An aerial photograph of Portsmouth harbour.
Portsmouth Harbour is a large natural inlet that forms an ideal shelter for shipping. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Damian Grady. image reference 33563/044
Portsmouth Harbour is a large natural inlet that forms an ideal shelter for shipping. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Damian Grady. image reference 33563/044

Gosport: A Town Defined by its Military Heritage

Research supporting the Heritage Action Zone project to understand the significance of Gosport's heritage and inform regeneration.

Gosport is situated on the south coast England, opposite Portsmouth, at the seaward end of Southampton Water.

It is a place whose character is defined by its military heritage, but changing ways of defending the country have led to the redundancy of parts of the military infrastructure. Key regeneration sites in the area are, how ever, characterised by having significant heritage assets including, historic buildings and scheduled monuments.

These are now coming forward for redevelopment via public sector land releases, placing Gosport’s historic environment under pressure.

This has led to the creation of a Heritage Action Zone , whose vision is to ensure that Gosport's unique military character is sustained and supports the physical, economic and social regeneration of the borough.

It is recognised that research to establish the significance of these sites is the first stage in identifying new uses and leases of life for redundant buildings or ones facing change. The HAZ will be delivered through a range of partners including Gosport Borough Council, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, One Public Estate, the Gosport Society and Hampshire County Council.

Gosport’s defences

From the 15th century the development of the town has been intimately linked to the growth of the Royal Navy and Portsmouth dockyard.

The earliest fortification was built on the western side of the entrance to Portsmouth harbour, on the site of the present Fort Blockhouse. Over the succeeding centuries additional defences were built to deter attack from the west. The late 18th and 19th century forts at Browndown, Gilkicker and Monckton are the most obvious remains of these defences.

Research, however, has focused on a series of slighter remains which are a key to today’s landscape. A series of massive defensive works was constructed during the 1860s in response to the perceived threat of a French invasion. Originally consisting of an earthwork rampart, carrying a concrete-lined canal containing the re-routed River Alver, the Stokes Bay Lines extended for 2.7 kilometers along the full length of the bay. Five gun batteries were built into, or immediately behind the rampart, and were designed to defend either the area behind the beach or the Lines themselves.

The Lines survived almost unaltered until the 1950s when they were substantially levelled. Today they are all but invisible, surviving as a series of mostly very slight earthworks and parch marks in dry summers. A few short lengths survive and give an impression of their original scale.

To the west of the town the ‘advanced’ lines, represented by five substantial artillery forts – Forts Grange, Rowner, Brockhurst, Elson, and Gomer (demolished) - were also added in the 1860s. Research in this area has contributed to many enhanced listed building descriptions.

Supporting the navy

From the early 18th century ships were supplied from Weevil Yard, and this provision evolved into the vast storehouses of Royal Clarence Yard. These included bakeries, breweries and a slaughterhouse. Gosport also became an important garrison town with barracks for marines at Forton, the Haslar naval hospital (1746-1762) and a military prison. Surviving examples of barracks include St George (1856-59) and parts of St Vincent (1847). In 1777 a powder magazine was completed at Priddy’s Hard and later developed into a large ordnance depot.

Gosport was also at the forefront of military technology.

Coinciding with the Crimean War (1854-56), a new gunboat yard was built at Haslar.

Later in the century the Royal Engineers established a School of Electrical Lighting to develop coastal search lights and Submarine Mining Companies to defend the approaches to Portsmouth. From their establishment in the late 19th century the Admiralty Experimental Works were at the vanguard of naval architecture, leading trials into ship design and propulsion.

At the beginning of the 20th century Fort Blockhouse, renamed HMS Dolphin, became the principal home of the submarine service.

Gosport was also at the beginning of manned flight when in 1910 land adjacent to Forts Grange and Rowner was used by the Hampshire Aero Club. At the outbreak of war in 1914 it was acquired by the Royal Flying Corps.

The town

Gosport’s economy became entwined with the expansion of the Royal Navy. A characterisation study has documented how in the 19th century the town underwent rapid expansion as the urban area pushed out beyond the original fortifications, eventually filling most of the area inside the line of the western defences. The town is characterised by terraced housing for dockyard workers, with a large number of public houses and relatively little industry unconnected to the military.

This study might be used to assist in master planning, to help fit new economic activity into appropriate historic locations and identify how the historic environment can be enhanced to benefit the local community.

The 20th century

Throughout the two world wars Gosport continued to play its vital role of supporting the fleet and defending the nation. To the west of the town, on the Browndown army range, are some of the best preserved First World War practice trenches in the country. The northern part of the Range is criss-crossed by a series of trenches used to train troops prior to their embarkation for the Western Front.

Detailed survey has revealed two opposing front lines, each with support and communication trenches separated by a no-man’s-land. This is partially overlain by a much more extensive series of less structured trenches, as well as by traces of Second World War and more recent military activity. An important element of work at Browndown has been to encourage young people to appreciate the heritage of Gosport and its place in the wider world. The project will also raise awareness of the trenches and their potential as an educational resource.

In the Second World War, Gosport’s military importance and easily located coastal position made it a prime target for German bombing. However, just as the gently shelving beach at Stokes Bay led to fears of its use as an invasion site, during the Second World War the same qualities leant themselves to preparations for Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in occupied France in June 1944.

This included the construction of four hards and associated road ways to enable the embarkation of troops and tanks onto landing craft. The hards each consisted of a concrete apron, built between the access road and the high-tide line, beyond which a flexible mat of interlinked rectangular concrete slabs extended to the low tide line. All four aprons survive either as car parks or areas of concrete at the rear of the beach. Elements of concrete ‘chocolate block’ matting survive on the beach at the western hards 1 and 2.

Prior to the D-Day landings one of the hards was used for the development of, and training troops in, ‘Duplex-Drive’ amphibious tanks.

Perhaps the most dramatic preparations for D-Day at Stokes Bay are represented by remains of two construction facilities for elements of Mulberry harbours, the floating concrete harbours which were towed across the channel to allow supplies to be landed on the Normandy beaches.

Of the 147 Phoenix caissons (62 metres long by 13.5 metres wide by 10.5 metres tall) constructed nationally, 14 were made by 1400 workers at Stokes Bay. Slight traces of the construction sites survive as low earthworks and areas of concrete at the rear of the beach

Military drawdown

Since the end of the Second World War, Gosport, in common with other towns in the south of England closely associated with the armed forces, has witnessed a large reduction in establishments, personnel and support jobs. Over the next decade further closures are planned, although support services for the Navy will continue to be a major employer.

Through the Heritage Action Zone the partners are determined to ensure the town’s military heritage is a bridge to a more prosperous future . The initiative will inform decision-making, identify opportunities and raise public awareness about Gosport’s Heritage.

About the authors

Wayne D Cocroft, FSA, MCIfA

Senior Archaeological Investigator at Historic England

Wayne specialises in the investigation of modern military and industrial heritage and has published widely on these subjects.

Olaf Bayer, Phd, MCIfA

Archaeological Investigator at Historic England

Olaf specialises in prehistoric landscape archaeology. Since working in Gosport he has learnt to recognise at least three different types of Second World War concrete.

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