By far the largest of the Isle of Wight's batteries and the principal land defence of the Eastern Solent and Spithead, Puckpool Battery was unique on the Island for being the only battery on the Island designed to encompass mortars as its armament. From 1865, up until 1894 when Steynewood Battery was completed, it was the only battery on the Island defending the waters of Spithead.
The Battery Proposed
The eastern part of the Solent just outside Portsmouth Harbour, known as Spithead, has been home of the Royal Navy since Portsmouth established itself as Britain's principal naval dockyard in Tudor times. As such, Spithead would be a principal target for any invader or attacker, and so the defence of Spithead was taken very seriously by the Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom when it published its report in 1860. Originally they proposed two 10-gun batteries to help defend Spithead and support the planned Sea Forts. One would be located near Appley House1 and a second at Nettlestone Point. However, as the Royal Commission's proposals were considered too expensive, the plans were modified. Instead of two separate batteries, in 1861 it was instead proposed that a single large battery would be constructed at Puckpool Point, a position between Appley and Nettlestone Point.
Puckpool Point was the perfect location for the intended battery at the time, lying almost directly south of Gilkicker Fort at Gosport. Between Gilkicker Fort and Puckpool Mortar Battery would lie the two planned sea forts, Ryde Sand Fort and Sturbridge Fort. Both sea forts were abandoned after several attempts to build foundations on the Sturbridge shoal and Ryde Sands failed. Spitbank Fort was enetually built further to the east, and later a smaller sea fort was built at St Helen's to support Puckpool Battery.
The 1861 proposal for Puckpool Battery was for a large battery armed with 30 13-inch smooth-bore mortars and 27 guns. Mortars were short, stubby pot-shaped weapons that were considered old fashioned even in 1860. They were mounted on wooden platforms at an angle of 45°, pointed in the right direction by means of a turntable, and range was decided through adding more or less powder before firing. This made them extremely inaccurate; however it was considered that this would be acceptable when engaging an enemy fleet and firing in high numbers. They fired explosive shells high into the air that would plunge down onto their intended target – an ironclad's vulnerable wooden deck. It was expected that enemy ironclads would be slowed in their approach to Spithead by the sea forts, leaving them vulnerable to mortar fire from Puckool. The mortars had an effective range of 1,800 yards but could fire their 207lb shell up to 2,900 yards.
In 1862 this proposal was accepted. The Defence Committee approved the construction of 'a battery for 27 guns and 30 mortars with necessary barrack accommodation' and work on constructing the mortar battery at Puckpool Point began in 1863.
By 1864 the proposals were again simplified. The barrack accommodation was considered no longer necessary, and the number of mortars reduced to 21, to be arranged in seven groups of three with earth embankments dividing each group from the next for protection in case of explosion. Between every second earth bank lay a small expense magazine containing mortar shells and cartridges. Only four guns were to be emplaced, to cover the adjacent beaches which, unlike much of the Island, were unprotected by cliffs. It had been decided that '[Puckpool Battery should] be considered as a battery wholly for vertical fire and not for part guns and part mortars as hitherto proposed.'
The Battery In The 1860s
The battery was originally sickle-shaped, with a large ditch and sea wall to the north of the gun positions, which were behind a large clay and turf rampart, but no other land defences. By 1865 the battery was completed and weapons installed. As well as the mortar positions, two storage sheds were provided to protect the mortars and their gun platforms from the elements during peacetime. There were two main magazines, bombproofed, behind the mortar enclosures and a 400 gallon cistern and well to provide water. However, shortly after the battery was completed there was again debate about changing its design.
Throughout the 1860s the Ordnance Select Committee were strongly opposed to the use of mortars, despite their use still being approved by the Defence Committee. This was partly as a result of lessons learnt in observing the American Civil War (1861-5).
By 1867 the battery's design had again changed to incorporate a small barrack block for four officers and 67 men close to the east side of the battery. Five light guns were emplaced to cover the battery's flanks from the beach, two on the west covering the beach towards Ryde, three on the east covering the beach towards St Helen's. There were 30 13-inch mortars, arranged in blocks of four with one practice battery near the west flank. The blocks of mortars were arranged in two rows, with the forward mortars fired remotely, using a lanyard, simultaneously with the rear mortars. The west magazine was now to be used as the cartridge laboratory, and both magazines contained a cartridge store and Royal Artillery store.
In 1872 it was decided to replace the light guns with four 11-inch RMLs, two on each flank. These were to be the heaviest guns yet installed on the Island and, as the Hampshire Telegraph reported in October 1872,
'The last detachment of the Royal Artillery from Puckpool Battery near Ryde... have successfully accomplished the landing and placing in battery of some 25 ton guns. These guns, we learn, are capable of piercing 14.5 inches of iron plates backed by one foot of teak, with their battery charges, at 1,000 yards... We believe these are the heaviest guns at present on the Island, and are capable of keeping an ironclad... at a respectable distance.'
The debate about the viability of mortars continued through the 1880s. In both 1883 and 1884 a target the size and location of an enemy ship was anchored off Puckpool Battery for the mortars to fire at. The results of these tests were that, when each mortar fired once, one shot would hit target and of the rest over half would be within fifty yards of the target. As it was considered that just one shell would be enough to penetrate a ship's deck that was made of 1.5 inches of iron and 4.5 inches of wood these tests were considered inconclusive. However, by 1887 the number of mortars was reduced from 30 to 22. In 1888 the remaining mortars were removed and the 11-inch guns were initially considered to be mounted on long range mountings. This would haved allowed an effective range of up to 5,000 yards at up to 20° elevation, rather than the standard maximum range of nearer 2,000 yards.
Instead in 1889 two 10.4 inch RMLs were installed in experimental Armstrong 'protected barbettes', one on the right flank and one in the centre. A barbette battery has guns firing over a concrete parapet rather than through an embrasure. These two guns within protected barbettes were experimental prototypes for the 100-ton Armstrong guns later mounted at Gibraltar and Malta. The barbette was protected in its method of loading the muzzle, which was traversed, or swung to the side, and depressed to allow the cartridge to be rammed down the barrel in safety. Each of the guns had their own range-finding pedestal on top of their magazines. These were the only examples of the Armstrong protected barbettes in the UK. The only other examples were four in Tangiers and two in Adelaide, Australia.
In 1894 Puckpool Battery was no longer the only battery on the Island's east coast defending Spithead. Steynewood Battery protected the St Helen's Roads anchorage and the Nab Passage. As a result, Puckpool Battery began to decline in importance; however, additional accommodation for officers and married NCOs was provided.
The Twentieth Century
In 1900-1 the battery was rebuilt to emplace steel breech-loading guns. The centre protected barbette and neighbouring 11 inch RML were replaced by barbette positions for two 9.2 inch breech loading Mark X guns designed to sink any enemy battleships attacking Portsmouth Harbour from Spithead. Two smaller 6 inch BL Mark VII guns were positioned to the west to counter cruisers and blockships. The battery therefore had on the left flank two surviving 11 inch RML emplacements as well as a surviving mortar bay, the two 6 inch BL and two 9 inch BL guns in the centre, and on the right flank one 11 inch RML emplacement, a mortar bay and one 10.4 inch RML in a protected barbette. By 1908, however, the two 6-inch guns were transferred to Spitbank Sea Fort. In 1912 the west 9.2 inch guns was placed in reserve. In 1913 two infantry Maxim machine guns were installed in the battery for local defence.
During the Great War No. 32 Company, Royal Garrison Artillery, manned the battery mainly as a depot for coast gunners transferring to siege batteries on the Western Front. In 1916 the reserve 9.2 inch BL gun was sent to Portland. After the war, the battery was placed in care and maintenance until 1927, when the eastern 9.2 inch gun was removed. The battery was sold in 1928 to St Helen's Urban District Council, opening as a park and public garden in 1929.
During the Second World War the battery and the neighbouring land, which was the Warners Holiday Camp, were requisitioned by the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 to become HMS Medina. This was a Fleet Air Arm training facility, although the civilian ARP (Air Raid Precautions) had a telephone centre in one of the 9.2 inch shelters and the Observer Corps had a post on the east Mortar magazine, which was used to plot enemy air raids. In 1940 a gas decontamination centre was built behind the 6-inch gun emplacements. The 9.2 inch emplacements were used to hold anti-aircraft guns, weapons unheard of at the time of the battery's construction.
By 1943 the Fleet Air Arm left the battery, which was instead transferred to the Royal Navy's 35th Maintenance Unit, which was tasked with converting barges into landing craft ready for D-Day as well as landing craft training support. Although the conversion took place at Fishbourne Creek, their accommodation was at Puckpool. After D-Day they were involved in landing craft repairs.
After the Second World War the battery reverted to a public park, with its coastal location ensuring its popularity. It is a short stroll along Ryde's golden beaches from Ryde Esplanade, where one can find the train station and hovercraft terminus, as well as Ryde Pier for the ferry to Portsmouth. It is also close to the picturesque folly of Appley Tower, and has a small museum dedicated to Marconi.
The park perhaps reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it contained a cafe in the former barracks, an aquarium and aviary, tennis courts, crazy golf course and bowling green. The park boasted an assault course in the battery's dry moat as well as several unusual examples of play equipment in the park in addition to the normal swings. These included one of the largest slides on the Island as well as an unusual 'witch's hat' roundabout, which as well as rotating also undulated or wobbled so that those on the roundabout enjoyed being at various heights from the ground. The holiday camp remained next door, and it was not unknown for local children who knew the location of the gate separating the holiday camp from the rest of the playground to enjoy playing on the holiday camp's play equipment also. For adults there was also a good pub next to Puckpool Park called The Battery, which prided itself on its neighbour and had a wonderful collection of statues of Dad's Army characters in its garden. The history of Puckpool Battery also was highlighted for the first time, with the publication of an excellent guidebook written by Anthony Cantwell and Peter Sprack.
Sadly, however, in the 1990s the aquarium and aviary closed. The assault course in the moat was not properly protected from the sea air, and thus became overgrown and deteriorated. The large slide and witch's hat roundabout fell foul of nonsensical health and safety regulations and were replaced with bland, thrill-free alternatives, and at time of writing The Battery pub has changed hands, been renamed The Boat House and is now aimed at snobby yachtie customers rather than families and locals.
The 21st Century
Although the fortunes of Puckpool Battery have declined in recent years, there is strong hope for the future. In 2009 it was announced that Puckpool Battery, as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, would be a small part of a bid for World Heritage Site status for Spithead. The nominated area includes the waters of Spithead, including the sea forts and historic shipwrecks and both the Isle of Wight's Spithead shore as well as the shore on the mainland side of Spithead, in particular Portsmouth Harbour. Puckpool Battery is included as Area 15 of the bid. Although gaining World Heritage Status is a long and laborious process that can take several years to achieve, even if unsuccessful the extra publicity generated by such a bold venture can only be of benefit to Puckpool and help it achieve the recognition it deserves.
The Park still contains a cafe, 18 hole putting green, 15 hole crazy golf course, two tennis courts and three bowling greens. As mentioned it is a short stroll from Ryde Esplanade although Puckpool is a stop for the Dotto Train2, which in the summer takes tourists between Ryde town centre and the esplanade, which includes the outdoor waterside pool, boating lake, bowling and ice-skating.