Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Fortifications ... and Gosport

Thoughts around a couple of chance details crystallised into memories worth exploring. Firstly there was Quest for Kim's description of Lahore Railway Station whose on-the-surface-fanciful castellated design is functional; it was built after the 1857 Indian Mutiny to be defensible as a fort. Then there's Ptak's Science Books' Snowflakes and Fort Construction--Scamozzi & Palmanova, which mentions the remarkable "star fort" of Palmanova, Italy.

Though I didn't remotely understand it at the time, I grew up among similar structures, the relics of a Victorian Cold War. Portsmouth harbour - see map -

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is a strategic naval port, and was historically even more so. The Portsmouth side housed the dockyard; Gosport (where I was born) was a garrison town that also handled the infrastructure of victualling and materiel. The 1850s saw a particularly tense period in its history. According to The Story of Gosport (Leonard White, various eds. including Barrell, 1966)

During the 1850-60 period there was constant rivalry between England and France and the danger of open warfare with a French invasion was constantly in the minds of English service chiefs. The aggressive diplomacy of Lord Palmerston, the rise to power of Napoleon III and the frequent clashes of policy between the two countries led people to quote the famous words of the Duke of Wellington: "I am bordering on seventy-seven years passed in honour. I hope that the Almighty may protect me from being a witness of the tragedy I cannot persuade my contemporaries to take measures to avert". The tragedy he contemplated was a full scaled French invasion of the south coast.

As a result of such concerns, Palmerston (as First Lord of the Treasury - i.e. Prime Minister) instigated the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom, which concluded that fortifications should be upgraded for key locations. One of these was Portsmouth Harbour, with an especial focus on securing the weakly defended Gosport side against attack from landward; the town had relatively simple ramparts around its core harbour section. The upgrade took the form of a line of forts across the full width of the peninsula. These, and their contemporary fortifications - see the Palmerston Forts Society - became later known as "Palmerston's Follies". They were built on a new design that replaced the former "bastion system" (essentially, star-shaped fort designs optimised for defence against close-range attack) in favour of the "polygonal system": heavily-armed low-profile forts also designed to prevent attackers getting close, furthermore arranged according to the "Prussian system" where adjoining forts provided each other supporting cross-fire. (See Fort Brockhurst and the Gomer-Elson Forts, David Moore, Solent Papers No. 6, 1990, ISBN 0 9513234 3 1).

How effective they would have been is moot, as is whether they were actually follies or provided a deterrent. The similarly-designed Belgian fortresses (such as Fort Liezele) didn't significantly impede German advance in World War 1 (they were vulnerable to the latest heavy mortars) which was why the French didn't bother to much defend the also similar Verdun forts.

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Most of the Gosport forts are still extant: No. 2 Battery, Fort Grange (now occupied by a football pitch and tennis courts - swords into ploughshares!), Fort Rowner, Fort Brockhurst (which is open to the public and used as a store for English Heritage reserve collections) and the overgrown Fort Elson (which is being allowed to decay, being inside an M.O.D. facility). There are a number of others to the north, such as Fort Fareham, which houses an industrial estate. A final one, Fort Gomer, the first of these new forts, was here; I just remember it, shortly before its demolition in the early 1960s for the housing estate where we lived. The only physical reminder of its existence is a cul de sac on the estate called Moat Drive, and the adjoining Gomer Lane (whose name pre-dates the fort).

Another of my early memories is of seeing steam trains at Gosport Station (which closed to traffic in 1969). This too has a history I didn't know: like that at Lahore, it was designed to be defensible, the only one of its kind in Britain. This design feature was the result of a lengthy dispute in 1840-41 over its building location: the Board of Ordnance considered it too close to the ramparts of the Gosport Lines, and so required it to become part of the defenses. See The Battle of Gosport Railway Station. The sea forts in the Solent must be unique too (see My Gosport); at low tide, the Isle of Wight FastCat ferry travels quite close to one, Spitbank Fort.

I must visit these places some time. They were enigmatic and inaccessible when I was a child, being M.O.D. occupied. Now that that role for the district has declined, many are open to the public. Looks interesting. In rather the same vein, I'll definitely check out June Hampson's "Daisy Lane" series. These are crime novels set in Gosport, starting in 1962 (when I was six and the town looked like this) and I'm rather taken by the in-joke of the heroine's name: Daisy Lane is a lane in Gosport. Judging by previews I've seen, the location is thoroughly authentic: Daisy runs a cafe that "encompassed the corners of North Street and North Cross Street". It's all redeveloped now, but as late as the 1960s, this was one of the scruffier areas of Gosport, still showing wartime bomb damage with large gaps and the adjoining houses braced with wooden supports. As the Orion Publishing interview reveals, it's based on a location where the author lived ("Daisy’s view was my view, even down to the ironmongers’ shop where she goes to get all her bits and pieces from"). I remember that, as well as the cafe, and the folksy radio spares shop in North Street, Speedy's, where I used to get wire to wind induction coils ("Speedy" wore a ghastly wig). The Fox Tavern still exists. (This section of the town is described vividly in Norman L Edward's autobiographical The Times In My Life, although a few decades before I or June Hampson knew it).

Compared to many places, Gosport seems not to have a great number of literary connections, whether as birthplace of authors or as a setting. That's a bit surprising, considering the scope for storytelling about its robust history as a port town, which gave rise to at least one shanty, "Gosport Nancy". However, it features as a location in Benjamin Leopold Farjeon's 1894 indictment of antisemitism, Aaron the Jew, of which the main character is a Gosport shopkeeper. Arthur Upfield (creator of the aboriginal detective "Boney") was born in Gosport, as was the novelist Lilian Harry a.k.a. Donna Baker. Rudyard Kipling would have known Gosport well in his later boyhood. As he wrote:

[Captain Holloway] ... with whom as a small boy I perambulated all Portsmouth, Gosport and Fratton
- Kipling and the Royal Navy, quoting letter of 22 October 1919, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 4, Ed. Pinney

(This was "Captain Hollaway" of the Captain and Mrs Holloway in whose Southsea house Kipling lodged for six years and where, as recounted in a number of his books, he was psychologically abused after the kindly Captain's death). A number of literati were among the guests at Bay House (now a school) when it was a minor stately home in the mid-1800s; they included Jane Carlyle (wife of Thomas Carlyle, and a considerable writer in her own right), Tennyson, Thackeray and Macaulay. See Bay House: a nobleman's seaside residence, by Jane Lewendon. A further indirect novelist connection is that one of Jane Austen's brothers, Charles, lived in Gosport for a time.

Addendum: For something of the flavour of the town historically, check out the landscape artist Martin Snape, 1852-1930, who painted many locations around Gosport, Hampshire, about a century ago. Recording the changing scenes of the semi-rural creeks and shores around Gosport in the early 20th century, they have a gloomy atmospheric quality that, for me, evokes a spine-tingling nostalgia. The above site by Gosport Discovery Centre, which recently assimilated Gosport Museum, has 188 images in a searchable database, Snape Online. The Richard Martin Gallery, Gosport, specialises in local artists and keeps a biographical page. There are a few more on the Martin Snape page - largeish images - at My Gosport.

- Ray

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