Enemies wishing to approach the key naval base at Portsmouth would need to first navigate the Solent, the channel separating the West Wight from the mainland. Entering from the west the Solent is narrow and treacherous but, in the eyes of an experienced seaman, still vulnerable to a fleet sailing through to attack Portsmouth Harbour.
The western Solent is well defended by nature, with both the Needles rocks extending from the westernmost point of the Island and the hidden danger of the Shingles - a three-mile-long shoal of pebbles just beneath the waves that periodically shift position and shape. As a result the channel of safe approach to the Solent, known as 'The Bridge', is only 1,500 yards wide. This is followed by a narrowing where Hurst Spit projects out from the mainland, rendering the Solent only a mile wide at that point.
There is, however, the mixed blessing the Solent's fast, five knot tidal. The Solent has a unique double tide with two high waters approximately an hour apart, which an attacking force could use in conjunction with the strong prevailing westerly wind to sail into the Solent quickly, passing the narrow western end. The French knew how to take advantage of this, having invaded in 1377, attacking and all-but destroying the Island's old capital of Newtown in the West Wight1. This passage is often referred to as the Solent's 'Back Door'.
The West Wight and Freshwater Peninsula
On the West Wight lies the river Yar2, which flows from near Freshwater Bay on the south coast out to the Solent at Yarmouth on the northern coast of the Island. This river all but isolates the Freshwater peninsula from the rest of the Island. The peninsula covers only about an eighth of the Island's total width and is roughly triangular in shape, forming a point at the Needles and widening to where the Yar reaches south to almost reach Freshwater Bay.
With the exception of the small Freshwater Bay, the whole of this peninsula is surrounded by sheer chalk or clay cliffs, making it easily defended and hard to invade. Until 1860, the only access to the Freshwater Peninsula, also known as the Freshwater Isle, was either by boat or by a small strip of land at Freshwater Bay, known as Freshwater Gate. In Victorian times it was decided to take full advantage of this by constructing fortifications on the peninsula to defend the Needles channel and western Solent from enemy ships where the Solent was at its narrowest, and where the forts themselves could be best defended in the event of an infantry invasion.
Before the Victorian era, numerous attempts had been made to fortify the Freshwater peninsula, especially in Tudor times.
The earliest known defensive structure on the West Wight was Worsley's Tower, named after Sir James Worsley3, and built around 1525. This was an octagonal stone tower 26 feet wide built east of Cliff End, at what is now known as Round Tower Point in its honour. It was built on the shoreline with its guns on the roof and as such was vulnerable to attack from the overlooking high ground. In 1539 when the Earl of Southampton did a reconnaissance on the Island as part of Henry VIII's Device Henrician castle construction (which led to the construction of Hurst Castle on the Hurst Spit on the mainland), he described Worsley's Tower as 'one of the worst devised things [ever seen].'
Worsley's Tower was replaced by Yarmouth Castle in 1547 and abandoned by 1570. It no longer exists.
Built in 1547. For more information, see the article on Yarmouth Castle.
Sharpnode Blockhouse and Carey's Sconce
In 1545 the French had invaded the Isle of Wight, and as a consequence Henry VIII ordered the construction of Yarmouth Castle in 1547, made out of stone, and supporting it, Sharpnode Blockhouse. This was an earth coastal blockhouse4, diamond shaped with two triangular tails on the southern and eastern points to form bastions5 facing inland to defend the earth fort from a landward attack from higher ground further inland. From eastern bastion point to west it was 60 feet wide.
Despite being small and rather basic in design, it was the third fort in Britain to have angle bastions, after Sandown Castle and Yarmouth Castle, both on the Isle of Wight. In 1559 it was described thus:
'It is a massy platform only walled with plank, without any ditch about it. This bulwark up about 37 foot square and 8 foot high to the seawards, and hath two flankers with a higher wall to the landwards whereby they may flanker the piece with hercubusses that else might beat them from the hill at their backs.'
In 1589, after the threat of the Spanish Armada, Sharpnode Blockhouse was rebuilt. Although still an earth and wood structure, its shape was now a five-pointed star-shaped fort and it was renamed Carey's Sconce. This was named after the Island's governor, Sir George Carey6. This too was later abandoned, with no trace remaining except the name Sconce Point where once it stood.
In the time leading up to the Civil War Sir John Oglander, Sheriff of Hampshire, Deputy-Governor of Portsmouth, and Deputy-Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight 1596-1648, fiercely campaigned for the defences of the Isle of Wight to be strengthened. In particular he was a strong proponent of defending the Freshwater Peninsula and having it, as well as Yarmouth, as a last line of defence should the Isle of Wight be invaded. He wrote in his memoirs:
'In January, 1629, the gentlemen of our Island concluded to go to London, to petition his Majesty for moneys to have our castles and forts some amended, others where most need required, new erected; and also for to have 2 places of retreat, if so we should be beaten. ...Freshwater for our cattle, and ye main body of our companies; and Yarmouth for ye better sort of people, where they might by boat have intercourse one with ye other. The fortifying of which places of retreat might be done by cutting of Freshwater Gate; and Yarmouth by ye cutting of ye nick of land between ye 2 seas, with drawbridges ...to secure ye passages.
...We showed them our desires to have Yarmouth [Castle], and Worseley's tower repaired, and Freshwater and Yarmouth to be fortified. They approved it, and demanded the estimate of ye charge, which wee told them would come to. ...£100 for Yarmouth Castle, £300 for Worseley's Tower and Carey's Sconce; for ye fortifying of Yarmouth to make it a place retrayte with cutting ye sea, making a drawbridge... £250; ye like for Freshwater, £250. My Lord Treasurer told me that on his honour we should have moneys very shortly.'
Alas the Lord Treasurer was not an honourable man, this was not done. As a consequence the 'better sort of people' were forced to remain as defenceless as the cattle and the rest of the Isle of Wight's population.
The Napoleonic Wars
After the Spanish Armada, the western Solent's defences consisted of Yarmouth Castle on the Island, and Hurst Castle at the end of Hurst Spit on the mainland. In 1626 the Freshwater and Brooke militia had 62 musketeers, 36 pikemen, 18 officers and other ranks, and two field cannon. In 1629 it was proposed that a defensive ditch should be dug across the peninsula to effectively isolate it from the rest of the Island – a plan never carried out.
In 1793 war with France erupted as a consequence of the 1789 French Revolution. Between 1795 and 1803 five earth batteries were constructed on the Freshwater peninsula. These included two just west of Yarmouth at Sconce Point and Cliff End, both of which were armed with three 18 pounder cannon. In addition there were infantry barracks at Colwell Bay on the north of the Freshwater peninsula, and at Compton Chine and Grange Chine, both of which are near Freshwater Bay on the Island's south-west coast but outside the peninsula area, to help defend the west Wight as a whole. 150 men were stationed in Colwell and Compton Chine and 50 in Freshwater.
These were all disarmed and abandoned in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo.
Defences of the West Wight
A number of coastal forts were constructed in the west Wight in the 1850s-60s, leading to a dramatic increase in the population of the Freshwater peninsula. This was due not only to the number of soldiers stationed there but also those involved in providing the services the forts needed.
Reasons Underlying the Location of the Forts
The nine Victorian forts of the Freshwater Peninsula were built with different aims in mind. Freshwater Redoubt was built to defend Freshwater Bay's beach, the most vulnerable landing place on the south of the Freshwater peninsula. A little way inland from Yarmouth, Golden Hill Fort served as the keep for the outlying batteries, and was intended to be both barracks and place of refuge in case of attack. Its main role would be to defend the access to the Freshwater peninsula by enemy troops from elsewhere on the Island, at least until reinforcements could be brought over from Hurst Spit on the Mainland.
Although the Old and New Needles Batteries were placed on the solid chalk spine of the Island, in a position where they could fire down on passing ships, the other batteries had less than ideal positions. Most of the coast of the Freshwater peninsula is blue slipper clay, a subsiding substance that cannot be reliably built on. Although sea-level batteries would be ideal for attacking passing ships, they would be constructed beneath the clay cliffs and vulnerable to any enemy troops holding the high ground.
In order to help defend the rest of the west Wight from foreign invaders, a new road, the Military Road, was constructed along the southwest coast of the Island between the barracks at Freshwater Redoubt and Chale. Any attempt to land troops along any of the beaches on the Western shore, where a enemy could ascend the clay cliffs via one of the Chines, could be quickly met and dealt with.
Freshwater Peninsula And West Wight Forts From West to East
- Needles Old Battery (1861-3)
- New Needles Battery (1893-5)
- Hatherwood Point Battery (1865-9)
- Warden Point Battery (1862-3)
- Fort Albert (1854-6)
- Cliff End Battery (1859-77)
- Worsley's Tower (1535)
- Sharpnode Blockhouse (1547)
- Carey's Sconce (1589)
- Golden Hill Fort (1863-8)
- Fort Victoria (1852-5)
- Freshwater Redoubt (1855-6)
- Yarmouth Castle (1547)
- Bouldnor Battery (1941)
These forts for over a century were at the forefront of military development, seeing the testing of new weapons technology. They pioneered the use of searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, steam-powered guided missiles, radio development, underwater mines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to the other side of the world or taking a satellite into space.
Yar Stop Line
In the Second World War an idea first proposed by Sir John Oglander in the 1620s was finally implemented – the fortifying the Freshwater Peninsula to prevent its capture should the rest of the Isle of Wight be invaded. This idea, known as the Yar Stop Line, was a heavily fortified defensive stop line that made use of the water obstacles of the River Yar and Afton Marshes, reinforced with bunks, earthworks, barbed wire, roadblocks and pillboxes. A pillbox survives to this day on the Yar Causeway.
Inspiring Role In Literature?
Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson moved to Farringford House in Freshwater in 1853. During his time there he wrote many of his most famous poems, including 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', first published 9 December, 1854. During this time he saw his peaceful village being turned into a military garrison and, by time he wrote his famous poem, three works – Fort Albert, Fort Victoria and Freshwater Redoubt – were being constructed within a short walk from his home. He no doubt regularly experienced:
'Cannon to right of him,
Cannon to left of him,
Cannon behind him
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell
...Plunged in the battery-smoke.'
There is a Walk The Forts walking route around the West Wight forts. This passes all the forts except Bouldnor Battery and also includes Yarmouth Castle and a Second World War pillbox.