New Battery and High Down Test Site, The Needles


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
New Battery & High Down Test Site, The Needles, Totland, Isle of Wight


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
New Battery & High Down Test Site, The Needles, Totland, Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:


A late C19 coastal battery, known as the New Battery, also the remains of the Cold War High Down Test Site for rocket development and testing.

Reasons for Designation

The New Battery and High Down Test Site, a late C19 coastal battery and a Cold War rocket testing site, is scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Rarity: the Cold War test structures at High Down are nationally unique, and a key part of an international rocket testing programme; * Period: the battery is an important example of the strengthening of coastal fortifications in the late C19, its significance enhanced by its proximity and functional relationship to the Old Battery (a scheduled monument). The Test Site is a highly significant Cold War rocket testing site of national significance for its innovative form and its test programmes; * Survival: there is a good survival of both the battery and the test site, the latter including a range of structures which aid an understanding of the test process; * Potential: the site, including its potential for buried archaeological remains, enhances our understanding of both C19 coastal defence and the construction and use of cutting edge Cold War testing programmes, which includes those for both Britain's intermediate range missile Blue Streak and its space programme; * Historic interest: a site reflecting two very distinct forms of national defence: the coastal battery, built to protect Portsmouth Dockyard and approaches from enemy attack in the late C19 and which continued in use into both world wars, and a Cold War site key to Britain's development of a nuclear deterrent, and latterly hugely significant in Britain's space programme; * Documentation: the site has been subject to English Heritage research, underpinning the assessment of national importance; * Diversity: given that the site includes both a late C19 gun battery and a Cold War test site, including modifications of the former for test use, the diversity of the features at this site is considerable. The test site structures are bespoke designs for the particular testing programmes here.


CONSTRUCTION OF THE NEW BATTERY A battery, Lower Needles Point Battery but now colloquially known as the Old Battery, was built at The Needles at the south-westernmost point of the Isle of Wight between 1861 and 1864. Strategically placed with views of both the Solent and the Channel and defending The Needles Passage entrance to the Solent, it was one of a number of fortifications nationally that were either newly built or remodelled in the 1860s as Lord Palmerston’s response to an increasingly hostile France. This is now a scheduled monument (NHLE 1009392).

Three decades later, a further battery - the New Battery - was built higher up on the headland because of concerns about the stability of the cliffs at Old Battery and also to provide the space needed for newer, larger guns. Three emplacements were built at a cost of £9,821, the contractor being a Mr Hill of Bungworth, Gosport, Hampshire. It was not until five years later, in 1900, that two 9.2 inch Mark IX breech-loading guns were emplaced (the third was added in 1904). Also in circa 1900 magazines, stores and other accommodation (including an artillery store, guardhouse, canteen and cookhouse) were added to the rear of the guns (all were demolished in the 1950s). Between 1900 and 1902 a battery command post was built higher up the hill with clear views of the Solent's western approaches. It continued as the Battery Commander's post until after the Second World War and was then modified during the 1950s and used as a transformer, sub-station and radio frequency laboratory. It is now (2015) an electricity sub-station.

The battery saw a range of armament in the early years of the C20 (see Cocroft, 2007, 5 for more details) with, just prior to the First World War, the emplacements adapted for VB (‘Vavasseur Barbette’) mountings which allowed the gun to recoil down a ramp. Both batteries were manned during the First World War and immediately afterwards the site was put on a care and maintenance footing until reactivated for use by the Territorial Army in 1926.

SECOND WORLD WAR ACTIVITY During the Second World War both batteries were manned by the 530 (Princess Beatrice’s) Coast Artillery Regiment. One of the main tasks for the site was the protection of the entrance to the Solent – and thus protection of the naval base at Portsmouth – from enemy attack. Second World War armament at New Battery was initially two 9.2 inch Mark X guns on VB mounts, which were later upgraded. Lewis machine guns and Bofors guns provided anti-aircraft defence, a Mark II**B rangefinder was added at the eastern end of the battery. Given how exposed the site was, steel protective covers were placed above the gun emplacements to offer some protection from hostile aircraft.

The site was mothballed at the end of the war with the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment retaining an interest in the site

HIGH DOWN TEST SITE The 1950s saw the beginning of the Cold War and a convincing nuclear deterrent, in the form of a missile that had sufficient range to threaten Moscow and other Soviet urban populations, was therefore considered necessary.

Accordingly, in 1954, the Air Ministry commissioned a missile with a range of around 1,500 miles which would later be named 'Blue Streak'. This was to be Britain's only Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and the most ambitious of its post-war missile programmes. Two of the crucial design challenges were the shape of the re-entry head and the type of material that might be used for the fabrication of its outer shield. Therefore a relatively cheap rocket was required capable of launching scale models of different shaped re-entry heads, whose re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere could be accurately monitored. From this emerged the 'Black Knight' project, a project which saw the collaboration of a number of companies and organisations. The contract for the detailed design, construction, assembly and static testing of the Black Knight rocket was awarded to Saunders Roe Ltd in 1955 and the company took on the New Battery site for a rocketry research and development facility, which would become known as the High Down Test Site. The layout and facilities were designed by John A Strubbe, FRIBA with the consulting engineers Dash and Partner, Hay and Barry, with additional advice from Herbert Lapworth Partners. Technical design was provided by the works engineer for Saunders Roe. Work started in April 1956 and was completed in January 1957. The first Black Knight rocket test took place here in April of the same year.

The High Down Test Site had a number of functions. In the early stages of the project it was used to aid the development of the rocket. Initially the rocket’s engines, structures, electronic control and measuring systems, guidance units and other equipment needed to be brought together for testing here as a single system. The ground facilities at High Down were almost identical to those at the Australian test site at Woomera and allowed modifications to be made to equipment before it was shipped to Australia; testing, launching techniques and procedures were also perfected. Once the rockets moved into their production phase the stands at High Down were used for proof firing (when the rockets were fired and monitored while fixed to the stands) before they were shipped to Woomera. The tests stands were placed below the top of the cliff along the 113m (370 ft) contour at either end of a curving concrete service road. This position gave the buildings in the Preparation Area some acoustic shielding and also gave them a measure of protection from flying debris should there be an accidental explosion. To the north the Needles headland provided similar protection as well as preventing observation of the site and the tests from the mainland. Around 240 people were employed by the testing programmes, although it is unlikely that they were all at High Down at any one time.

The Preparation Area, as its name implies, was used to receive and make the rockets ready for test firing. Buildings included: the main building (at SZ 2990 8480 equipped with a wide variety of test equipment to check electronic, pneumatic and hydraulic systems and guidance gyros); a maintenance building (SZ 2998 8483); laboratories (SZ 2995 8482) and a canteen (SZ 2989 8477; a double-storey structure which housed a kitchen and general canteen on the lower floor and the senior staff canteen, a conference room and other offices above). Control and monitoring facilities for the tests were also in this area. These buildings were demolished in the 1970s, although their footprints survive in part, with chalk rubble dumped over some of the area to re-instate the original hill profile. During the 1950s the gun emplacements of the New Battery were also partly subsumed within the Preparation Area and a number of modifications were made to them. The western gun emplacement housed the High Test Peroxide Cleansing Department and an Oxidant Laboratory (SZ 2987 8477) was built; its tank was linked to the test stands by underground pipes. The laboratory was demolished, presumably in the early 1970s, and a Coast Guard lookout tower is now (2015) present.

In the Firing Area a rocket would have been moved off its transporter into a vertical position and lowered onto the launcher positioned over the firing pit. The steel-framed gantries – both of which were demolished in the early 1970s – housed the hoists for raising and lowering the rockets, and had six working decks. To service the rocket each was supplied with compressed air, nitrogen, water and electric power. The gantries were formed of steel brace-work and stood about 24.3m (80ft) high with a ground plan of 6m (20ft) x 4.9m (16ft), the whole enclosed on three sides by ribbed aluminium sheeting (this also had an important role in providing shelter for the staff given the very exposed nature of the site). During firing the hot efflux gases from the rocket were turned through 90 degrees by a metal bucket that was constantly dowsed with water, and were directed down a concrete-lined efflux channel, at the bottom of which was a sump to collect any unburnt fuel. Effluent from these sumps was then carried down earthenware pipes to a breeze-block channel situated close to the cliff top. A test post was located next to each gantry to assist in checking and testing the rocket’s systems. These were small buildings housing consoles for controlling electrical supplies to the rocket and for monitoring tests. Next to both test posts was a safety bath for the workers loading the high test peroxide to plunge into in the event that they became covered in fuel. Adjacent to each gantry and beneath the platform was a bay to house the High Test Peroxide Dispensing Tanks. When operational, water was supplied from the site’s reservoir along a main to the Pump House from which cooling and fire fighting water was piped to the firing sites.

By the early 1960s the frantic activity to develop a whole series of British nuclear warheads was coming to an end and in future the country’s needs would be met by a relatively small number of devices. With the reduction of research in this area Black Knight’s role was drawing to a close. At this time, Britain, through the 'Blue Streak ' missile programme, was the only country beyond the two superpowers with the technical expertise to consider developing a satellite programme. In 1964 the RAE’s Space Department decided to proceed with a programme to explore a satellite launcher using a new rocket based on Black Knight's technology. This rocket was eventually called 'Black Arrow' and it was designed by Westland Aircraft Ltd at Cowes (formerly Saunders Roe) and manufactured in facilities previously used for Black Knight, including those at High Down. The first launch of a Black Arrow rocket took place on 28 June 1968 and on 28 October 1971 the British satellite Prospero was placed into orbit. This was the first British satellite successfully launched by a British rocket. Despite this success a couple of months earlier on 29 July 1971 the Minister of Aerospace, Frederick Corfield, had announced the end of the Black Arrow programme and testing at High Down ceased. The site then passed to the British Hovercraft Corporation (formed from a merger of the hovercraft interests of Saunders Roe and Vickers Supermarine). However, the site was not suitable for use by that company and there were futile attempts to sell it for other industrial uses before the site was closed in 1974.

RECENT HISTORY In 1975 the National Trust purchased the headland and some of the structures relating to the test site were demolished at this time. The Old Battery was opened to the public in 1982. The New Battery remained derelict rather longer, opening to the public in 2004.


The New Battery and High Down Test Site are located at the western end of West High Down, just beneath its crest, centred at approximately SZ 29994 8476. In the north and west of the site is the New Battery and former Test Site Preparation Area. In the centre of the site is the former Battery Command Post. In the south-west and south of the site are the remains of the Firing Area; the test stands, known as gantries Nos. 1 and 2, and between them the Pump and Control Rooms. A new road was constructed to link the New and Old Batteries with an upper road leading to the Battery Command Post and Coastguard Cottages (the cottages have not been assessed for designation). A further roadway links the western gun emplacement with the test stands to its south-east. The site has been the subject of an English Heritage survey (Cocroft 2007; see this report for more detail).

NEW BATTERY & LATER TEST SITE PREPARATION AREA (SZ 2992 8481) The New Battery comprises three open, mass-concrete gun emplacements. The three emplacements are semi-circular in shape with an outer curving concrete and earth parapet. From the seaward side they presented a low profile such that their shielded guns (now removed) would have appeared above the parapet. To the rear the gun pits were open with the guns set on a central mounting that elevated the barrels to the height of the parapet. Surrounding the gun was a raised metal platform for the gun crews (removed). Set into the walls of the emplacements are lockers, formerly closed with steel doors, which were used to house ready-use ammunition. The easternmost emplacement has been stripped of most of its fittings, and was left as an open area when the battery was incorporated into the test site’s Preparation Area. At this time its base was covered by tarmac thereby obscuring any surviving features of the gun mounting and supports for the surrounding deck.

To the east of the easternmost emplacement a concrete stair case provides access to the open Position Finding Post with a central concrete column on which was mounted an instrument. In front of this column the position is curved to allow for easy access around the instrument. To the west of the column is a concrete locker, which was probably used for chart storage. Below this position a flight of stairs gives access to an underground room that formerly housed a Telephone Exchange and was latterly used as a Store.

In between the eastern and central emplacements, and reached by concrete ramps from both emplacements, is an underground Magazine (SZ 2991 8481). This is mostly of rendered brick with a concrete rendered access passage and stairs. On the northern side of the passage, an armoured door and steps downwards provided access to the Shifting Room and two Cartridge Stores, which were used to hold ready assembled cordite charge bags. All the rooms are brick vaulted. During the 1950s the underground magazine was adapted for new uses and was known as the Equipment Centre. There northern rooms were converted (from west to east) to a Recording Room, Control Room and Guidance Room (all for the remote control and management of the tests). To the south of the passage, are three smaller rooms, two of which were originally a Shell Store, and a Small Items Store. The original function of the central room is not known although 'Quarantine/Inspection Only' painted on its wooden door is indicative of its usage in more recent years. In the 1950s the former Shell Store and Small Items Store were converted into the General Battery Room and the Flight Battery Room (for storage and maintenance of the rocket batteries). The General Battery Room is now (2015) used by the National Trust as a café.

The western emplacement had its own dedicated Magazine, which although smaller was organised in a similar manner. Due to later alterations its access ramp to the west is no longer visible, although a concrete staircase at its east end remains open. On top of the western emplacement is a Coast Guard lookout tower (this building is not part of the scheduling) of unknown date but post-dating the demolition of test site buildings here in the early 1970s.

During its test site incarnation the central gun emplacement was used as part of the foundations for the Main Building (SZ 2990 8480). While the superstructure was demolished during the 1970s to re-expose the emplacement, some of the emplacement walls are covered in traces of white paint from this usage. The footprint of the main building can also be traced by rows of cut-off ‘I’ section girders that mark the position of its uprights, and sections of brick cavity-wall foundations. At the western end of the building a metal running rail remains set into concrete marks the position of the workshop’s metal concertina doors. A gulley in the east side of the former workshop floor within the emplacement marks the position of partition. To the east the concrete floor slab for a flight of concrete steps, which led to an upper room, survives. Next to this a set of steps descends into the former magazine.

The footprint of the 1950s Maintenance Building (SZ 2998 8483) is also evident as brick footings and the remains of a concrete floor slab (to the southwest the floor slab is partly buried in spoil). At its eastern end is a concrete surface and on the north side of this slab is the metal rail of a sliding door.

The remains of a 1956 red brick circular lamp base with remnants of its rolled steel lamp post survives to the north-west of the Preparation Area at the junction of the roads to the New Battery and Battery Command Post (SZ 3000 8484)

To the south-east of the easternmost gun emplacement is a concrete tunnel 0.81m wide and 1.39m high that leads into the hillslope. At its entrance is a slot for a wooden door frame. This dates from the 1890s and carried the battery’s water pipes.

BATTERY COMMAND POST To the south of the gun emplacements is the Battery Command Post (SZ 2994 8478). The building comprises two parallel blocks oriented roughly east to west with a central linking passage. It is a low brick built building, but part cement-rendered that makes deciphering its phasing difficult. The south range comprises two lower bays with a higher central section. In the south wall is a blocked opening, possibly a former door, and to its east a window opening. The rear range has a low roof to the west and a higher and perhaps later roof to the east. In its north wall is a blocked observation window. From the east a passage leads to the present entrance to the building through a timber door with overlight. The interior was not inspected. Immediately to the east of the building are two sawn-off rolled steel channels.

FIRING AREA The firing area forms an arc with a firing site at either end and the Pump and Control Rooms in the centre.

Gantry No. 1 Test Post (SZ 2988 8473) has been demolished although its position is evident. To the rear are concrete steps that gave access to Gantry No. 1 and also some further stairs back towards the Preparation Area. Gantry No. 2 Test Post (SZ 2998 8467) has also been demolished although its position is also clear. To its rear is the remains of a breeze block wall and a concrete surface. Four concrete steps to the west-south-west gave access to Gantry No. 2. The gantry superstructures in both cases have been removed (but are described in the History section above). Their attachment metal plates survive however as do their massive, monolithic concrete bases. The substantial concrete-lined efflux channels, with sumps at the bottom, also survive. Earthenware pipes (now largely removed but their lines traced by gullies leading downslope from the stands), took effluent from the sumps to a surviving breeze-block channel 25.4m (83ft 4 ins) in length situated close to the cliff top.

Adjacent to each of the Gantries, and beneath each platform, was a substantial concrete open bay that was used to house the ready-use High Test Peroxide Dispensing Tanks. These bays survive but have been subsequently blocked in brick. The Pump House and Control Room (SZ 2993 8471), central to the Test Area, contained water pump controls and safety monitoring equipment for both gantries. This concrete structure is entirely beneath the access platform, its roof being at platform level. It is accessed from the platform above by a flight of stairs to the west. A door, immediately opposite to the foot of the stairs, gives access to the Pump Room. Another, opening on its south side, was probably for ventilation. Within are a number of concrete machinery mounting plinths for a central large pump, driven by an adjacent electric motor, and various pipe valves. Water was pumped from the site’s reservoir to the Pump House and from here cooling and fire fighting water was piped to the Firing Sites. To the south of the Pump House is a narrow passage way between it and the freestanding trapezium-shaped Control Room. This passage way gives access to the Control Room through an outwardly opening armoured door in its rear wall. To either side of the Control Room concrete wing walls retain the hillslope and give access to its front (south-west) elevation. The Control Room is built on a concrete 'floating base’ and is separate from the main causeway. In the event of an accidental explosion it was designed to withstand pressures of up to 10lb/in². Internally are various plinths and mounting bolts for the safety officer’s console that was positioned in the centre of the room, and in the northeast corner controls to engage the fire fighting system. In its eastern and western walls are armoured observation windows with 6inch (15cm) thick glass facing the two Firing Sites, to allow safe observation of the tests, and single windows in its front and rear walls. At platform level the passage way between the two rooms is covered by wooden boarding to give access onto the Control Room’s roof.

Immediately to the east of the Pump House and Control Room are a pair of concrete slabs abutting the platform, the site of Facilities Storage for de-mineralised water, kerosene, high pressure air and nitrogen. The main slab sits on a brick foundation and has a central ceramic drain and sawn off bolt-fixings, probably from former fencing. The southern slab is supported on a breeze block wall. The slabs do not appear on the 1950s design drawings and were therefore probably a 1960s addition.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING The scheduled area includes the remains of the Needles New Battery and later Test Site Preparation Area, the Battery Command Post, and the Firing Site from the Test Site. The Firing Site Area includes both the access road and linking platform and also the effluent management area to the south and west of the gantries, Pump House and Control Room.

EXCLUSIONS Any surviving road surfaces, building platforms, steps and railings associated with the High Down Test Site are included in the scheduling. However, all modern fences, gates, signage, and security fencing are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath these features is included. At the western gun emplacement, the coastguard station and its associated signage, masts, cabinets, weather stations and modern metal steps are excluded from the scheduling although the emplacement and ground beneath these features is included. Within the magazine between the central and eastern emplacements all modern utilities, signage and fixtures (including modern lighting, information boards and café paraphernalia) is excluded from the scheduling although the historic structure, including its Cold War modifications, is included. At the Battery Command Post, all modern fixtures, signage, utilities and plant associated with its sub-station use are excluded from the scheduling although the historic structure and its Cold War adaptations are included.


Books and journals
Cocroft, W D, Cold War Monuments: An Assessment by the Monuments Protection Programme, (2001)
Cocroft, W D, The High Down Test Site, Isle of Wight: Rocket Test Site, (2007)
The National Trust, , The Needles Old Battery and New Battery
Isle of Wight Historic Environment Record, monument record number 2912 - MIW4427


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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