Folly – noun; plural noun: Follies. A costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.
Having been a member of the Victorian Military Society for more years than I’d like to admit, I’m always keen to explore any museum or collection which furthers my interest in the topic. Last year, during my summer holiday to Dorset, I visited Nothe Fort; a Victorian coastal fortification just down the coast from where I was staying.
Weymouth, being a seaside resort, might not be an obvious place to find a fort. This coastal fortification, built to protect Portland Harbour, was one of the so-called Palmerston’s Follies. Suburban Militarism visited and reported another of these ‘follies’ a couple of years ago at Hurst Castle, opposite the Isle of Wight.
In 1869, Napoleon III’s France began work on the construction of “La Gloire”, an Ironclad battleship. This was in part a deliberate challenge to Britain’s naval dominance, but it was also a response to the experiences of the Crimean War amongst other conflicts. The industrial revolution had changed and improved coastal artillery design improving range, accuracy and damage. As France signalled an ironclad challenge to the ‘wooden walls’ of Britain’s peerless navy, British coastal fortifications suddenly took on an importance they hadn’t had since Napoleonic times.
In 1860, a Royal Commission set up by Prime Minister Lord Palmerston sparked a multi-million pound coastal defence development programme. Nothe Fort was part of this response, being completed in 1872. Unusually for the time, it was built by the Royal Engineers and not by private contractors, which had gone bankrupt shortly before commencement. The fort’s walls were 13ft thick at casemate level (the level of the guns) and 50ft thick at the lower magazine level! The twelve casemates originally housed:
- x2 64 pounder rifled muzzle loaders (RMLs).
- x4 9 inch RMLs – firing 256 pound shells up to 3 miles.
- x6 10 inch RMLs – firing 400 pound shells up to 3 miles.
Built by Victorian armament giant Armstrong, these were large and powerful cannon for their time, requiring a team of 18 men to service each gun. In 1892, all the 9 inch RMLs and three of the 10 inch RMLs were replaced by an even mightier gun;
- x7 12.5 inch RMLs – firing 818 pound shells up to 3.5 miles.
Below is a summary of some of these mighty Victorian Armstrong guns, some of which were installed at Nothe Fort or displayed in model form:
Armstrong 64 Pounder Cannon:
- x2 emplaced 1873 and 1904
- Fired 64 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
On entering Nothe Fort, I was immediately confronted by one of these 64 pounder guns. Armstrong’s 64 Pounder Cannon was the first Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) gun to enter British service.
It is mounted on a wooden carriage with thick rope stays. Aiming was facilitated by iron wheels which ran along an iron track in the floor. The shells can be seen bottom left in my photo above.
Two of them were installed in the fort specifically to protect the harbour entrance, hurling their 64 pound shells across the harbour and Weymouth Bay. They were in service from 1872 before being finally declared obsolete by 1908.
Armstrong 9in Rifled Muzzle Loader:
- x4 emplaced 1873 and 1892
- Fired 256 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
Four of the casemates originally housed these 9 inch guns. One can see how much larger it was when comparing this model with the above model of the 64 pounder and crew. Unlike the 64 pounder, it is housed on an iron carriage to better cope with the increased weight and power. No replica or original of the 9 inch gun exists in the fort today, aside from this model.
Armstrong 10in Rifled Muzzle Loader:
- x6 emplaced 1873 and 1912
- Fired 400 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
The 10 inch RMLs took up six of the casemates and were initially the largest guns in Nothe Fort until replaced by even larger calibre guns in the 1890s. The above model of the nine men of the Royal Artillery servicing the gun show them in shirt sleeves with pillbox hats. More men would be down in the tunnels of the magazine level supplying the crew with shells and cartridges. No replica or original existed in the museum.
Armstrong 12.5in 38 ton Rifled Muzzle Loader:
- x7 emplaced 1892
- Fired 848 pound shell a distance of 3.5 miles
The massive 12.5 inch RML gun is a reproduction but is brilliantly impressive nonetheless, giving a real impression of the weight, size and sheer power of these monsters. The casemate which houses it had manikins dressed in period uniforms to provide a good impression of how the men of the Victorian Royal Artillery would have looked at this time.
During this period, the Royal Artillery was divided into three arms, named respectively the Royal Field Artillery (RFA); the Royal Artillery (RA); and the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). It would have been the RGA (as specialists in siege and coastal artillery) which would have manned Nothe Fort, perhaps with some assistance from the local Artillery Volunteer Corps.
In 1892, all the 9 inch RMLs and three of the 10 inch RMLs were considered obsolete and replaced by these more powerful 12.5 inch guns;
The manikins also helped to demonstrate something of the processes involved in serving such a large cannon. One of the manikins is pictured below wheeling the canvas-wrapped charge, packed with explosive, up to the muzzle and the massive ramrod can be just seen lying on the floor. Another man wheels over the heavy 818 pound shell. The embrasure is covered by a mantelet, a thick rope curtain, which would have been fully closed when loading the cannon and intended to protect the men from counter-battery fire, shrapnel and snipers.
Men of the Royal Garrison Artillery were required to sleep and live on the gun decks. Nothe fort gave a nice impression of life in the barracks. The thin walls on the side facing the inner courtyard were quickly removed during gunnery practice and could remain so for days at a time. Consequently, their living quarters were liable to be somewhat open to the elements on one side – most unpleasant in winter time!
The Magazine Level: down in the tunnels…
The fort was particularly informative when it came to explaining how the guns were served with the constant flow of ammunition required to keep the enemy at bay. It all happened below the gun deck deep, down the magazine level’s tunnels which circumnavigated the whole fort.
The magazine level had the potential to be a source of total disaster for the fort. The very slightest of sparks could ignite the black powder stored there and destroy the fort from the inside. The risk was very real and the Royal Artillery took great precautions to prevent it from happening.
Lamps were kept in special sealed cabinets embedded in the walls to prevent the naked flames becoming ignition sources and reaching the powder. Furthermore, the small room where black powder was stored and cartridges prepared were kept strictly separate from the rest of the fort. It was accessible only via a “shifting lobby”, a changing room where men would have to divest themselves of all their usual clothing and change into white clothing containing no potential sources of sparks instead (no metal buttons, badges, etc.). Heads were covered with cloth caps and even the shoes were canvas as hobnails in the soles could create tiny sparks on the floor.
Men were not allowed to pass from one side of the lobby whilst wearing their usual uniform. Above we can see RGA uniforms in one lobby already hung up on the wall, their owners already changed and at work in the shifting lobby accessible through a side door.
Once the cartridges were prepared, they were cased for safety and passed to the corridor through a small hatch low in the wall.
Thereafter the charges were transferred carefully to a winch and hauled up to the gun deck. The shells were also separately winched to the gun deck from the nearby shell store.
Shells did not need anything like the same level of precaution as the charges as they contained no explosive material.
The heavy 12.5 inch shells, due to their great weight, had to be lifted up to the gun deck via special mechanical winches.
Once the shells and cartridges were up on the gun deck, the gun crew would load them and continue to pour fire upon those enemy ships!
Nothe fort was built with what was the deadliest industrial armaments then available. It was industrial armament developments which soon brought about its demise, however. Naval technology put the balance of power once more back into the hands of the ships. Whilst even the most powerful Armstrong coastal gun could lob a shell 3.5 miles, a dreadnought battleship could hurl far more destructive shells at a much greater distance, meaning the fort could be destroyed by distant battleships with impunity.
Palmerston’s follies showcased the immense fire power of a leading industrialised nation. They projected a Great Britain both brimming with confidence and yet at the same time fearful that its international pre-eminence would be challenged. These fortifications may have proved to have been follies, but their 21st century role as museums of coastal defence makes this military history nerd very content indeed.
Now back to those French WWI 1914 infantry which are coming on apace but are likely to be delayed this week due to domestic circumstances. Updates will follow when ready…