Fort Gilkicker, Hampshire

When one thinks of a company with the word ‘archaeology’ in the name, the mind is usually drawn to thoughts of sun (or rain) soaked colleagues standing in an immaculately dug hole and showing off their most recent ‘star’ find. While we do a lot of that, we also ‘do’ a lot of standing buildings and structures which, according to your unashamedly biased author, are far more enthralling than even the most immaculate and find-laden trench…

By using the technical term ‘do’, I mean things like establishing the history and evolution of a building, advising on the impact work might have on Listed Buildings and their settings (or even an old building that’s not listed, but still of traditional construction and valued), analysing historic townscapes…. and lots, lots more. At Cotswold Archaeology, the ‘do’ing of this work involves the Historic Buildings Team, and an example of us doing what we ‘do’ is Fort Gilkicker, in Hampshire…

Fort Gilkicker is a Victorian element of the Portsmouth Harbour defences – a group of well-preserved multi-phase earthworks, infrastructure, and fortifications, of national importance. We recently undertook a ‘Level 4’ recording of this Scheduled Monument and Grade II* Listed fort in Gosport – the highest possible level of recording. We created a detailed analysis of the building’s condition, its cultural value, and its evolution through time.

The entrance to our Palmerston Fort

The core structure of the Fort was completed in c.1871, to protect the western approaches to Portsmouth Harbour against bombardment or attack from enemy warships that might penetrate the outer defences of The Solent. It was also strategically positioned to deter a shipborne attack upon the Spithead anchorages which, at the time the fort was constructed, were of very high strategic importance to the Royal Navy. The fort was designed to mount 27 heavy artillery pieces; 22 guns housed within vaulted bombproof casemates, and 5 heavier guns mounted on the curvilinear roof. These were served by powder magazines and shell stores located in the basement.

The fort was among an extensive series of coastal defence works that were authorised by a Royal Commission of 1859. Despite their enormous cost, most of the forts never fired a shot in anger. Perhaps unfairly, these have since become known as ‘Palmerston’s follies’ after their principal advocate Lord Palmerston (Prime Minister, 1855-65).  

Following disarmament of the fort in c.1907, it remained in military use until 1957. This was when all British coastal defence batteries were finally deactivated; fixed coastal defences had little use in the Cold War era of guided missiles fired from beyond the horizon.

Graffiti inside the fort, dated October 1938

During the later period of military use, the submarine service procured some of the fort casemates as technical stores, and some associated signage and graffiti including submarine names still survives. Of particular interest is graffiti dating from WWII; showing the names of individuals and units to which they were attached. The empty building has also been used by more recent artists as a palette for their work, some of which may, in the future, also have historical and cultural resonance, reflecting contemporary attitudes to COVID-19, for example.

Graffiti inside the fort, dated 2020…

We love a collaborative approach at Cotswold Archaeology. In this instance, we engaged with the inexhaustible pool of knowledge that is the Palmerston Forts Society. Since works began at the fort, the Society have been undertaking periodic overflights of the site using a drone (as above). This has resulted in rather stunning footage that captures initial phases of works including for the first time since about 1906, the exposure of the spectacular Victorian granite frontage of the fortification.

The footage also illustrates that conserving our built heritage is, in some cases, a very, very big job that requires a vast number of professionals, tradespeople and resources to make happen. Historic buildings do not look after themselves. Redundant structures that were built for a very specific or specialist function, such as a coastal defence battery, need a viable use to ensure a sustainable future. It is pleasing that after decades of false starts, Fort Gilkicker now seems to be heading toward a successful conclusion in this regard, and in a manner that conserves and better reveals its significance.

Jamie Barnes
Historic Building Consultant

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