Portland Breakwater Fort

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Portland Breakwater Fort

Portland Breakwater Fort is a Victorian fort built to defend Portland Harbour, located at the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The fort is located at the seaward end of the outer breakwater in the commercial port of Portland Harbour - 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the land. It is the largest of two forts on Portland's breakwaters, and is often called "Chequer" or "Chequered Fort". It has been a Grade II Listed building since September 1978.[1]

Intended as a casemented granite work following the 1859 Commission Report on the Defence of England, however due to subsidence, it was eventually constructed as an iron fort astride a granite base, and was constructed on a 200-foot (61 m) diameter ring of stone laid down on the seabed. It was constructed between 1868 and 1879. The fort is not open to the public and remains derelict.[2] Special permission from the port authority is needed to visit.[3]

On the opposite side of the next stretch of the breakwater is the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse. Initially a navigation light was attached to the top of the fort, until the lighthouse was constructed in 1905. It was decided to supersede the navigational light on top of the fort with the lighthouse close by, as under the rules of war the enemy is forbidden to fire at a lighthouse and so the fort guns would have had an advantage during the First World War.


Portland Breakwater Fort

Construction of the two southern breakwaters of Portland Harbour began in 1849 to the design of James Rendel, and were completed in 1872. An array of various defences were created to defend the harbour, including the 56 acre Verne Citadel, East Weare Battery, Nothe Fort (at Weymouth), and the Inner Pierhead Fort on the seaward end of the inner breakwater. The construction of the circular sea fort started in 1868, while the breakwaters were still under construction. By January 1878 the fort was on the point of completion, and an armament of fourteen 38 ton guns was expected, however by 1882 they still had yet to arrive. Instead it was armed with 60 guns, including 16 hundred pounders. In 1884 the fort was considerably modified, with a steam-powered engine added to supply ammunition and operate the guns, at a cost of £1600 per gun.

In 1892, the fort was installed with seven 12.5-inch Rifled Muzzle-Loading cannons, facing seaward. As shown from exercises records of 1895, the guns were worked by Royal Artillery and Sligo Artillery Militia. However the fort's completion came at a time when it became instantaneously obsolescent. The technological advances in both guns and armour plating meant that the fort was defective in attack and defence. Despite spaces being provided in the structure of the Sea Forts to add more armour this was never considered, and the heavy breech loading guns which the French Navy had adopted considerably outranged the Fort's RMLs. As the guns had no shrapnel shells, the guns had to be kept loaded with case shot and laid with an elevation of 800 yards to be able to fire at a moment's notice if they were to be employed against torpedo boats at night.[4] The obsolescence of the fort was recognised, and by 1895 six of the RML had been removed, from the seaward side. The seventh cannon was later cut up and dumped into the sea, and for decades one of these cannons can still be seen just out of the water.[5]

In 1900 the fort was again modified and extended, this time with the upper level being altered by installation of 2 heavy gun emplacements. At this time the fort was armed with four 12.5 inch RML, six 12 pdr QF guns and three machine guns. A set of temporary huts had been erected on the masonry apron, an engine and dynamo for searchlight positions was built on the breakwater, and buildings for housing and operating boom defence equipment were also provided. A War Office Committee visited the fort in 1905, and as part of the Owen review it was recommended mounting two 6-inch guns on top of the fort and two more in the casemates. It was also suggested the QF guns were to be removed. However the final decision led to the two latter on the heads of the new arms of the breakwater. In 1907 the removal of the cannons began, and by 1909 these were replaced by two 6-inch breech-loading guns on the fort's roof, and two 12-pounder quick-firing guns adjacent on the breakwater. Measuers had to be taken to emplace the two guns on the roof. two 6 pounder guns were worked by Sligo Artillery Militia.[6] In 1912, the fort was modified with the addition of another emplacement, by substitution of an armoured gun tower for the original lantern.[1]

For its operation during the First World War it was armed with two 6-inch breech-loading Mk. VII guns in addition to the 12-pounder guns, while coast artillery searchlights were also installed. In 1940-41 the fort was recommissioned, where it operated as an examination battery. The fort's anti-aircraft weapons were in regular use against German attacks on the harbour. During combat, thirty men would have been stationed on the fort at any one time, sheltered by the bomb-proof iron roof.[3] The fort was reduced to care and maintenance by February 1945 before it was abandoned in 1956 and handed over to the navy,[7] who would call the fort its original names Fort Head (North Head) or Fort Chequers.[8]

Since its closure, the National Mullet Angling Society have used the area for their annual fishing championships.[3] When the Royal Navy left Portland in 1995, the fort and its surrounding buildings were cleaned up. In 1995, Dorset Sculpture Trust attempted to seek funds from the Millennium Fund to turn site into an arts centre.[7] In 2005, BBC News published an article based on the fort's history after BBC Spotlight's Jonathan Hudston had an exclusive tour of the fort.[3] As of 2005, it was estimated that it would take £10 million to repair the fort for commercial use, and that it was not a priority for the current port owners. In a 2005 BBC News article, Rupert Best of Portland Port stated "It's not something we're putting our resources into because we have other parts of the port which we want to develop, but we're certainly open to suggestions and if anyone wants to come and talk to us about it with a good idea, we're certainly very receptive."[3] This was despite published reports in 1996 that Portland Port Ltd had made possible plans of the renovation of historic coastal fortifications in the area.[9]

In 2011, it was revealed that a local historical group, Dave Allan's Pike and Shot re-enactment company, wished to use the unique Victorian fort as a home for a new Weymouth Timewalk attraction and a maritime history museum, which could create up to 70 jobs. The original Timewalk attraction was located in Brewers Quay. By late 2011, the project was gaining much interest and support, whilst Nothe Fort director David Joy pledged the Fort's support for the project. The visitors get to the site in a variety of ways including by boat or via small land train-style transport. Allan had revealed that if Portland Port were interested in the idea, then his group would apply for a Lottery grant to develop the site as a double museum with future expansion into Tall Ships and maritime festivals. He added "This all ties in with the council's attempts to turn Weymouth and Portland into a centre for maritime excellence. I must stress that this is all on paper at the moment and it will be several years before we can make a concrete start, but Pike and Shot has already held talks with several interested groups which have promised to support the project." The Nothe Fort director David Joy believed the fort was an equally important structure to the Nothe Fort, and "therefore essential that it is saved as a monument to the ingenuity of our forefathers and as an educational resource so that future generations have the opportunity to learn from the past." Portland Port commercial manager Ian McQuade had commented "Portland Port is always interested in exploring new possibilities with local businesses and community groups. We look forward to talks with Pike and Shot at the appropriate time."[10]

As of 2000, the 19th century fort survives in good condition.[11] In the BBC article on the fort, it was noted that damp, including stalagmites and stalactites, were forming along the corridors.[3]

Planning and construction[edit]

Designed by Captain E. H. Steward of the Royal Engineers, the fort cost £75,968 to build,[8] and was built when Britain's military might was at its height in the 19th century and Portland Harbour was the largest man-made harbour in the world.[3] The circular fort was first designed at the War Office in 1859. This consisted of a masonry tower of three tiers of casemates with 34 guns, built of stone on a stone rubble base. Before the foundations were begun borings were made at the four quarters of the circle forming the site of the fort to ascertain the nature of the sea bed. This was considered a favourable staging, resting on piles screwed as far as possible into the clay, which had been erected for the purpose of tipping material to form the foundations. The piles formed concentric circles of 112 and 56 feet in diameter, and a radial traveller worked between them. The material used for the rubble foundations was the hardest type of Portland stone, with the largest pieces not exceeding two tons. The remainder was small chippings, rubble and grit, and every truckload contained this mixture. It was intended that the material be mould together by wave action, turning it into a compact mass.

In 1861, only two years after the initial design, a modified design featured only two tiers, carrying 35 guns, and the next year drawings were sent to Portland showing the arrangements for the basement storey. It was planned that 22 radial walls would project inwards from an eleven-foot thick external wall of Portland stone faced with granite. The intended fort was to be a masonry work with a large interior parade ground, and as such the materials of the outer ring were laid with more care than those in the centre. By the end of 1862 the work had been brought to a level 20 feet above low water.[2][4]

However the fort project suffered its first difficulties in October 1864, as a portion between some piers had broken away from the remainder, and one pier saw a subsistence of 2'10". The suggested cause was the thin hard stratum or a yielding bottom under the part that had given away, exasperated by stormy weather. To solve the issue additional material was placed at the base of the slope. The fort's construction was hoped to begin at the end of 1866, however uncertainty was still present as to the stability of the foundations. This was combined with the fact that no plans were yet approved for the superstructure, and so construction was put off year by year. In January 1867, ten days of severe storms produced further cracks in the masonry, and further gales in March caused a breach in the outer wall. The Royal Engineer in charge considered that this movement was due to the combined action of the subsidence and consolidation of the material composing the foundations.[4]

In 1867 a decision was finalised on the fort's superstructure. Due to the subsidence the fort was now to be an iron-plated work of much smaller diameter, which would consequently not rest on the already built masonry foundations. The new foundations were prepared by removing the loose hearting from the centre and replacing it with a solid cylinder of concrete 10 feet thick and 122 feet in diameter. In 1868 removal of the original rubble commenced, and this was completed by the end of 1869. At the same time the settlement continued. In 1869 the fort's plans were amended, now visioning an armoured fort in two tiers of casemates mounting 29 guns, with alternative designs for a single tier or an armament of four turrets. These planned turrets had been considered for the Spithead Sea Forts and the Nothe Fort. However the concern of the foundations led to the recommendation that the idea for the fort's two-tiers be abandoned.[4]

Another revised plan arrived in 1870, calling for a lower tier of 14 guns supporting an upper tier mounting 7 guns. By this point construction was underway, and the fort's superstructure was based on this plan. However the upper tier was soon abandoned. The iron skeleton of the fort was assembled in place in 1873. It had been created by Jeavons & Co. of Millwall. The armour plating, consisting of three layers each 6.5 inches thick, was made by Messrs. Brown of Sheffield. The armour had transported on rail to Gosport, before being taken to Portland by water, to the fort's own jetty. From here it was unloaded by an overhanging timber gantry with a traveller. Each piece of the armour was dropped into a purpose-built truck resting on four lines of rail, which was drawn up an incline to the outer circle of the Fort, where it was picked up by another traveller working on a circular gantry and placed in position. Any spaces between the plates were filled in with fine Portland cement concrete, except at the gun ports where they were closed by teak.[4] The first 200 tons of plating arrived in December 1875, with foreman John Barrow taking delivery.

However subsidence still continued during this period, as these massive weights were added atop. The difference of level between the highest and lowest points of the outer wall was about 11.25 inches. Adding to the problems was fresh subsidence, beginning under the superstructure, and this caused the bed of concrete to assume a saucer shape and leading to various cracks and breaks in the masonry. By 1878 this movement appeared to have nearly ceased, and the only extra weight to be added was the armament and ammunition, somewhat less than 1000 tons. This was to be evenly distributed, as not to add pressure to the subsidence. However concern was still present, based on the result of very severe storms on the structure. A particular storm in November 1876 had contributed further yielding of the sea bed under the weight of the work. Another concern was the washing away of the foreshore on the exposed side. In 1871 this was raised to above low water of spring tides, but by 1878 it was in parts 20' below that level. The material added in 1870 had disappeared, having been in blocks of no less than 3.5 tons, some of which approached 6 tons.

By January 1878 the fort was approaching completion. Much of the masonry of the fort, like that of the Verne Citadel and Nothe Fort, had been of Portland stone, but a great deal of work had also been built in concrete. Various beds of Portland stone contributed to the fort, broken down to the size of road metal. A particularly sharp, clean sand material had come from Moreton, and all masonry and brickwork was set in Portland cement, rather than the common lime mortar. When building the fort, great care had been taken in manipulation of the concrete. This crucial part of construction was deemed a success as by 1878 stormy seas had broken with great force upon the concrete apron, and yet no damage was caused.[4] The success of a black and white chequer scheme in camouflaging Spitbank Fort led to all the sea forts, including Portland's fort, being similarly treated, and this led to the fort being popularly referred to as Chequer Fort.

A number of World War II constructions were added around the fort. A 29 millimetre spigot mortar emplacement (pedestal) was constructed after May 1941, of concrete and steel. A field visit in 1983 found it to be in a good condition.[12] A pillbox is located at the fort, which is of a Naval design, square in plan, measuring about 14 feet square with embrasures set across the forward corners. It was constructed in 1940-41 and is built of concrete. As with many of Portland's pillboxes and heavy anti-aircraft batteries, this structure would probably have been built by local quarrymen. A report of 1993 found the structure to be extant.[13] Finally a battery observation post is also located at Breakwater Fort, constructed in 1940-41 and built of brick and concrete. A field visit in 1986 found the structure to be extant.[14]


The fort has a 35 metre diameter iron core with foundations circa 9 metres below sea level, with a ring of masonry capped with concrete on granite sub-structure circa 7 metres above sea level. The iron structure has two rings of iron box girders fanning from central well, forming the floor and roof level. Concave is fluted underside sloping to gunports, supported by pillars between casemate ports. The walls are three thicknesses of 15 cm plate backed by armour bars. The walls' thick iron plates buckle on to two rings of metal box girders with gunrooms and ports for 14 heavy guns on the main floor which is 23 feet above sea level. The concrete-capped iron roof was designed to support two iron turrets for two guns each, but these were not installed.[6] The central well is octagonal faced with ashlar and with Roach stone rustication to each arched entry.[1]

The main floor consists of gun rooms and ports for 14 heavy guns. The roof's design allowed it to support two iron turrets for two planned guns each, but these were never installed. Below the gunfloor are various passages, shell and cartridge stores and engine rooms to provide power for the guns.[7] Both levels of the fort are connected by a spiral cast-iron staircase.

The fort has its own small jetty, formed over 3 segmental arches with quoins and keystones. It also holds an officers' quarters, an inner court, and harbour and ancillary barrack buildings.[7] The fort's small harbour and barrack buildings give the appearance of a small village.[6] The accommodation for the gun crews was adjacent to their guns, however later buildings built outside the fort included a Sergeant's Mess and a Canteen for the soldiers. The initial accommodation capacity at the fort was for 150 men.


The 3000-ton Enecuri, a Spanish steamship, dragged her anchors and grounded on the rocks close to the Breakwater Fort, on 28 December 1900. Soldiers from the fort assisted all 26 on board to safety. However later in the day several crew members had decided to return to the ship, and by the next morning it had slipped off the breakwater and sank. All those on her decks leapt to safety, but her captain seemingly made no attempt to escape. His skeleton and that of his pet dog were found in the cabin three years later by divers working on the wreck.[15]


  1. ^ a b c http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1280475
  2. ^ a b "Portland Breakwater Fort". Ecastles.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-01-25. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Breakwater Fort. "Dorset - History - Breakwater Fort". BBC. Retrieved 2013-01-25. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/dorset-s-coastal-defences/60-breakwater-fort-construction
  5. ^ "Breakwater Fort, Portland (700770)/12 inch R.M.L. remains, which were cut up and dumped into the sea". SouthEast Defence Photos. Retrieved 2013-01-25. 
  6. ^ a b c http://www.jurassicagent.co.uk/index.php/library/history/dorset-s-coastal-defences/59-breakwater-fort
  7. ^ a b c d "Detailed Result: BREAKWATER FORT". Pastscape. 2006-08-08. Retrieved 2013-01-25. 
  8. ^ a b http://victorianforts.co.uk/pdf/datasheets/portlandbreakwater.pdf
  9. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/portlands-naval-history-ends-as-last-warship-sails-1592621.html
  10. ^ http://www.viewfrompublishing.co.uk/news_view/12532/11/1/weymouth-new-live-timewalk-attraction-planned
  11. ^ Anderton, Michael J. (2000). World War Two Coastal Batteries. p. 70. 
  12. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1420411&sort=2&type=&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=93626&place=&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=&p=25&move=n&nor=294&recfc=0
  13. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1421432&sort=2&type=&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=93626&place=&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=&p=25&move=n&nor=294&recfc=0
  14. ^ http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1425479&sort=2&type=&rational=a&class1=None&period=None&county=93347&district=93625&parish=93626&place=&recordsperpage=10&source=text&rtype=&rnumber=&p=26&move=n&nor=294&recfc=0
  15. ^ Attwooll, Maureen (1998). Shipwrecks (Discover Dorset series). Dovecote Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-1874336594. 

Coordinates: 50°35′06″N 2°24′51″W / 50.5849°N 2.4141°W / 50.5849; -2.4141