Keys to The Fortress

Fortress Portsmouth had long included the town defences of Gosport as an integral part of its strategic defences. Over many centuries it has been the custom for the Govenor of Portsmouth (or Lieutenant General) to hand the keys to the main gates of Portsmouth, Town Gate and Landport Gate, to a visiting sovereign. The key of the Town Gate bears a crescent and star whilst that of the later Landport Gate (the main gateway to the town until 1875) bears a crown.


It seems that Town Gate (at the end of High Street) was the old gate through the Elizabethan defences of 1662, before the De Gomme improvements which replaced it with Landport Gate in 1760, at the end of Warblington Street, where it still is today.

The ceremony may date as far back as 1683, when Charles II came to inspect the fortifications, including the Gosport ramparts and Blockhouse Battery. The recent building of ramparts round Gosport had made it part of the Fortress of Portsmouth. The Governor of Portsmouth (i.e. Military Commander) had a Deputy Governor in Gosport. From 1682 to 1688 Gosport was part of the Borough of Portsmouth; after it had ceased to be part of that Borough it remained part of the Fortress. The two keys were kept in the custody of the Governor or, after the abolition of that post, the senior Army officer, and were to lie on the table in front of him at dinner.

Keys of Fortress Portsmouth
The Keys to Fortress Portsmouth

The following description of the keys is taken from a newspaper article of 29 November 1845: ‘The keys are of bronze, of a deep gold colour; weigh two pounds and a half, and are fastened together by a purple ribbon, with deep gold fringe. They are each nine inches long; on the flutings is the following inscription; it should be explained that the ancient keys, being much corroded, were mingled with a quantity of fresh metal, and recast in 1814: The keys of the Fortress of Portsmouth, presented to, and most graciously received by, the Prince Regent, on his Royal Highness’s arrival at the Garrison, on the twenty-first June 1814; when Lieut-General Houston was the Lieut-Governor and Major general Fisher the Commanding Engineer’. 

Another description of the keys from the Hampshire Telegraph of April 1842 gives some more detail: The ancient keys of the fortress, having become corroded, were in the year 1814, under the direction of General Fisher, added to a quantity of metal, and recast by Mr John Owen, assistant clerk of works, and an engineer soldier, of the name of Hunter, who was employed three days and nights in finishing the ornamental parts. The keys are of different sizes, though they correspond in their general character. The first, or Landport key, is nine inches and a half in length; three inches and a half in breadth at the handle, which is of an oval shape, surmounted by the imperial crown; the shank elegantly fluted and weathed with eight hollows, or oval depressions. The wards are two inches wide, and one inch and an eighth deep. This key weighs one pound five ounces and one quarter. The second, or Town gate key, is surmounted by the crest of the Borough, the half crescent and flaming star, having an eye in the centre. The crescent is two inches and a half in breadth; the shank is fluted and wreathed, but of a somewhat different pattern; the wards are two inches and an eighth wide, and one inch and an eighth deep; one ward is bent, as if by some violence in turning it in the lock. The weight of this key is one pound one ounce and a quarter. They are beautifully fashioned and finished, and, being composed of several kinds of metal, are very sonorous when struck, and their appearance is rich, being of a deep gold colour. On the ribs of the flutings appears the following inscription on each: (as given above). On the lower part of the wards is engraved ‘J.Owen fecit’. (J. Owen made it) They are fastened together by a broad purple and crimson ribbon with gold tassels, and are kept in a mahogany case, in the custody of the Lieut. Governor of the Garrison.

In 1930 the Governor was Brigadier G.W. Howard C.M.G. D.S.O and the press reported that the two keys continued to find a place each evening on the dinner table. This article explained that the custom of presenting the keys to visiting royalty began when the treaty of Paris had been signed in 1814. The Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, the Duke of Wellington, Marshal Blucher and a host of other Royal and military visitors were welcomed and when the Prince arrived at Landport gates, Lieutenant General Houstoun, the Lieutenant-Governor of Portsmouth, and town Major Ashurst were in waiting. The gates were shut, and the Lieutenant-Governor, with due ceremony, presented his Royal Highness with the keys of the fortress, which were immediately returned with the usual command to ‘open the gates of his Majesty’s fortress‘ in order that he might enter.

Queen Victoria was first handed the keys in 1842. It is recorded that she ‘took them away with her in the carriage and kept them for some time, to examine them‘.

In 1844 the railway ran to Gosport station, but there was no extension to the Royal Clarence Yard and there was no railway throught the ramparts at Hilsea Lines to Portsmouth. On 14 October Queen Victoria and the French King Louis Philippe arrived at Gosport station at the end of the latter’s visit to the UK; it was intended that the King should embark from the Royal Clarence Yard to return to France, but the weather prevented this. When the Queen and Louis Philippe had alighted from the train, before they entered a carriage to take them to the Yard, Maj. Gen. the Hon. Sir Hercules Pakenham, the Lieut. Governor of Portsmouth, presented the Keys of Fortress Portsmouth to the Queen.

On 15 May 1845 the Queen had been in the Isle of Wight in connection with the purchase of the Osborne estate. She crossed in the Lightning (a steamship) from Cowes and was rowed to the Royal Clarence Yard in the Admiral’s barge. On landing she was received by Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, the Superintendent of the Dockyard. Sir Hercules Pakenham presented her with the Keys, as shown in the sketch from the Illustrated London News. He then rode ahead of her carriage to Gosport station, where she entered her special train.

The Keys to Portsmouth presented to Her Majest Queen Victoria 15 May 1845

On 25 November 1845 the Queen passed through Gosport on her way to Cowes, but by this time her railway extension and her private station in the Yard had been built. Sir Hercules presented the Keys to her in this station when she alighted from her special train, but in one respect the arrangements were less convenient to her than before. “Her Majesty had to walk down the long jetty of the wharf to the Royal Barge, it not being wide enough to admit a carriage.” It is not clear how many times the Keys were presented to Queen Victoria at the Royal Clarence Yard during her frequent journeys to and from Osborne. However there are extant copies of two War Office letters of 1854 to the Lieut. Governor saying that the Queen was going to pass through and he should “cause the necessary arrangements to be made for her Majesty’s reception with the usual honours on arrival at Gosport”. In a book on the Keys published in 1939 H.C. Moth said that they were presented to the Queen in the Yard in 1897 and 1898 (and probably also in 1887, 1888 and 1889 but the book is ambiguous); this was apparently based on conversations with W. Kitchingham, who was a bargeman to all the Governors from 1886 to 1902, and the appropriately named R. Cox, coxswain of bargemen at the end of this period. After 1898 the custom of presenting the Keys lapsed for 40 years.

In 1902, in the course of an Army reorganisation, the post of Governor was abolished and the responsibility for the Keys passed to the senior Army officer, who since then has had various military titles. In 1939 the Lord Mayor showed H.C. Moth’s book to King George VI, “who was immediately interested and graciously allowed this ancient custom to be revived”. Accordingly on 6 May 1939 Brigadier W. Robb presented the Keys to the King on the Guildhall Steps; among those on the steps were the present Queen,as Princess Elizabeth, and Messrs. Cox and Kitchingham, who had been on duty at presentations to Queen Victoria in the Royal Clarence Yard.

After World War II the garrison of Portsmouth was run down, and in 1968 the Army Flag Station was moved from Portsmouth to St. George Barracks, Gosport. The last Army Brigadier’s appointment in Portsmouth having been abolished, the most senior Army officer left in the area was the Lieut. Colonel commanding the regiment in St. George Barracks, then known as the Maritime Detachment, Royal Corps of Transport. He was given the title of Commander, Portsmouth/Gosport Station, and became responsible for the Keys.

There was considerable opposition in Portsmouth to the permanent removal of the Keys from the City. Eventually, at the 1968 election of the Lord Mayor, Lt. Col. D.E.T. Charles-Jones, the Station Commander, said “My Lord Mayor, I am here to inform you that Her Majesty, with the greatest pleasure, has approved that, while the Keys of the Fortress of Portsmouth are to remain my responsibility, as the Senior Army Officer, they are to be entrusted to the safe keeping of the City. This is on the understanding that the Keys are to be returned to me or my successors when Her Majesty visits the City for presentation to her and also on other occasions as required by tradition”. The Lord Mayor accepted the Keys on this basis and said that they would be kept with the City Plate. At each subsequent election the Station Commander has handed over the Keys to the incoming Lord Mayor on the same basis.”

The Keys had many times been brought to St. George Barracks, for example when the unit received the freedom of the Borough of Gosport on 6 April 1977, and when they were to lie in front of the Station Commander at formal dinners. A replica of them, made by HMS Sultan, was permanently displayed in the Officers’ Mess. (Another replica, made by the British Museum, was displayed in Southsea Castle.) A representation of themwas used as the Station Commander’s badge of office, and they formed the motif of the station tie.

St George Barracks. Freedom of the Borough in 1977 with the keys to Fortress Portsmouth
St George Barracks. Freedom of the Borough in 1977 with the keys to Fortress Portsmouth

On 29 June 1977 the then Station Commander, Lt. Col. T.C. Street, presented the Keys to the Queen on the Guildhall Steps. Whereas in this century the officer presenting the Keys has done standing, the practice, shown in the 1845 sketch, of kneeling on one knee , was revived.

Following the departure of the Army from St George Barracks, the keys reutrned to Portsmouth once more. Returning the keys of the Fortress of Portsmouth to the safe keeping of the city is a traditional part of the Portsmouth Mayor-making ceremony. This is in accordance with the wishes of Her Majesty The Queen, on the understanding that, should Her Majesty visit Portsmouth the keys are to be returned to the Senior Army Commander for presentation to the Sovereign – and on other occasions, as required by tradition.

The keys of the city of Portsmouth are currently held by the Senior Royal Engineer Officer at The Defence Diving School.

Landport Gate as it is today, still in its original position.
Landport Gate as it is today, still in its original position. It was erected in 1760 to replace the old Town gate and was the main entrance into the Town of Portsmouth. It is said to be an original design by Nicholas Hawksmoor, although this is not proven.

The old Gates to Portsmouth
Landport Gate: The only gate in Portsmouth which still on its original site. It was the main entrance to the old town of Portsmouth, deliberately not set opposite the High Street but just North of Warblington Street opposite Colewort Barracks. On the landward side there was in 1861 a Draw Bridge. Access was from the Landport Ravelin via an iron Bridge. It is now an entrance to the United Services Sports Ground.
King James Gate: dates from 1687. Across the S end of Broad Street, which it divides from High Street. It separated the old town from the district called Point. It was an imposing structure of Venetian style with double colums on each side of the archway. An inscription states ‘Jacobus Secundus A.R. III An Dom 1687‘ It was taken down in the 1870s an re-erected in the Royal Naval Barracks. It was later moved to its present site in Burnaby Road but is not complete.
King William Gate: This stood at the East end of Pembroke road in place of the narrow Spur gate. The pathway for foot pasengers was so tortuous that it was known as the Crooked Arch. This was the least ornate of the Portsmouth gates. Access was via a bridge to King’s Ravelin and via a further bridge to Southsea. The entire gate was taken down in 1876 and there is no trace of it. The original guardhouse to the King William Gate was later called ‘The Cottage’, in Pembroke Road.
Anchor Gate: An entrance to the Dockyard from the North end of Anchor Gate Road, North of the Dockyard railway. It was built to replace an ancient gate which marked the end of Portsea’s fortifications. It was entirely demolished in 1897 to make was for a dockyard extension.
Lion Gate: Stood at the east end of Queen Street, at the junction of Queen Street and Lion Gate Road (now Edinburg Road). It had a Guard Room on the South side. The Lion Gate was part of the fortifications built in the 1770s round the Dockyard and Portsmouth Common (from 1792 the Town of Portsea). It was moved to become the entrance to the new Anglesey Barracks in 1871. Following demolition, part of the gate eventually found its way into the base of the Semaphore Tower in the Dockyard.
Unicorn Gate: Stood at the Western end of North Street. This was the North East entrance to Portsea Town, then the entrance to the naval dockyard. 1779. The road led West from near the present site of the Unicorn Gate (at the Naval Barracks in Unicorn Road), via the Unicorn Ravelin, through the Unicorn Gate, to Lennox Row. There was a Draw Bridge between the two parts of the Gate, and a Guard Room stood on each side of the road on the West side. It was demolished and re-erected as the entrance to the new dockyard extension in 1873, where it still stands.
King George’s gate, Quay Gate: Stood on the West side of Oyster Street/Prospect Row opposite King Street. It had an adjoining sally port and guard room.

Gosport Town Gates
In contrast to the grand, ornate stone gateways through the ramparts surrounding Portsmouth, the three gates through the ramparts at Gosport were very plain and functional.

The Gosport Town Fortifications showing the three gates, with modern roads overlaid, drawn by the late Brian Patterson
The Gosport Town Fortifications showing the three gates, with modern roads overlaid, drawn by the late Brian Patterson

The southern-most gate, Haslar gate which was constructed in 1800, was built entirely of red brick whilst the other two had stone facings with a brick parapet and tunnels. Haslar gate stood at the southern section of the ramparts east of Trinity Bastion (built by convict labour circa 1840) . It had a small guard room to one side and a drawbridge across the moat leading to Haslar Toll Bridge, Haslar Hospital and The Gunboat Yard. The water in the most was controlled by a sluice allowing water from the harbour to flow in at high tide. Dating from 1840 a brick built gallery, or ‘caponier’, was added nearby on the northside of the moat to protect the covered way and sluice. Part of this remains today.

A newspaper report of August 1846 states that ‘the new archway, at the Southern entrance of the town, is nearly completed and will very shortly be open to the public.’

Haslar Gate plan circa 1890
Haslar Gate: Plan circa 1890

The Gosport north gate, or Fareham Road Gate, was built adjacent to the old 1748 gate through the earlier lines. It was accessed across a double bridge, each with drawbridge on the outer section, from the Spring Garden Lane junction with Forton Road. It was rebuilt in 1800 and again in 1841 and was described as ‘ so devoid of all architectural beauty or ornament that, on approaching it, the mind is moved to melancholy and filled with much gloom as if entering a sepulchre or dungeon‘. This was the main Gosport to London Road. It had double tunnels with gates and the road inside the ramparts passed through the middle of the large ‘New Barracks’, with the guard Room nearby. A railway tunnel through the ramparts was added to the north of this gateway circa 1845, to allow the extension from Gosport Station to Clarence Yard Royal (private) Station. Just before this the people of Gosport had complained that the gateway was too narrow for pedestrians who were in danger when they used it as the pavement on either side was only 20 inches wide. A plan in the National Archive shows a proposal to add a pedestrian tunnel to one side of the double gates, however no one (Board of Ordnance or Railway Company) was prepared to pay for it.

In 1852 it was reported that the guard for the double gate was to be increased to one subaltern, one sergeant, two corporals, one drummer and eighteen privates replacing the one sergeant allocated previously. A corporal and six men were allocated to the Haslar gate.

In 1870 it was reported in the press that small boys frequently assembled on and near the archways to the single and double gates, from which they pelt passers-by with stones.

Again in 1873 there were proposals by the Gosport Highways Board to demolish this gateway as ‘troops passing through the arch were put to inconvenience, whilst persons driving vehicles were in great danger, and frequently had to pull up two or more times in order to avoid accidents‘. The cost of removing the arch was given as not exceeding £80 but required the approval of the Government.

Proposal to add a pedestrian tunnel through the ramparts at North Double Gates: Based on WO44/280
Proposal to add a pedestrian tunnel through the ramparts at North Double Gates: Based on WO44/280

In 1882 230 residents signed a letter asking the Alverstoke Local Board to remove the double gates and widen the road. Agreement was reached but the plans fell through when a Government report stopped the proposal. The gateway was completely removed by 1890.



Gosport Main (Town) Gate, rebuilt in 1748 stood at the centre of the curtain joining Bastion No.2 and Demi-Bastion No.1 mid way between High Street and North Street. It replaced the previous gate of 1729 through the earlier De Gomme lines. Stoke Road led through an S bend in the Ravelin, over a drawbridge spanning the moat.

Gosport Main gate on a plan by Brian Patterson
Gosport Main Gate circa 1860 on a plan by Brian Patterson

This section of ramparts with the gate were removed and the moat filled shortly before the building of Gosport’s new Library and Technical Institute, 1895, on part of the site.

Gosport ramparts with the two gates: Plan circa 1890
Gosport ramparts with the two gates: Plan circa 1890

The gates were narrow and restricted the passage of carts, with old cannon as bollards to prevent damage to the sides of the arches. Main (Town) gate had one arch for carts and horses with a smaller one to its side for pedestrians. None of Gosport’s gates have survived. North Forton gate was demolished by 1890. The main gate was demolished in 1895. Haslar Gate was demolished in 1904. No photographs of the northern gate have so far been found.

Haslar Gate by William Snape 1896
Haslar Gate by William Snape 1896


The only surviving piece of the North Forton Gate is a marker stone by the side of the road, which reads 73 miles to London.

Forton (north) gate surviving marker stone

Sources:
Hampshire Telegraph 4th April 1842
London News 29 November 1845
Hampshire Telegraph 13 June 1930
Article in Gosport Records No. 13 ‘The Keys of the Fortress’ by G.H. Williams The Portsmouth That Has Passed: William Gates
Archive photographs from Gosport Museum (Godfrey Williams) collection
The Western Defences of Portsmouth Harbour: The Portsmouth Papers No.30 G.H.Williams
The Portsmouth Encyclopaedia