HistoricGosport Forton Barracks

Forton Barracks

Forton Barracks

One of the regrettable things that the Industrial Revolution did for this country was to blot out so many of our small suburban villages in a blur of red-brick street development. The Gosport area is a prime example, as some half a dozen hamlets within two or three miles of the town walls have been completely swallowed up in the general housing explosion and are now little more than road names on an area map. One of the largest of these ‘victims’ of our natural expansion is the village of Forton, an area to the north west of Gosport on the main road to Fareham. In the past Forton has contributed greatly to the development of Gosport. Its farmers and millers provided much of the town’s fresh produce, and large Admiralty victualling warehouses and storage yards sprung up on the town side of the village during the 18th and 19th centuries. But by far the most important factor in the growth of Forton was the building of the barracks at the beginning of the 19th century.

Forton Barracks Officers' Mess
Forton Barracks Officers’ Mess

Contrary to some local beliefs, Forton Barracks was not built on the site of the infamous old Fortune Hospital. That unhealthy straggle of wooden huts and unsightly buildings was first erected in 1713 on what was then a low and marshy site where now Lees Lane meets Gordon Road. A merchant called Nathanial Jackson won a contract from the Admiralty Board to provide accommodation and medical facilities for the naval and military sick in the Portsmouth area. Jackson would doubtless be regarded today as a land speculator as he seems to have cut all possible corners, and although he fulfilled his side of the contract in the literal sense, the frugality of the buildings he erected and the pittance he paid both doctors and nursing orderlies was so meagre that the place only attracted the second class members of both professions.

Forton 1860
Forton 1860

By the middle of the 18th century the Fortune Hospital was occupied by French and later American prisoners of war. An American prisoner’s song (extracted from the “Globe and Laurel”) has these words:
and Fortune’s Keep, a dread abode,

Where, neath misfortune’s heavy load,
Ambitions’ slaves, for despot’s crime,
Were captive kept in warlike time.

The Americans were courageous and enterprising men and many of them managed to make their escape, singly or even in large groups. One mass escape involved fifty seven prisoners who tunnelled their way out of prison and disappeared into the countryside. When a fire broke out in the older buildings of the hospital in 1807 it was decided to pull down the whole place.

Matthew Carter was one of the leading citizens of Forton at the end of the 18th century. He owned and worked Forton Mill, the land of which extended down both sides of Forton Creek and across the Fareham Road towards Ann’s Hill. With the expansion of Priddy’s Hard, the Armament Depot at the mouth of Forton Creek, he began to sell land to the Board of Ordnance, including a piece on the south side of the creek. Upon this land the Board decided to build a new prison hospital in 1796 and soon foundations were laid. However since the new hospital at Haslar was adequately meeting the needs of the area’s military sick it was decided that Forton would be better used as a barracks. The architects were instructed to alter their designs to fit the new requirements. An elegant Barracks complex gradually took shape, described in contemporary papers as having “four very lofty pavilions, connected by arcades of great extent with a parade ground of some acres. On the opposite square is the entrance gate with the apartments for officers.

Royal Marine Light Infantry at Forton Barracks December 1898
Royal Marine Light Infantry at Forton Barracks December 1898
Royal Marine Light Infantry Forton Barracks
Royal Marine Light Infantry Forton Barracks
Forton Barracks Plan of 1862
Forton Barracks Plan of 1862

The new Barracks was completed in 1807 after more land had been added to it by the Barracks Board.
In 1811 it was occupied by the Inverness-shire Militia. The 18th Royal Irish Regiment marched into the new Forton barracks in March 1818. In 1824 the barracks was occupied by the 24th Warwickshire Regiment of Foot. The 2nd Queens Regiment arrived there from Dublin in June 1824.
January 1925 the 31st Regiment moved out and were replaced by the 97th Regiment. The depots of the 70th and 76th regiments moved out in 1926 and were replaced by the 36th Regiment. Regiments came and went including:
1827 October Depot of the 18th Regiment.

It was in use as a transit barracks for troops moving around the country and embarking or disembarking at Portsmouth.
1828 March The 60th Regiment.
1828 51st Regiment
1829 April 83rd Regiment
1830 March 30th Regiment then in August 35th Regiment
1831 April 81st Regiment and the December 14th Regiment
1832 18th Regiment then 33rd Regiment
1833 84th Regiment
1835 August 59th Regiment then rplaced by the 61st Regiment.
1836 7th regiment then 58th Regiment and the 98th Regiment
1837 98th Regiment
1838 84th Regiment then 18th Regiment
1840 89th Regiment then 35th Regiment and then 82nd Regiment
1841 60th Regiment then 19th and 29th Regiments
1842 19th Regiment then 16th Regiment and 6th Regiment followed by 75th Regiment
1843 45th Regiment 83rd Regiment and 7th Dragoon Guards then 59th Regiment and 44th Regiment
1844 47th Regiment
1845 37th Regiment
1846 3rd (Buffs) Regiment then 2nd (Queen’s) Regiment
1847 2nd (Queen’s) Regiment and 27th (Enniskillen) Regiment
1847 39th Regiment
1848 The Royal Marines took over the barracks.

Around the Barracks the village quickly expanded with new shops, beer houses and homes for married personnel. Immediately outside the Main Gate on the Gosport side was the public house called the ‘Forton Arms’; it was later pulled down to make way for the new Commandant’s house, today known as St. Vincent House. In 1849 a private builder erected a ‘gentleman’s residence’ next door to the Commandant’s house. History does not relate who the gentleman was, but within a year it was bought by the Barrack Board for use as the residence of the Second in Command of the Barracks. Strangely, it retained its homely name of ‘Cedar Cottage’ and is to be seen today, a Grade II listed property,  still surrounded by its original garden and boundary walls.

(N.B. The clock was made by Gillette and Johnson of Clerkenwell whose early records no longer exist but a recent careful examination of this clock indicates that it was probably not made before 1860).

Forton in 1898
Forton in 1898

In August 1823 Colonel Sir Richard Williams visited Forton Barracks in order to ascertain if it was a suitable acquisition for the Royal Marines. It was viewed by the Duke of Clarence in October 1823. Forton Barracks was acquired from the War Department in 1848 in exchange for land and buildings at Clarence Barracks in Portsmouth. The Royal Marines Light Infantry, the ‘Red Marines’ moved into Forton Barracks in March 1848 after alterations and improvements costing £40,000 were made so that the barracks could accommodate 3,000 officers and men. This included the purchase of an extensive  range of small tenements on the North Side of Forton Road.

From 1848 the Barracks grew steadily and contributed to the improvement of the village and its inhabitants. A small school was opened for the children of married Marines and its bricked up doorway can still be seen at the end of the main facade where Mill Lane joins Fareham road. The little school was twenty years ahead of its time since compulsory Elementary Education was not made law until 1870. It was to prove so popular that it outgrew the first premises and in 1891 moved further down the Mill Lane side of the Barracks to a new building with better facilities. By this time, the playing fields opposite the Main Gate had been purchased and more land along the Mill Lake, including the little spit of land used during the Napoleonic Wars for the burial of prisoners of war.  The Mill Pond was bought from the Bishop of Winchester in 1858 with the remaining stretch of marshy waterway which wound its way inland almost as far as Anns Hill. The area was gradually dredged and utilised as allotments and building land. By 1893 a theatre seating 600 had been added to the many amenities of the Barracks. The building, beside the rear Main Gate, also housed a concert room and gymnasium. It cannot have been a particularly elegant place. It is described in a contemporary edition of the ‘Globe and Laurel’ as having “three sides of corrugated iron, lined with matchwood boarding and the fourth side of brick — being the boundary wall of the Barracks and road”. However, the Forton Theatrical Society was created here and gave fortnightly performances throughout the season for the troops and the public.

In 1848 the newspapers reported that the Royal Marines stationed at Forton ‘have been so much in the habit of escaping over the walls and remaining out all night that it has been complained of the the Admiralty, and their Lordships have in consequence directed the Commandant to post more sentries around the barrack walls.’

Royal Marine Light Infantry with Col.E.G.B.Byam abd Officers December 1898
Royal Marine Light Infantry with Col.E.G.B.Byam abd Officers December 1898

One feature that the Barracks was certainly very proud of was its parade ground. At one time it is believed to have been the largest in the country, and the acoustic problems ensured that the Royal Marine N.C.O’s had particularly well-developed lungs. Another addition of great value to the whole community was the building in 1898 of a Cottage Hospital beside the Drill Field and near the old Windmill Public House. It was a compact two storey building containing surgeries and two six bedded wards. This enabled the old sick quarters to be made into a surgery for women and children.

Over the years the Forton Barracks had become the main Royal Marines Depot for musketry training as well as for music. Extensive ranges were established at Browndown which were further improved when the Magazine Rifle was introduced. Annual Contests were held there, attracting divisions from as far away as Plymouth. Strangely the Barracks never felt it necessary to build its own church. There are several memorial tablets dedicated to the memory of Marines in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Forton, but it was always the Parish Church first and the Garrison Church second. The first Forton church, completed in 1831, was replaced by the present red brick building in 1892.

A gunnery training ship, or practice battery, was constructed to the north of the barracks on the other side of Forton Creek in 1848 on a site labelled as ‘Barrack Gardens’, in which ships guns were fitted for practice firings and drill. A small powder magazine, which still exisits, supplied the practice battery with ammunition. Near to this was a large military cemetery and next to to this was a smaller convicts cemetery. Sometime between 1841 and 1856 a portion of the creek was reclaimed and by 1867 it was used to construct an outdoor pool, or ‘bathing pond’. This was filled in when the barracks closed and the site is now open space. The wall to the military cemetery still survives today.

Gunnery practice battery
Gunnery practice battery
The practice battery, cemetery and bathing pond in 1910
The practice battery, cemetery and bathing pond in 1910
Powder Magazine for Fort Barracks Practice Battery
Powder Magazine for Fort Barracks Practice Battery

During those thriving and colourful Victorian years, most of the money available to the Barracks Board was used to improve and extend the facilities for the Royal Marines and not enough was being conserved for the necessary every day maintenance of the buildings and surrounding land. The result was that by the time the Royal Marine Light Infantry and the Royal Marine Artillery were amalgamated in 1923 the whole place was in desperate need of basic repair which would have cost an estimated £60,000. This enormous sum was too large for the Admiralty to consider and so the Portsmouth Division of the Royal Marines moved back across the water, this time to enjoy the bracing air of Eastney. On 29th July 1923 the Adjutant General, Sir H. E. Blumberg took the last Church Parade and on 1st August the Colours were transferred to Eastney. The Clock remains in its bell tower over the Main Gate.

Grade II Listed Frontage
The frontage of Forton Barracks consisting of the gateway, guardhouse, offices and school was designed by Captain H James R.E. The left end was a school for the children of marines, with a school master’s house. The right end was the adjutant’s quarters and the commandant’s offices. The Commandant’s Quarters was a separate house to the east, which later became St Vincent House and is now a care home.

Forton Barracks frontage 1862
Forton Barracks frontage 1862

Behind the front were two sets of Officers’ Quarters, East and West House. These have been demolished as have all of the Men’s Barracks, referred to on the plans as ‘Pavilions’ with a front ‘Piazza’, and the Officers’ Mess.

Forton Barracks Officers Mess 1862
Forton Barracks Officers Mess 1862
Forton Barracks Pavilions
Forton Barracks Pavilions
The Pavillions
The pavillions

Halliday Close Married Quarters
The Barrack Accommodation Committee of 1855 recommended that each authorised married man who was permitted to live in barracks with his wife should be provided with a room away from the unmarried quarters. The implementation of this recommendation was expensive, and hence its adoption was slow. By the 1890s purpose built married quarters were being provided by the Army, hence the ones south of Forton Barracks adjacent to the Barracks playing fields and Field House Hospital. The married quarters provided were categorised by the number of living rooms they had i.e.
’A’ Type Married Quarters were provided with a living room, a bedroom and a scullery/kitchen.
’B’ Type Married Quarters were provided with a living room, two bedrooms and a scullery/kitchen.
’C’ Type Married Quarters were provided with a living room, three bedrooms and a scullery/kitchen.
The living rooms (including bedrooms) were built with the minimum volume of 1,800 cubic feet. In addition to the quarters outlined above some quarters had their own toilet, whilst others had access to male and female communal toilets. The married quarters were occupied by  Married NCOs and men from Forton Barracks. In later years they were occupied by Naval families and then MOD Police families. During World war Two the quarters were badly damaged by an air raid and No.1 was then demolished. The modern name ‘Halliday Close’ was applied to the married quarters for Forton Barracks when the site was sold off, it previously being known as ‘Admiralty Close’. Nos 2 to 12 Halliday Close are now Grade Two listed buildings.

HMS St Vincent
Forton Barracks stood empty when the RMLI moved out until it was commissioned as HMS St Vincent on 1 June 1927, taking the place of the floating HMS St Vincent which was moored off Gosport Hard north of Fort Blockhouse. It was a training establishment for boys and juniors at a cost of £96,000. On the outbreak of World War Two the boys were evacuated to The Isle of Man together with HMS Caledonia to form HMS St George. HMS St Vincent in Forton Barracks became a pre-flight training establishment for RNVR Air branch officer cadet ratings and an overflow for the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm barracks at HMS Daedalus. A signal school was also established. A torpedo training section was opened on 22 July 1940.HMS St Vincent reverted to being a boy’s training establishment after the end of the war, and reopened on 1 December 1945. It was paid off and closed on 2nd April 1969. The official closing ceremony was held on 8 December 1968. It has now become St Vincent College. Many of the original buildings, including the barracks blocks, have been demolished but the impressive facade along the Forton Road remains, together with the clock tower and entance gateway.

Aerial view of St Vincent Barracks

(1) The Globe and Laurel — the journal of the Royal Marines.
(2) Historical Review of the Royal Marine Corps by A. Gillespie 1803.
(3) Historical Record of the Royal Marine Forces by P.H. Nicholas 1845.
(4) Britain Sea Soldiers by C. Field 2vv 1924.
(5) Gosport Records No.12 pages 21 to 24: December 1976
(6) editions of Newspapers from 1800 to 1848
All photographs are from the Author’s collection.