Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom
The Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was a committee formed in 1859 to enquire into the ability of the United Kingdom to defend itself against an attempted invasion by a foreign power, and to advise the British Government on the remedial action required. The appointment of the Commission had been prompted by public concern about the growing military and naval power of the French Empire and was instigated by the Prime Minister, Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who came to be closely associated with the project. In the following year, the Commission's report recommended a huge programme of fortification to defend the country's arsenals and naval bases. Many of the recommendations were acted upon; however, the great expense, the length of time taken to complete the various works and their perceived usefulness were all subjects of critical political, press and public debate.
In the late 1850s, there were serious concerns that France might attempt to invade the United Kingdom. The recent period had seen great improvements in gunnery (with RML and RBL designs); the widespread introduction of steam propulsion in ships (the French La Gloire and British response HMS Warrior are examples); and the growth of the French battle fleet (between 1854-1858 it had achieved numerical equality to the British). These factors convinced him that Britain's coastal defences were inadequate to prevent invasion by Napoleon III if the Royal Navy was lured elsewhere.
The Royal Commission
The Commission consisted of six eminent naval and military officers, plus a civilian architect:
- Major-General Sir Henry David Jones CB (Chairman)
- Major-General Duncan Alexander Cameron
- Rear Admiral George Augustus Eliot
- Major-General Sir Frederick Abbott, Indian Army
- Captain Astley Cooper Key, Royal Navy
- Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Lefroy, Royal Artillery
- James Fergusson Esquire
The Secretary of the Commission was Major William Jervois of the Royal Engineers, a progressive military engineer who held the post of Assistant Inspector-General of Fortifications. Although not appointed as a Commissioner, Jervois seems to have had considerable influence on the conduct of the Commission. Amongst the Commissioners themselves, Cooper Key was an expert in the latest advances in naval gunnery, while Lefroy was an experienced and knowledgeable artillery officer who had been one of the founders of the Royal Artillery Institution. Fergusson was an expert in the history of eastern architecture, but had also published books entitled; An Essay on a Proposed New System of Fortification: with Hints for its Application to our National Defences (1849), The Peril of Portsmouth; or, French Fleets and English Forts (1852) and Portsmouth Protected: a Sequel to the Peril of Portsmouth (1856).
Terms of Reference
Inquiries may be made by Our Commissioners into the condition and sufficiency of the Fortifications existing for the Defence of of Our United Kingdom, and examination had into all Works at present in progress for the improvement thereof, and consideration given to the most effective means of rendering the same complete, especially to all such Works of Defence as are intended for the protection of Our Royal Dockyards, in case of any hostile attack being made by foreign enemies, both by sea and land.
An attached memorandum directed the attention of the Commissioners to the works already under construction at Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, Plymouth, Portland, Pembroke and Chatham; they were further asked to consider how the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich might best be defended.
Starting on 3 November 1859, the first phase of the Commission's work was a series of interviews with technical experts and senior military and naval officers. One specialist was Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, the hero of the Siege of Taganrog and an expert in the bombardment of fortifications from the sea. He was so enraged by the numerous questions posed by the Commissioners that he was twice asked to leave the room so that he could recover his composure. Perhaps because of this, the Commission failed to enquire about Coles's pioneering design for a revolving gun turret, which he had patented in that year. Another interviewee was General John Fox Burgoyne, who had conducted the Siege of Sevastopol and was the current Inspector-General of Fortifications. Burgoyne's opinion was that the defence of the dockyard at Portsmouth was of primary importance and it could be protected from bombardment by the fortification and garrisoning of the Isle of Wight and also Portsdown Hill, the ridge which overlooks Portsmouth from the north. Burgoyne also believed that the coast between Portsmouth and the Thames was vulnerable to invasion and that every small harbour there needed to be fortified. Sir William Armstrong, the artillery designer and manufacturer, was questioned at length about the current capabilities of modern rifled artillery and likely future developments. Armstrong's opinion was that his latest guns would be able to defeat some features of current fortification, such as the Carnot wall, but that the maximum range of artillery would be unlikely to exceed 5 miles (8 kilometres) in the future.
The Commission also conducted a series of visits to the sites in question, before convening to produce a report of their findings. Perhaps because the Commissioners were all respected experts in their own fields, they were apparently able to work together amicably.
The Report of the Commissioners was published on 7 February 1860. The Commissioners concluded that the fleet, standing army and volunteer forces, even combined, did not provide sufficient defence against invasion. Further, that the coastline which they considered to be at risk, the 700 miles (1,127 kilometres) from the Humber to Penzance, could not feasibly be completely fortified and therefore recommended that "the fortifications of this country should be confined to those points... whose possession would give him sure bases for operations". A detailed plan and costing was produced for each location which required defences, including forts which were already under construction, resulting in a massive programme. The total expenditure projected for the purchase of land and construction costs (including some funds that had already been agreed but not yet provided) was as follows:
|Area||Total cost £|
Also included in the costings were the total of £500,000 for the armament of these works (a sum that was to prove hopelessly optimistic) and £1,000,000 for the construction of floating batteries, giving a grand total of £11,850,000. The Commissioners further suggested that a force of volunteer artillerymen be raised to man the guns in the new works.
The government, although broadly in agreement with the report, thought that it was too ambitious to be accepted by Parliament in its original form, and therefore set about reducing the number of planned works while attempting to retain the objectives of the scheme for each locality. Planned forts that were not proceeded with included fifteen at Plymouth, ten at Pembroke, six at Portsmouth and four at Chatham; the floating batteries were also dispensed with, resulting in a total saving of £3,930,000. Palmerston finally laid the Fortification Bill before an astonished House of Commons on 23 July 1860. Opposition came from those who believed that there was no threat from France and those who believed that greater security should be achieved by further spending on the navy. The chief opponents were the Radical Richard Cobden and his ally, William Ewart Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who between them had recently concluded the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty, a Free Trade agreement with France. Despite Palmerston's best efforts, Gladstone resigned in protest when the bill was accepted as the Fortifications (Provisions for Expenses) Act 1860, providing an initial sum of two million pounds and later payments financed by loans to a total of nine million.
By the time the fortifications were completed in the 1880s it was clear that the French had not seriously planned to invade. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 removed the threat and the forts became known as Palmerston's Follies. As a key purpose of fortification is deterrent, this judgement was harsh, but with the rapid development of warship design during the period, the time taken to plan and implement the works would always have caused problems with ensuring that the defences were capable of defeating a French attack force.
- Hogg p. 20 NB: Hogg records one Commissioner as "Sir Frederick Hallett, Kt, Major-General, Indian Army" (sic), however, Crick (p. 46) and other sources confirm that it was "Abbott" and not "Hallett".
- Crick p' 47
- Hogg p. 20
- Ramaswami Iyengar, Professor M S and others (1922), Eminent Orientalists: Indian, European, American, G A Natesan & Co, Madras (pp. 87-88)
- Crick pp. 41-46
- Crick pp. 46-47
- Crick p. 47
- Crick p. 40
- Hogg pp. 21-22
- Hogg p. 23
- Hogg p. 26
- Crick p. 51
- Crick, Timothy (2012) Ramparts of Empire: The Fortications of Sir William Jervois, Royal Engineer 1821-1897, University of Exeter Press, ISBN 978-1-905816-04-0
- Hogg, Ian V (1974), Coast Defences of England and Wales, 1856-1956, David & Charles, ISBN 978-0-7153635-3-9
- Moore, David Fort Brockhurst and the Gomer-Elson Forts (Solent Papers; No. 6.), David Moore, 1990, ISBN 978-0-9513234-1-0