Spitbank Fort1 is a medium-sized circular sea fort built at the end of the Spit sand bank, one mile from the shore. Finished in 1879, it was the first sea fort in the Solent to have been completed.
The Siting Of Spitbank Fort
Although originally proposed in February 1860 by The Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom, the Spitbank Fort was excluded from subsequent proposals in the early 1860s until it was discovered that the intended fort on the Stubridge Shoal could not be constructed. In July 1864 the Special Committee on Spithead Defences reported:
'The works on the Sturbridge and Spit were intended to command the anchorage, supposing an enemy to have passed the outer forts.
...The preliminary trials at Sturbridge having led to the conclusion that a good foundation could not be obtained on that shoal. Under these circumstances, and after visiting the locality, we unanimously recommend that such a work should be constructed on the Spit Bank, in the position shown on the accompanying chart, about 600 yards to the south-west of the point on which it was originally proposed by the Defence Commissioners to erect a fort.
A work so planned would, in conjunction with the batteries at Fort Monckton, bear immediately upon the anchorage of Spithead; it would also co-operate with the works on Horse Sand and No Man's Land, and with the Blockhouse Point and Southsea Batteries in the defence respectively of the outer channel to Spithead, and of the inner channel to Portsmouth harbour.'
Spitbank Fort was positioned closer to Portsmouth harbour in Hampshire, the home of the Royal Navy, than the other sea forts. Its corner position on the end of Spit sands is where the deep-water channel north to Portsmouth harbour meets the Solent's deep-water channel running south-east to west. Portsea Island (home to Portsmouth and Southse) lies east of Portsmouth harbour and was defended by Southsea Castle, while Gosport to the west of Portsmouth harbour was defended by Fort Blockhouse and Fort Monckton. Spithead Fort was therefore at the centre of a second line of defence, assuming an enemy fleet could survive running the gauntlet between No Man's Land Fort and Horse Sand Fort. Spitbank Fort was only 1,205 yards away from Southsea Castle, but 3,221 yards from Horse Sand Fort and 3,725 yards from No Man's Land Fort.
The Building Of Spitbank Fort
Spitbank Fort was built as a replacement sea fort for the failed fort on the Sturbridge Shoal. In August 1865 the Defence Committee approved the Fortifications Committee's recommendations for the position of the fort, and in April 1866 the Defence Committee approved the designs for Spitbank Fort, as well as St Helen's Fort and the ill-fated Ryde Sands Fort.
Work on constructing Spitbank Fort began in March 1867, two years after work had begun on building the larger No Man's Land and Horse Sand Forts. Construction began 17 feet below the average low water mark. In 1868 the Defence Committee decided to cut costs and amended the plans so that only the exposed, seaward half of the fort would be armoured.
In 1868 Parliament ordered a report on the construction, condition and cost of the forts. Spitbank Fort was reported as likely to cost £167,300. The fort was handed over to the War Department with its foundations and masonry complete on New Year's Day 1869. After this date work on constructing the fort's iron armour and superstructure began. The armour was designed by Captain Inglis and Lieutenant English of the Royal Engineers after their involvement in the Shoeburyness guns and armour experiments. The armour consisted of a twenty-five inch thick layered sandwich of five inches of iron plate, supported by wrought-iron and teak. Concrete and iron plates were used elsewhere on the fort. The fort was designed to easily allow extra iron plates to be fitted to the front should the need for extra armour arise.
In 1872 the approval of sinking a central well shaft was given, however boring did not begin on this until May 1877. The well shaft was 401 feet deep before reaching pure water. The well was capable of delivering 1,400 gallons of water an hour. Spitbank Fort was completed in 1878.
The Layout Of Spitbank Fort
Spitbank Fort is two-thirds the size of the two larger Solent forts, and has one basement level and one gun floor as well as the roof level. At the bottom Spitbank Fort is 162 feet in diameter, narrowing in steps to 146 feet2. At the sea bed Spitbank Fort's walls are 48 feet thick, with the foundation walls made of 8 ton pre-cast concrete blocks as well as masonry.
The basement of the fort was used primarily as the fort's magazine, and so is dark with thick walls and little natural lighting. The outer ring was mainly used as shell stores as well as other stores and some cartridge stores. Access to the basement was down the central spiral staircase. The outer passage was known as the bolt passage, as from here holes in the wall allowed additional iron armour plates to be bolted on to help protect the fort. The bolt passage is very narrow at two and a half feet wide. One of the holes was used to bring a submarine telephone cable into the fort.
The inner ring housed the cartridge stores, kitchen and provisions store. The inner ring was divided into two, the shell passage on the south side and the store passage on the north. To get to the magazine men would first have to enter the shifting lobby next to the latrines. From here the men would put on special cotton clothes that would reduce the risk of sparks, so that the gunpowder stored here would not be set off accidentally. By each shell store and cartridge store was a lift direct to the guns above, as well as a voice tube to enable conversation between the guns above and the workers below. A whistle each end of the voice tube could be used to summon someone from the other end. The shells and cartridges, being highly explosive, were subject to a constant inventory vigil. Lamps were not allowed within the magazine and lighting was provided by lamps the other side of lighting lobbies protected by plate glass windows or in a special overhead mezzanine lighting passage that allowed the light, but no risk of flame, into the magazine. A small track was provided to help service the oil lamps.
The fort was originally armed with 15 guns and the gun level was essentially divided into two halves. The northern half, that closest to Portsmouth and least likely to be attacked, was armed with six 7-inch seven-ton RMLs, guns 1-3 and 13-15. These were housed in a brick and granite structure facing towards Portsmouth. Behind the gun positions were quarters for the officers, their servants and staff sergeants, as well as the officer's latrine. There was also a guardroom, ablution room, laboratory and the central courtyard. The entrance to the fort was also on the northern end of the circular fort, via the landing stage and steps. Gun position 1 was the one next to the entrance, with the guns numbered anti-clockwise from there. The door itself was 5-inches thick and made of oak and elm.
The southern half, the side facing the potential enemy attacks, was designed to hold nine guns in an iron superstructure facing out to sea. The walls here were thinner than in the brick and granite structure to the south, but much stronger. The guns were originally 10-inch 18-ton RMLs in gun positions 4 to 12but these were later replaced with the more powerful 12.5-inch 38-ton RMLs. Each gun could be traversed through 60 degrees and two replica 12.5-inch guns are emplaced in positions 11 and 12.
Behind these guns were two rooms that could each sleep 12 men, fitted with a stove and beds for peacetime use, as well as hammocks for war-time when additional men would be stationed in the fort. The maximum wartime garrison would be 131 officers and men, as opposed to the 24 gunners, two staff sergeant, officer and officer's servant in peacetime. Later two searchlight positions were built cantilevered onto the outside of the fort, next to a similarly-constructed latrine.
In addition to the gun-level armament, the fort was designed to house two turrets on the roof. These turrets were built on piers direct from the sea bed rather than resting on the fort's structure so that if the rest of the fort were damaged by enemy ships, the turrets would not be affected. The roof was armed with two 4.7-inch quick firing guns in 1899, and later held position-finding cells, submarine directing stations, the battery command post and a lighthouse dating from 1938.
Spitbank Fort was, despite being the third fort to be started, the first to be completed in 1878. Although the fort's construction had been paid for by a special treasury budget, the fort's armament was expected to come out of the Annual Defence budget. Having been armed with six 7-inch RMLs and nine 10-inch guns when constructed, it was not until 1893 that more powerful 12.5-inch guns were emplaced, although in 1882 machine guns had been supplied to the Spithead forts.
In 1898 one of the 7-inch guns was removed. In 1899 the roof was armed with two 4.7-inch quick firing guns and equipped with two searchlights, as the fort's principal target was now light craft such as torpedo boats rather than larger warships. One of the searchlights was housed outside the fort in a structure cantilevered on to the side of the fort, accessible via a precarious walkway. The other was housed in the empty casemate vacated by the removed 7-inch gun.
By the early 20th Century the RMLs were considered obsolete due to their slow rate of fire. All the RMLs except three 12.5-inch guns were removed from the fort in 1905. The three that remained were to be 'running-past' guns; weapons permanently aimed at one position that would be fired as soon as an enemy target ran past, into the guns' sights. In 1906 it was recommended to emplace two Mark VII 6-inch breech-loading guns on the roof. The Mark VII 6-inch guns were the standard coast defence guns at the time, designed by Vickers Son & Maxim and could fire a 100 pound shell through 15 inches of armoured plate at 1,000 yards and was particularly effective against unarmoured ships. It was an effective weapon introduced in the first decade of the 20th Century, and many stayed in service until coast defence was abolished in 1956. In 1906 the original searchlights were replaced with three newer, more effective ones, with the third in another empty casemate.
In 1907 Major Dalton, Royal Garrison Artillery, inspected the fort and discovered that the 6-inch guns were not in place. The first finally was mounted in 1909, the second in 1910, when the remaining RMLs were removed.
During the Great War Spitbank Fort saw little service and one of the 6-inch guns was removed in 1916 with the other left in care and maintenance. In 1922 the 4.7-inch guns were removed, only to be replaced in 1926 and then removed for good in 1938. Meanwhile, in 1931, a 6-inch gun was returned to the fort.
The Second World War
During the Second World War the fort was armed with two Lewis guns and a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun. The fort was manned by 154 Battery, Royal Artillery. This was initially a Territorial Army unit of local men, although conscripted soldiers later filled the fort so that over 80 men were living in the fort. To cope, a barrack block was built in the courtyard in 1941, although this reduced the amount of sunlight that filtered through to the basement below.
In October 1940 154 Battery was renamed to 123 Battery, 529 Coast Artillery, and charged with monitoring ship movements and commanding the area between Portsmouth Harbour and Horse Sand and No Man's Land Forts. All vessels had to display the 'light of the day' and the searchlights pinpointed any vessels at night not showing this. A watch in the Battery Observation Post could contact Fire Control Headquarters and the other forts in the area to man the guns. Watch was also kept for enemy aircraft, which frequently dropped mines into the Solent. Several ships, including minesweepers, were lost in the Solent. The HMS Portsdown was mined close to Spitbank Fort.
Life on the fort was rough, especially in the harsh, cold winter of 1939-1940. In bad weather no supplies could reach the fort and even when supply barges could, carrying the supplies – especially sacks of coal – was not a popular task. There was always the risk of an enemy attack, or even the danger of friendly fire from falling shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns protecting Portsmouth, especially those placed at Gilkicker Point. One of the highlights of fort life was in the summer when swimming around the fort was allowed, although care had to be taken that the strong currents in the area did not sweep anyone out to sea. Shore leave was greatly appreciated when available.
In 1945 the Bofors gun was removed, followed by the removal of the 6-inch gun in 1948. Coast Defence ended in 1956, and the following year the searchlights and their generators were removed. Spitbank Fort was put on the market in 1962 when the War Department felt the fort was no longer needed. Although several proposals were made by interested groups in the fort, including plans for a private residence, marine salvage depot, oil rig preparation training facility, broadcasting station and energy source testing centre, the fort remained unsold.
In 1982 local businessman Shaun Maguire bought the fort from the Ministry of Defence and, after restoration work, opened it to the public in 1984. Sadly Portsmouth Council bound his attempts to ferry passengers to the fort in red tape and in 1991 he put the fort up for sale for £675,000. The fort was removed from the market soon after, but put back up for sale in 1996, when the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust expressed an interest in keeping the fort open to the public and ferrying passengers from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Sadly this too fell through and the fort was sold in July 2005 to entrepreneurs Neale Brickwood, Paul Holland and Ian Price who were using the fort as a 500-seat function room and had been granted a casino licence. They then put the fort up for auction November 2009 with a guide price of between £600,000 and £700,000, but the fort was sold the day before the auction. Mr Brickwood said:
'We've had a great four years owning Spitbank Fort and establishing it as the ultimate entertainment centre in the middle of the Solent, but when we received the offer for more than £1 million we felt we had to take it.'
The auctioneer, Rob Marchant, reported:
'The interest we had was enormous, with inquiries as far away as Hong Kong and the United States... It's not every day you get to buy a man-made island with privacy, security and space, with 50 rooms steeped in military history and some of the finest panoramic views in the UK.'
Amazing Retreats purchased Spitbank Fort and developed it into a hotel. The 5* Spitbank Hotel re-opened in April 2012. Their brochure boasts that the fort will be equipped with nine luxury en-suite private rooms sleeping 18 as well as a hot tub, sauna, gym, Function, TV and Games Rooms.