Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Fort Gomer

I've mentioned the Palmerston forts of Gosport, Hampshire, a couple of times previously: see Fortifications ... and Gosport (19 Aug 2009) and Priddy's Hard (5 July 2012).

I briefly mentioned Fort Gomer, which no longer exists. I just about remember it from my childhood; my mother worked as a secretary at the school opposite, and sometimes she took me in along the lane that ran to the east of the fort. It was sold and demolished in 1964, and in my teens we lived for a time on the housing estate built on the site.

Fort Gomer, 1938 OS map. Historic map data is (© and database right
Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. (All rights reserved
2009). Low-resolution image reproduced for small-scale non-profit
use under the terms described in the Old Maps FAQ.

View Larger Map - the site as it is now. 

The estate does in part retain a 'ghost' of the fort; the western edge and south-western corner follow the original outline. Here's a superposition of that outline on the modern Google aerial photo.

In connection with all this, I just found in my scrapbook a clipping from the Portsmouth Evening News thirty years ago. They kindly granted permission for its re-use here.

 Fort Gomer
The memory lingers on in street names
by Chris Yandell

Gomer is Gosport's forgotten fort. It was demolished 18 years ago and only the names of several streets give a clue to its former whereabouts.

The streets - Martello Close, Moat Walk, Tower Close, and Moat Drive - form part of the Gomer housing estate, which was built in mid-Sixties.

The northern end of Galemoor Avenue roughly follows the course of the moat which surrounded the fort, and provided the soldiers with fish.

Gomer, completed in 1858, was released by the Army Department and fetched 169,000 at a Portsmouth auction in June 1964. Bidding began at £50,000.

The fort was bought by a Midlands-based construction company and demolished by a Fareham firm, which took several months to complete the project.

Included in the sale was the western side of Gomer Lane, from some Admiralty houses near Privett Road to a cottage at the Stokes Bay end.

Little has been written about Fort Gomer, and precise information is hard to come by. Few records, or photographs, appear to have survived the passage of time.

Books about Britain's coastal defences have largely ignored the fort. One published several years after Gomer was demolished said it was still in use.

Gomer was begun in 1853, when Gosport was protected by a fortified wall which ran from Trinity Green to the southern side of Forton Lake.

It was one of a row of forts built across Gosport's landward flank from Stokes Bay in the west to Portsmouth Harbour in the east.

The other forts were Rowner, Grange, Brockhurst, and Elson. All are still standing, but only Brockhurst, completed in 1862, is open to the public.

The five forts, known as the Gosport Advanced Line, were the first of their type in Britain.

Built to defend Portsmouth from attack by the French they were designed to keep the enemy further away from the harbour than the ramparts could.

An attempted landing on the Solent coast somewhere near Titchfield, followed by an attack on Gosport, was thought to be the most likely enemy strategy.

Then relations between Britain and France began to improve, and the forts guarding the Gosport peninsula stood waiting for an enemy which never came.

Gomer was considerably smaller than its nearest neighbours, and unlike Rowner, Grange and Brockhurst, did not have a circular keep.

The forts cost a total of £300,000, but the development of increasingly powerful weapons meant they were obsolete.

Ordnance development in the late 1850's, stimulated by the Crimean War, led to minor modifications at Gomer and For Elson.

But the invention of the Armstrong Gun meant the Gomer-Elson line was too close to the harbour to protect it from bombardment.

Gomer, the first of the forts to be built,w as nearly 500 feet wide, and about 800 feet long.

The eastern side of the ten-acre fort comprised of defensible barracks, built in the shape of a shallow V, and a rectangular parade ground.

The barracks contained soldiers' and officers' quarters, servants' roooms, a gaurd room, cells, an orderly room, a kitchen, and a hospital with two wards.

Ten magazines were dotted around the inside of the fort, plus two other side arms sheds. Other buildings contained stables, a coal store, and a wash house.

The entrance to the six-sided fort was about 500 feet from [sic] Gomer Lane, near what is now its junction with Broadsands Drive.

Nearby Number Two Battery was surrounded by a moat, linked to the River Alver.

The area in fron of Fort Gomer was marshland, and the water would have been used to flood the marsh if the fort was threatened.

Gomer's design was criticized in an 1856 essay about Portsmouth's fortifications. *

The author, Mr James Fergusson, said the sides were vulnerable to attack. The road at the back of the fort was another weakness, he added.

In 1886 Gomer was armed with two 13-inch mortars and 20 seven-inch rifled breech loaders. Heavier guns were placed in the more powerful forts to the north.

The exhibition at Fort Brockhurst contains a photograph taken at Fort Gomer in May 1889, of soldiers belonging to the 40th Foot Regiment.

Gomer and Elson had a fairly primitive design and it is thought unlikely they would have presented much of a threat to an attacking army.

They were reputedly used mainly as barracks for soldiers, who could have been quickly deployed to other parts of the Line if the need arose.

Gomer, the link between the other four forts and the Stokes Bay bateries, would probably have provided the men need to man the sea defences.

The fort was surrounded by open land, and when the threat of invasion was removed, all it was left to guard was a quiet countryside.

Moat of dinners, and death

Incidents in the history of the Fort included a man who murdered his family, and a soldier who drowned in the moat during an escape attempt.

One of the first men who served there married a Gosportgirl. The marriage ran into trouble when they moved to the Isle of Wight several years later, and he murdered his wife and their six children.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the killer when he was brought back to Gosport on his way to Winchester.

Gomer was a hive of activity in the early part of 1900, when it was used to train troops for the Boer War.

Hut battle

A few years earlier, a riot had broken out among a detachment of the Dublin Fusiliers, and several men were reported to have been injured in what became known as 'The Battle of Hut Four'.

A private in the Northumberland Fusiliers died at the fort in 1914 when he climbed over the walls and sank into the mud at the bottom of the moat.

Martin Quinn was in detention, but desperately wanted to visit the theatre in Portsmouth and decided to risk the ill-fated escape attempt.

The 7th Royal Tank Regiment was stationed at Gomer in the late 1940's.

Soldiers supplemeted their rations with fish from the moat, and two troopers appeared before Gosport magistrates, accused of poaching pheasants on a nearby estate.

- © The News, Portsmouth. Reproduced for non-profit use by permission.

* This most likely refers to James Fergusson's 1852 The peril of Portsmouth; or, French fleets and English forts.

- Ray

Monday, 30 July 2012

Science fiction allusions

I think at times I filter my whole life through science fiction allusions. I went out this evening, and on the way home saw this scary handle of a potato ricer (left) in our local hardware shop window, which strongly resembled the alien's tongue from Alien (right) ...

... and then in the pub I stepped on a cheap plastic ring, of which the remnant when I picked it up had a strong resemblance to the palm flower in William F Nolan and and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run, a dystopian SF novel (on which a rather crap film adaptation was based) in which the culture limits lifespan to 21 years.

All individuals have a flower implant in the palm. Red flower is when you're in the last third of your life, and it turns black on your last day, during which you're expected to report for euthanasia (if you don't, you get hunted down). In the film, the thing was a round faceted 'Lifeclock' crystal, but in the book it was described as a flower. There were various other differences between book and film: see The Highly Unofficial Logan's Run FAQ.

- Ray

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Vie Hebdomadaires again

"Me and my bayan" from the Accord post at Vie Hebdomadaires: "a contrived image – a pastiche of the kind of grainy monochrome pictures you see in photojournalism pieces on people who’ve returned to their villages in the Chernobyl exclusion zone"

I recently mentioned Varun Kothamachu's collaborative weblog, Vie Hebdomadaires, which is devoted to a year of week-in-the-life slots from guest writers.

Clare contributed from June 25th to July 1st (intro / Ratatouille / Clare versus the literary world / Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours / Writing competitions / Mamma Mia! / Vissi d’arte / The last post).

But in mid-July there was a bit of a hiatus due to the scheduled writer dropping out, so I volunteered for July 23rd to July 29th to give a bit more time to find the next one. It turned out to be a condensation / retread of regular topics from JSBlog (intro / In the heart of England / Exeter memories / Accord / Perambulation / Getting ink / Returning / The other woman).

The setup is that each contributor nominates the next, and I'm pleased to report that Felix Grant will write for the forthcoming week.

- Ray

"This is for everyone"

I am not watching the Olympics - I think sport, and any celebration of it, is loathsome - but I did hear that the Olympic opening ceremony featured Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. For example, from CNET News, Berners-Lee, Web take bow at Olympics.
The opening ceremony of this summer's London Olympics obliged that sentiment, as Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee got the star treatment during the extravaganza.

A hip-hoppy dance routine featuring legions of fist-pumping club-types gave way as a stage-set suburban house rose from the ground to reveal a lone keyboard jockey surfing away in solitude.

None other than Berners-Lee it was, and with a flick of his wrist, he lit up the stadium with a grandly flashing tweet: "This is for everyone."
I recall that on a number of occasions, Sir Tim has (rightly, in my view) vigorously criticised the egregious practice of commercial organisations operating a 'legal chill' to prevent hyperlinks to their sites. For example:
It is difficult to emphasize how important these issues are for society. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, for example, addresses the right to speak. The right to make reference to something is inherent in that right. On the web, to make reference without making a link is possible but ineffective - like speaking but with a paper bag over your head.
- Tim Berners-Lee, Axioms of Web Architecture / Links and Law: Myths, 1997
It's highly ironic, then, to see the terms of use for the London 2012 official website:
5. Linking policy
a. Links to the Site. You may create your own link to the Site, provided that your link is in a text-only format. You may not use any link to the Site as a method of creating an unauthorised association between an organisation, business, goods or services and London 2012, and agree that no such link shall portray us or any other official London 2012 organisations (or our or their activities, products or services) in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner. The use of our logo or any other Olympic or London 2012 Mark(s) as a link to the Site is not permitted.
So, as Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship comments at Free Speech Blog, "You’re only allowed [to] link to the official site of the Olympics if you’re going to say nice things about the Olympics."

- Ray

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Red evening

I don't know what it signifies - presumably some kind of weather front passing over - but last night's sky just after sunset was an amazing Munch-style display of intense red and purple striations.

Topsham, meanwhile, got its annual visit by a chapter of the Hash House Harriers, a running / drinking / social club on its "Red Dress Run". According to the Wikipedia article, the origins lie in an ex-pat group in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur who formed a club to run off the previous night's hangover; it now has chapters worldwide. On one of its meets, it's said, a woman member mistakenly turned up to a "hash" in a red dress, not realising it was a running meet, but ran it anyway. Now, Red Dress Runs, where runners of both sexes wear red dresses, are regular events.

Hash House Harriers in the Exeter Inn, Topsham
- Ray

Friday, 27 July 2012

Exeter Catacomb

On Monday, Felix Grant came down to Exeter for the afternoon (having known each other via science/computing circles for around 20 years, we get together for a chat from time to time). While we were walking off a light lunch, I showed him round the very photogenic Lower Cemetery, built on a valley slope below the city wall just a few minutes' walk west of the city centre. Studded with tombs, it's topped by a Karnak-style catacomb, built as the upmarket part of the cemetery. It was a financial failure, being overpriced: only 16 interments were ever made, and now remains largely as a picturesque folly. More details at the British Listed Buildings entry and Exeter Memories: Catacombs and Lower Cemetery.

It''s normally locked, but this afternoon Clare and I took one of the twice-weekly free Red Coat guided tours: Churches, Cemeteries & The Catacomb. A catacomb may sound dismal, but on a hot bright afternoon it felt strangely friendly; its vaulting is spacious and high, with soft sunlight filtering in. Clare described it as "like a little cathedral".

The Catacomb consists of a single central vault running parallel to the city wall, with side alcoves and few sections with rectangular niches for burials. The tour is done with the help of a strong torch, but in fact it's light enough that you rapidly adapt enough to see. Unfortunately my camera was less up to the conditions than my eyes, but I did my best.


Ramp down to cemetery, below city wall
Looking up to Catacomb entrance
Looking up to entrance
Looking up to entrance

Looking NE from roof of Catacomb
Approaching the entrance

Going in
Initial impressions
A longer exposure
Burial niches unoccupied ...
... and occupied.
The vaults are very spacious ...
... but the floor is quite uneven
The way out

These steps, now covered by a grille, originally led to the surface
- Ray

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Liverpool Rat Virus strikes

At the previously mentioned Veitch Exhibit at The Topsham Bookshop, I've just been looking at a 1912 catalogue for the International Horticultural Exhibition (the precursor to Chelse Flower Show). The adverts have some lovely images, such as this one for the One & All horticultural suppliers ...


... as well as a few that give glimpses into weird scientific/social history, such as this seemingly too-good-to-be-true advert for the "Liverpool" Virus rodent killer. Investigations reveals a decades-long wrong turning in the field of rodent pest control.

A Boon to Horticulturalists!
RATS Exterminated by
without danger to other animals and without smell from dead bodies. In tins ready prepared with bait. Virus for rats 2/6 & 6/-; for Mice, 1/6.
Write for particulars to
56 Hanover Street, LIVERPOOL

It was being advertised in The Times from 1909 to the start of World War 2 (see a 1921 display ad, left) and the makers made some strong claims: that it was completely specific to rats and mice, and that stricken rodents would be affected with "wanderlust" and leave the area (hence the "without smell from dead bodies" part). It was also declared to be "made in England, by English scientists".

It wasn't actually a virus in the modern sense, but an unspecified bacterial culture, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, there were various similar products that used bacterial pathogens, such as "Ready Rat Relief" and "Ratin", and "virus Pasteur" and "virus Danysz" on the Continent.

The safety of these first came under scrutiny in 1908 with an account of an outbreak of a food poisoning: Account of an epidemic of enteritis caused by the "Liverpool virus" rat poison (Lionel Handson and Herbert Williams, British Medical Journal. 1908 November 21; 2(2499): 1547–1550). Twelve people came down with severe enteritis in a house where the product had been used, and stool cultures showed they'd been infected with whatever bacterium was in the "Liverpool virus". A later account - An outbreak of food poisoning probably due to "Rat Virus" (Robb Spalding Spray, JAMA, 1926;86(2):109-111) told of a larger incident, with 140 students affected who had eaten at a single meal session in a West Virginia University student hall.

It was only in the 1940s that any kind of external view of these pathogens became available, when reports by the University of Oxford Bureau of Animal Population and PH Leslie in the Journal of Hygiene showed that they contained various strains of enteritis-causing Salmonella. The food poisoning outbreaks were, in hindsight, unsurprising; and furthermore, rats proved to be capable of being carriers of the disease. The use of bacterial rodenticides carried on until the late 1950s; not long after, a 1967 FAO/WHO report concluded:
In connexion with salmonellosis in rodents it should be re-emphasized that salrnonellas should under no circumstances be used as rodenticides. Rodents rapidly develop resistance to Salmonella serotypes; thus, this method has little practical value. Moreover, it has been shown in different countries that such practices are a public health hazard because the serotypes used are dangerous to man.
- Prospects for biological control of rodent populations, Kazimierz Wodzicki, Bull.World Health Organ., v.48(4); 1973, PMC2481104
- Ray

Mindbender 5

Another puzzle that caught my eye from the Western Morning News "Mindbender" series.

See solution.

- Ray

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Topsham Bookshop: Veitch Exhibit

These rare long-stemmed begonias (left and right) are the
prototypes from which all modern begonias were bred
This is slight nepotism, but I'll mention it anyway. This week (23rd-28th July) The Topsham Bookshop, where I work part-time, is hosting a presentation by the horticulturalist Caradoc Doy to commemorate the legacy of the Veitch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea.

If you ever go to garden centres - I do, though I'm not as enthusiastic about plants as my wife - you often wonder where the new exotic plants they keep inventing come from. The answer is, generally, that they're hybridised in nurseries from precursors that go back to Victorian times and a vast amount of international prospecting. Veitch had a team of 22 plant-hunters who searched worldwide over the second half of the 19th century.

It was a risky business. One Veitch explorer, Thomas Lobb, suffered a leg injury in the Phillipines, leading to amputation; Gottlieb Zahn drowned near Costa Rica; Gustav Wallis, died of some combination of yellow fever, malaria and dysentery; and Henry Chesterton, also died of tropical disease in Colombia after collecting the 'Dracula orchid' Dracula chestertonii. His obituary in the Shipping List read:
Mr. J. H. Chesterton, the botanist, died at Puerto Berrio on the 26th. He had been quite ill, but left the hotel 'San Nicholas,' thinking that he had sufficiently improved to be able to make his trip up the river. Sad mistake! He continued to decline, and was barely put on shore at Puerto Berrio where he died. Poor Chesterton's reckless spirit rendered him very efficient as a plant-collector.
You can read more in the Lives of Travellers section of Hortus Veitchii itself.

Anyhow, horror stories apart, Veitch were were the largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe during the 19th century, and by the outbreak of the First World War had introduced 1281 plants into cultivation. Their legacy continues today with the Chelsea Flower Show, which is the modern incarnation of the International Horticultural Exhibition organised in 1912 by Sir Harry Veitch.

See Caradoc Doy's site caradocdoy.co.uk for further background, and the Topsham Bookshop Veitch Exhibit page for a taster of the bookshop display.

James H Veitch's classic 1906 book Hortus Veitchii : a history of the rise and progress of the nurseries of Messrs. James Veitch and sons, together with an account of the botanical collectors and hybridists employed by them and a list of the most remarkable of their introductions is online at the Internet Archive (ID hortusveitchiihi00veitrich). If you want to see an original copy, The Topsham Bookshop has one on display for the week; and for botany enthusiasts who prefer the real thing to an e-version, Caradoc has a special offer on his very nice centenary reprint.

title page of Hortus Veitchii
Veitch's original Chelsea nursery,
from Hortus Veitchii

- Ray

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Spire (part 3)

Continuation of The Spire (part 2) concerning the Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour.

And so, from the highest visitable level at the top of the tower, the base of the spire, there are doors that take you out to balconies on the faces of the tower.

Looking up the spire
West view, looking down on nave roof
North view, looking over cathedral green
South view - Chapter House, which stores a Magna Carta copy
South view over Cloister
East view: over Bishop Wordsworth School to New Forest in the distance
South view - Salisbury Cathedral School
North view - cathedral close and Salisbury centre
North view - looking north-west
West view - looking south-west
East view - looking down
It's a spectacular view in itself, but with also the meanderings through the innards of the cathedral to get to it, this is the best £10 I've spent for a long time. I cannot recommend it enough. The link again as it's strongly advisable to book in advance: Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tours.

- Ray

The Spire (part 2)

Continuation of The Spire (part 1) concerning the Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour.

From the 'first floor' level of the gallery above the nave, you go up another stone spiral staircase and along a passageway (which has a peek out of an east-facing door toward the tower where you're heading).

You then come out among the timbered supports of the main roof space of the western nave.

You're above the vaulted roof of the nave: pits like this one correspond to the columns supporting the vaults.

A walkway then takes you eastward ...

Looking back to western windows
... and through a door to the base of the tower, which supports the spire (both bolt-ons added in the 1300s).

At this point, it starts getting scary. The weight of the whole structure (6500 tonnes) was at the edge of the envelope of design feasibility, and the whole of the  box-shaped tower is braced by a spidery mess of internal metal beams and ties added over the centuries. At this level, you're on top of the false ceiling that hides these necessary but unaesthetic ties from being seen from the cathedral floor below.

This level also contains the timing mechanism for the bells above.

At  this level, there's a caged wooden spiral staircase ...

... which takes you up to a mezzanine gallery level with interesting graffiti, both ancient and modern (at one time the cathedral authorities, as a fundraising angle, allowed visitors to make their own graffiti and memorial inscriptions on the window panes).

From this level, you can also see down, and up to the belfry floor.

From this level, an ancient and rather narrow stone spiral staircase takes you up to the belfry.

The tours are timed to arrive here a few minutes before the bells strike the hour. I had a very weird experience here. The bells are not terribly loud - it's not like the Hunchback of Notre Dame - but there was something about the large bell striking that had for me a powerful emotional effect. The sound decays for over 30 seconds - a rich mix of overtones - and I found myself feeling unaccountably a bit tearful. I noticed a couple of others in the party seemed affected. I've read the theory that cathedrals evoked religious feelings through subsonic resonances. I wonder if this was what I experienced?

From the belfry, a second caged wooden spiral staircase takes you to the highest level accessible by visitors: the base of the spire. Here there's an ancient treadmill winch ...

... and the view upwards inside the spire, which is criss-crossed with partially mediaeval scaffolding. It's not as bright as this: it needed long exposures to get a decent image.

Continued in The Spire (part 3).

- Ray