroes for their actions, thanked by Portsmouth's Naval Commander in Chief, and three men were awarded medals by the Royal Humane Society.
Strangely, however, the SS St Paul unaccountably capsized and sank whilst in New York Harbour on 25th April, 1918 - exactly 10 years after HMS Gladiator sank.
Between The Wars
After the Royal Engineers left Fort Victoria in 1920, between the wars, Fort Victoria was placed in care and maintenance. It was still looked after by the army, but not garrisoned. The fort was mainly used to store and stow towed targets. These would be launched from the pier and used as target practice for the adjacent batteries to fire at. It is known that, between the wars, pleasure steamers visited Fort Victoria Pier at least twice. This occured when plans were considered for a pier on the mainland at Keyhaven, opposite Fort Victoria, for a ferry from Keyhaven to Yarmouth (or possibly even Norton next to Fort Victoria). Parliamentary approval of such a ferry service was granted in 1936, but nothing more came of this.
The Second World War
On the outbreak of war, Fort Victoria saw action as one of the major supply routes for arms and ammunition to the Island. Unlike the majority of the Island's civilian piers, Fort Victoria pier was not sectioned to prevent its use by an invasion force. This was an issue as the armaments for many of the batteries on the west Wight were landed at Fort Victoria's pier. To help defend both the pier and the western Solent channel against invasion, in 1940 the Royal Navy armed the pier with fixed torpedo tubes and four Naval officers manned them. Any enemy vessels that made it into range past the other coastal batteries could be torpedoed.
Fort Victoria itself had a large and prominent role during the war. From 1941 to 1943 the 72nd Coast Training Regiment of the Royal Artillery was based at Fort Victoria, as well as neighbouring Norton Lodge. As most men in the army had been conscripted, training as many men in as a short a period as possible was of real importance when faced with the threat of invasion. The fort was used to train men manning coastal defence batteries all across the country, using the practice 6-inch Mark VII gun installed for this purpose after the Great War. This gun had been a standard First World War weapon and so was common in coastal defence sites. The training course also used the operational weapons at nearby Cliff End Battery and Bouldnor Battery. The training course took three months, after which time the recruits would be sent to arm coastal batteries all across the country.
In 1943 the need to train coastal battery gunners to defend against invasion was over, as Britain prepared instead to invade France. Fort Victoria was transferred to the possession of the Royal Army Service Corps, who were responsible for the army's supplies and transport. Fort Victoria, with its pier, was used by 42 Water Transport Unit (WTU), which operated four boat companies. From May 1943 42 WTU's headquarters were in Fort Victoria, whilst the unit operated supply vessels and launches in preparation for Operation Overloard – the D-Day landings. In June 1944 two of 42 WTU's companies went to Normandy as part of the D-Day landings, whilst the other two supplied and tendered vessels in the Solent. The two companies that went to Normandy were 624 Company, operating fast launches and 626 Company, operating harbour launches. Two fast launches from 624 Company arrived at the Normandy Beaches on 5 June 1944, the smallest own-powered vessels to cross the channel on D-Day. They escorted landing craft and amphibious vehicles and transferred supplies from the fleet to the beach. The rest of the launches joined them soon after, supplying the British beachhead with supplies, rescuing men from sinking ships and saving the injured.
Also accompanying 42 WTU on D-Day were men from the Royal Artillery's 129th Light AA Regiment who had also been stationed at Fort Victoria. Their Bofors anti-aircraft guns were landed onto barges from Fort Victoria and towed to Normandy to protect the Mulberry artificial harbour. On 22 July 1944 one of 626 Company's harbour launches took William Churchill from the Mulberry Harbour back to his ship. On 19 August 1944 the fast launch Hyperion took King George VI and future Prime Minister Anthony Eden on a tour of the Allied beaches.
After the successful invasion of Europe, the Water Transport Unit and Royal Army Service Corps based at Fort Victoria remained busy and began preparations for the invasion of Japan, recruiting hundreds of vessels for this. However, Japan surrendered before the invasion was needed. The commandeered vessels took place in the largest ever Fleet Review in the Solent on 3 September, 1945, with the Director of Supplies and Transport directing the vessels and orchestrating the review from Fort Victoria.
42 WTU remained at Fort Victoria until 1946, when the Water Transport Unit was disbanded.
After the Water Transport Unit had disbanded, Fort Victoria became the headquarters of the Water Transport Training Unit, which saw the benefit of having a coastal location next to a pier positioned in deep water.
Water Transport Training Unit HQ
The Water Transport Training Unit trained National Servicemen in operating the Royal Army Service Corps fleet. The barracks block was converted into classrooms and storage facilities, as well as a NAAFI7 mess. The northern casemates, those nearest the pier, were used to store boats near the shore when they were taken out of the water. The western casemates housed ship's engines that the men were able to train on. As the barracks were used as classrooms, the men were billeted in nearby Golden Hill Fort. Each day they would march the distance between the two forts, although a few would be lucky enough to occasionally be driven between the two in lorries. Vessels frequently berthed at the pier, or were brought ashore on the beach in order to aid the training. There were also several huts and sheds to provide additional facilities, including a RT (Radio Transmission) hut and several nearby boathouses were also converted into workshops and offices. Most of the RASC's Solent fleet were berthed in nearby Yarmouth harbour. In addition to the RASC, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, REME, had a light detachment in the boathouses near the fort to service to RASC vehicles.
In 1956 Fort Victoria was at its busiest at the time of the Suez Crisis. When the war broke out, Britain realised it did not have enough landing craft or crew trained in handling amphibious operations, and so large numbers of trainees were rushed to Fort Victoria to receive the training. The Suez Crisis ended shortly after it began, and so none of the men sent to Fort Victoria completed their training course before the war had ended. Despite this, as a result of the Suez Crisis 'Landing Craft Tank' courses became standard at Fort Victoria, preparing men to serve onboard Landing Craft Tank vessels. This course lasted eight weeks.
In 1960 National Service ended, and so the number of recruits needing to be trained drastically reduced. It was felt that the Water Transport Training Unit based in two forts on the Isle of Wight was no longer needed, and that the WTTU could be amalgamated with other RASC units based at Gosport, Hampshire. In February 1962 a ceremony was held at Fort Victoria marking the end of Army occupation of the fort, as the army left Fort Victoria for good. This was the last military garrison on the Isle of Wight.
1962 to Present
Fort Victoria passed to the local council, who inherited the fort intact. It continues to be owned and looked after by the Isle of Wight Council.
In 1967 Fort Victoria, a fort built to defend Britain from the French ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity ironically ended up portraying exactly that, as it was used in location filming of a BBC adaptation of Les Misérables. Fort Victoria's barracks block was the infamous French prison the Bastille in a ten-part television adaptation starring Frank Finlay as Jean Valjean8. Shortly after Fort Victoria found nationwide fame as the Bastille in Les Misérables, the barrack block was demolished in 1969.
The casemates, however, survive and, with most of them sealed, have been adapted to a number of different uses. The fort is a Grade II Listed building. The grounds of Fort Victoria are now Fort Victoria Country Park, part of the Isle of Wight's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and on the Isle of Wight Coastal Path and Walk The Forts walk. Fort Victoria Country Park is well signposted by brown tourist signs off the A3054 west of Yarmouth, which is a 20 minute walk away. It occupies 20 hectares of woodland and landslip, and boasts relaxing woodland walks and stunning views of the Solent. The woodland area is also populated by red squirrels9.
In the fort's casemates are a cafe, an aquarium, a planetarium, and the Underwater Archaeology Centre (part of the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology museum with displays about many of the nearby shipwrecks). There is also a model railway as well as nature trails, free parking, public toilets, and the Ranger Centre. Sadly, although Fort Victoria pier still exists it has been badly neglected, and is now fenced off to prevent the public from approaching. Without urgent restoration work, the pier is in danger of being lost forever.