Fortifications of the Isle of Wight - Sandown Granite Fort
Created | Updated Jan 13, 2015
Sandown Granite Fort was built to be the strongest of the Victorian coastal forts of the Isle of Wight. The other coastal fortifications on the Isle of Wight, including most batteries, had either few or no defensive features. Even Golden Hill Fort and Bembridge Fort were built to withstand only a lightly armed invading force, not a prolonged siege. Sandown Granite Fort, however, was built to withstand a frontal attack by an ironclad fleet armed with heavy armour-piercing weapons mounting a full-scale invasion of Sandown Bay.
The Importance Of Sandown Bay
The south coast of the Isle of Wight from the Needles to Dunnose Point, Ventnor, consists almost entirely of steep chalk, clay and sandstone cliffs, with little beach below for an invading force to land on. The most vulnerable part of the Island lies on the south-east coast. Sandown Bay, a five-mile firm, sandy beach was an open, inviting gap in the protective cliffs, 2,000 yards wide with the only natural obstacles to an enemy were a gentle slope. For row boats and barges, 600 yards of this bay could be landed on safely no matter what the tide and the bay itself was sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds.
Previous Castles and Forts
Sandown Granite Fort was the third fortification to be built to defend the vulnerable Sandown Bay. The first, Sandown Castle, was built in the reign of Henry VIII when castles were beginning to evolve into artillery forts.
Sandown Castle1 was built as part of Henry VIII's device castles to defend and fortify England. Work on constructing Sandown Castle was started in 1544. It was still being built during the French invasion on 1545, when the Mary Rose sank, and French invaders reportedly fought defenders over the foundations of the castle. However, the castle was built too near the coast, and by 1623 the sea had breached the curtain walls.
Second Sandown Castle
In 1631 the old castle was demolished and in 1632 work on constructing a new castle began, further inland. This castle, also known as Sandown Fort and Sandham Fort, was finished in 1636 and was armed with 30 guns as well as weapons for 300 men. During the Napoleonic Wars it was believed that France was poised and capable of landing 10,000 troops with horses and equipment at Sandown Bay within 24 hours. By the 1850s it was realised that the second castle was outdated and vulnerable to modern artillery, and so the 1859 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom proposed a new fort. This would become known as Sandown Granite Fort.
The two Sandown Castles and the 1545 invasion are covered in more detail in the East Wight Fortifications entry.
Planning And Constructing Sandown Granite Fort
The plan was for Sandown Granite Fort to be constructed to the height of the technology available, armed with the heaviest guns and defended by the strongest armour. This approach however had a major drawback, as Sandown Granite Fort was being constructed at a time when weapons technology was developing far faster than it was possible to plan and construct a fort capable of housing and withstanding the latest artillery weapons. This meant that several times during the construction of the fort, the plans changed. Its weaponry and defensive features, in particular its iron armoured shields, were changed, bringing work on constructing the fort to a halt.
Work began on building the fort in April 1861. Although the fort's layout and shell had been fairly completed by 1864, it was not armed until 1876.
The original plans were for a granite-fronted fort armed with 18 guns in casemates protected by iron shields, with a further 10 guns on the roof, either in emplacements or on the less vulnerable disappearing carriages. In the end, the roof guns were eliminated from the plans to save money. Two five-gun batteries would be built in support on either side. Although these batteries were also eliminated from the plans due to cost concerns, work on constructing a fort armed with eighteen guns went ahead. Construction of the fort was very difficult, especially with the use of the materials. The Hampshire Telegraph2 reported in 1862:
'The construction has been attended with an unusual amount of labour, all the heaviest of the materials, including the blocks of granite, which weight from 1.5 to 6 tons each, having to be landed in Brading Harbour and thence conveyed overland via Bembridge Down, to where the fort is being built.'
Deciding the final layout of the fort was often put off until the last minute, frequently delaying the construction work:
'The final decision as to the iron 10-inch plating and embrasures will have to be made.'
By 17 December, 1863 The Bradford Observer recorded that:
'The greater portion of the workmen employed at the Sandown Fort were paid off on Tuesday last, in consequence of the works being suspended for a time, as it is contemplated to make considerable alterations in the present plans, so as to be enabled to mount guns of heavier metal than was at first intended.'
Three years later in 1866 the fort was still waiting for the iron shields, as reported in the paper:
'Sandown Fort is a granite-fronted casemated work of great strength, with provision for mounting upwards of 20 of the heaviest guns in its casemates, to be fought through iron shields. The fort has been completed upwards of two years but its embrasures are still waiting their shields and their guns, although this is the only work that could defend Sandown Bay from the attack of an ironclad fleet and the possession by an enemy of Sandown, with the adjacent heights, would seriously endanger our holding the Spithead Forts. There are other batteries than this fort at Sandown, but they are all useless against ironclad ships, notwithstanding Palliser shot and shell.'
Three years later in 1869 the fort was still undergoing modifications to its design. The report on its construction stated:
'[Sandown Granite Fort is] well and skilfully built as regard permanency and stability and its power of resistance is well adapted to the position it occupies. It is proposed to adapt the upper battery for the reception of guns on Moncrieff carriages at a cost of £3,090.'
The Moncrieff Disappearing Gun Carriage was a gun carriage designed to lower the gun behind a protected parapet, often concrete, for loading the gun before returning the gun to the vulnerable firing position. This used a system of counterweights and was introduced in 1869. It was used in gun batteries throughout the 1870s before being superseded by the more efficient hydropneumatic gun mounting system in 1885. Soon after this report, it was instead proposed to have an infantry parapet on the roof of the fort. Finally in 1876 the reports stated:
'The defence of the Eastern [Isle of Wight] Forts are being completed. A detachment of 38 non-commissioned officers and men of the 2nd Brigade Royal Artillery, which will be permanently stationed here under the command of Captain Burton, are employed in mounting 18-ton guns, [firing] 400lb shells. '
The Hampshire Telegraph in 1862 reported:
'The new Sandown Fort is a most formidable work. Its right and left front faces have each a length of 156 feet, with right and left faces of 116 feet each and right and left flanks of 150 feet each. The gorge, 240 feet in length, is closed by quarters for officers &c, and the whole surrounded by a wide and deep ditch, having stout revetments. The front and right and left faces are faced with 9 feet thickness of Penrhyn granite, banded with iron hooping. The plans of the work provided for covering this granite front with 10 inch of iron plating, and with iron embrasures... each a width of 2 feet thick inches and giving the guns in the casemates a training of 35 degrees.
...The casemates for the guns of the new fort, 12 on the front faces and three on its right and left faces, will be capable of mounting guns of extraordinary weight and calibre. The work will have good command on either flank over the low ground on which it stands, while the top of the work will be well traversed for rifle fire. The roomy casemates in rear of the guns contain ample accommodation for 100 men underneath bombproofed arches. In the centre of the parade ground has been constructed a tank fitted with filtering apparatus, capable of holding 10,000 gallons of water for the use of the garrison. This water will be collected from what falls within the area of the fort from the roof of the officers' quarters and the terreplein of the work. The main magazine has brick walls four feet in thickness, laid in cement, the outer layers of brick having glazed surfaces to prevent damp by contact with the earth covering. It has hollow ventilating openings round the walls and will contain 2,000 cases of powder. The cost of the work, without the iron plating or embrasures, is about £30,000. '
In fact the total cost of the fort, after all the delays and including the cost of the iron shields, was £73,876.
Sandown Granite Fort was a heptagonal, almost lozenge-shaped fort. The front, seaward side of the fort, which was exposed to a potential enemy fleet, was built of granite protected by iron armour; the rear of the fort was built of brick. Surrounding the entire fort was a ditch defended by four caponiers, at the north-east, north-west, south-east and south-west corners: two facing towards the sea, two facing inland. Access to the fort was close to the north-east caponier over a drawbridge that connected with a fixed bridge.
When the fort was first armed, it received 12 RML guns rather than the 18 9-inch guns it had been designed for. Four were 9-inch RMLs, two on each of the forward flanks; 10-inch RMLs were mounted on eight of the twelve forward facing casemates. It was stated that it would not be possible to work with 18 10-inch guns as the fort would be too cramped. The 9-inch RMLs could fire a common, shrapnel, case or Palliser3 50lb shell up to 3,800 yards and needed a crew of nine men to fire.
The fort had a central parade ground, with the magazine complex to the east. The rear of the fort held a guardroom, stores, staff sergeant and Commanding Officer's quarters and offices. The soldiers' quarters were at the front of the fort, behind the guns and close to the cartridge stores and expense lockers. Later two barracks rooms were converted for reading and recreational purposes.
Although the fort was occupied by the Isle of Wight Artillery Militia for training in 1870, the fort finally became fully armed and operational in 1876. This was after changes to proposals of the armament of the fort as well as draining and ventilating the main magazine, which had experienced problems with damp. As early as 1880, thought was given to updating and increasing the armament in Sandown Granite Fort. It was proposed to replace the 10-inch RMLs with even more powerful 11-inch RMLs, 18-ton guns, and to increase the armour plating by an additional 5-inches.
However by 1887 two of the smaller 9-inch guns on the east flank were removed from the fort. These were replaced with two 10-inch RMLs from the forward-facing casemates. Mountings for three 3-pounder quick firing guns were placed on the roof, two on the centre, one on the east flank. These guns, however, were never mounted.
In addition, two 10-inch RMLs were moved from the centre casemates and taken to Sandown Barrack Battery where they were mounted on new, special long-range carriages. Contemporary photographs of this operation show that moving the guns required a team of 12 draft horses pulling the guns through Sandown. To aid with defence in 1891, £1,000 was spent in filling the vacant casemates solidly with concrete to protect the fort in case of enemy shell attack. The blocked solid casemates would act as traverses so enemy fire would not cause damage to the fort. The expense magazines and cartridge stores were also reinforced with extra concrete armour. In addition, Position Finder cells were placed in the surrounding area, two on the fort's roof and four on Redcliff Down. These would house the range and direction-finding instruments needed to help guide the guns to their targets.
In 1894 the Duke of Connaught's Own Hampshire and Isle of Wight Artillery manned the Sandown Bay defences including Sandown Fort. In a training session they fired the guns at a target towed in the bay at various speeds and distances, hitting the target once in 14 rounds. By 1898 the fort acquired a further three guns. These were used primarily for practice and were considered to be obsolete weapons. They were a 9-pounder RML, a 32-pounder smooth bore and a 9-pounder smooth bore. None of these would have been effective against the naval vessels being introduced at the turn of the century.
In 1904, the fort's armament was removed. In 1905 six 5-inch BL and three 3-inch quick firing guns were authorised for the top of the fort, but were not installed. Instead, the fort was used for accommodation. The fort's very strength proved to be its weakness. The gun casemates, built solidly out of granite and designed to withstand bombardment without breaking, could not be adapted to house the latest, more powerful weapons which were far larger than the weapons the fort had been designed to house. More powerful weapons simply could not be made to fit into the fort, and although it was possible to mount smaller, lighter weapons on the fort's roof, in practical terms the fort's main usefulness was over. Its role was taken over by the redeveloped Yaverland Battery and newly-constructed Culver Battery. In the early years of the 20th Century the fort was armed only with a Defence Electric Light searchlight. During the Great War, Sandown Granite Fort was used merely as a practice battery to help train conscripted soldiers.
In 1930 Sandown Granite Fort was sold off and purchased by a Ryde demolition company, who wished to use or resell the building materials. Although the rear, brick half of the fort was quickly demolished, the granite front, built to withstand the strongest weapons that could be brought to bear against it, proved impossible to destroy. Although much of the iron shields were taken away, the fort's front face withstood the full attack of the demolition company for nine years, when in 1939 war broke out and Sandown Bay again needed the fort to help defend the Island from invasion.
Second World War and PLUTO
To aid with the beach defences and sectioned pier, a concrete machine gun pillbox was built, rather conspicuously, on the top of Sandown Granite Fort to defend this vulnerable stretch of beach against infantry attacks. Sandown Bay was defended against enemy ships by Culver and Yaverland Batteries. By 1944, when the war was turning in Britain's favour, Sandown Granite Fort had another role to play. Built to defend Britain against a French invasion, Sandown Granite Fort would instead be foremost at the invasion of France. Part of Operation PLUTO – Pipe Line Under The Ocean – was based in Sandown Granite Fort.
When planning an invasion of France it was realised that the British forces would need to have fuel for their tanks and support vehicles, otherwise any attempt to liberate Europe would stall as soon as the allied fuel tanks emptied. With German forces unlikely to allow any petrol on the continent to stray into Allied hands, it was realised that the only way to successfully invade France was by laying pipelines under the English Channel to allied bases in Europe. A network of pipes was laid from the Mersey and Bristol Channel to carefully constructed pumping stations on the South coast for the two pipelines from Britain to France. Sandown Granite Fort housed one of these pumping stations, and the PLUTO pumping engine is still in the fort and on display today.4 Although technical difficulties prevented fuel from being pumped from Sandown Granite Fort in the quantities hoped for until September 1944, the PLUTO pipeline network eventually extended to the Rhine. At its height over a million gallons of petrol was pumped across the channel each day, although most of this was from the Dungeness pipe in Kent rather than from the Sandown Granite Fort pipe.
Going To The Zoo
In the post-war period, Sandown Granite Fort was acquired by Sandown Town Council who, in the 1950s, decided to open the Isle of Wight's first zoo on the site. In 1976 the zoo was sold off to a private investor, who renamed it the Isle of Wight Zoo (although residents of Sandown still call it Sandown Zoo).
As a zoo, the fort is still open to the public, however due to the nature of the animal enclosures very little of the fort can actually be explored. However the front of the fort with its blocked off casemates is very visible, with some of the iron shielding still in place. The fort's front ditch was filled in to form a carpark; consequently only the roofs of the caponiers defending the ditch are visible, as concrete slopes.
Some of the first animals introduced to the zoo after privatisation were large cats and tigers, and in the late 70s and early 80s it was a common site for tiger cubs to be taken for walks along the beach at Sandown and Yaverland.
Sandown Granite Fort, as the Isle of Wight Zoo, now claims to have the biggest collection of tigers in Britain, and even had two series of an ITV television programme, Tiger Island, made about it in 2006 and 2007. The animals on display include a wide range of other animals – not just tigers. The zoo is involved in animal management, conservation, both in Britain and worldwide, and education.
It is strange to think that a building built to defend the British Empire is now in use helping defend the tiger, one of the most iconic animals found in the former British empire, from extinction.
'Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In Sandown Granite Fort on the Isle of Wight.'