Porton Down

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Entrance to secure facilities at Porton Down

Porton Down is a United Kingdom government military science park. It is situated slightly northeast of Porton near Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England. To the northwest lies the MoD Boscombe Down airfield operated by QinetiQ. On maps, the land surrounding the complex is identified as a "Danger Area".[1]

It is home to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, known as Dstl. Dstl is an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the site is believed to be one of the United Kingdom's most sensitive and secretive government facilities for military research, including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence. The Dstl site occupies 7,000 acres (28 km2).[2]

The site is commonly confused with the nearby chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear (CBRN) training facility, the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterbourne Gunner.


2-inch mortar trials, 1917

Porton Down opened in 1916 as the Royal Engineers Experimental Station for testing chemical weapons in response to the earlier German use of this means of war in 1915. The laboratory's remit was to conduct research and development regarding chemical weapons agents used by the British armed forces in the First World War,[3] such as chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene.

Work at Porton started in March 1916. At the time, only a few cottages and farm buildings were scattered on the downs at Porton and Idmiston. By May 1917, the focus for anti-gas defence and respirator development had moved from London to Porton Down, and by 1918, the original two huts had become a large hutted camp with 50 officers and 1,100 other ranks.

After the Armistice in 1918, Porton Down was reduced to a skeleton staff.

Post World War I[edit]

In 1919, the War Office set up the Holland Committee to consider the future of chemical warfare and defence. By 1920, the Cabinet agreed to the Committee's recommendation that work should continue at Porton Down. From that date a slow permanent building programme began, coupled with the gradual recruitment of civilian scientists. By 1922, there were 380 servicemen, 23 scientific and technical civil servants, and 25 "civilian subordinates". By 1925, the civilian staff had doubled.

By 1926, the chemical defence aspects of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) for the civilian population was added to the Station's responsibilities. By 1938, the international situation was such that offensive chemical warfare research and development and the production of war reserve stocks of chemical warfare agents by the chemical industry was authorised by the Cabinet. Britain had ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1930 with reservations, which permitted the use of chemical warfare agents only in retaliation.

In 1929 the Royal Engineers Experimental Station became the Chemical Warfare Experimental Station (CWES) (1929–1930), and in 1930 the Chemical Defence Experimental Station (CDES) (1930–1948).

A second chemical research and production facility was established as an outstation at Sutton Oak, St Helens, Merseyside from 1923 to 1954. This later became the Chemical Defence Research Establishment (CDRE).[4]

Second World War[edit]

During the Second World War, research at CDES concentrated on chemical weapons such as nitrogen mustard. In 1940 a highly secret separate department was established within CDES, under veteran microbiologist Paul Fildes, called the Biology Department, Porton (BDP), which became the Microbiological Research Department (MRD) in 1946. Its work concerned the use of biological weapons, including anthrax and botulinum toxin and in 1942 it famously carried out tests of an anthrax bio-weapon developed at Porton Down at Gruinard Island. It was renamed the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE) in 1957.

The Common Cold Unit (CCU) was sometimes confused with the MRE, with which it occasionally collaborated but was not officially connected. The CCU was located at Harvard Hospital, Harnham Down, on the west side of Salisbury.

During the Second World War, as Allied armies penetrated Germany, they discovered operational stockpiles of munitions and weapons that contained new chemical warfare agents including the highly toxic organophosphorous nerve agents such as Sarin, unknown to Britain and the Allies at the time.

Post-war period[edit]

When World War II ended, the advanced state of German technology regarding the organophosphorous nerve agents, such as tabun, sarin and soman, had surprised the Allies and they were eager to capitalise on it. Subsequent research took the newly discovered German nerve agents as a starting point, and eventually VX nerve agent was developed at Porton Down in 1952.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, research and development at Porton Down was aimed at providing Britain with the means to arm itself with a modern nerve agent-based capability and to develop specific means of defence against these agents. In the end these aims came to nothing on the offensive side because of the decision to abandon any sort of British chemical warfare capability. On the defensive side there were years of difficult work to develop the means of prophylaxis, therapy, rapid detection and identification, decontamination, and more effective protection of the body against nerve agents, capable of exerting effects through the skin, the eyes and respiratory tract.

Scientist looking at containers of liquid at Porton Down

Tests were carried out on servicemen to determine the effects of nerve agents on human subjects, with one recorded death due to a nerve gas experiment. There have been persistent allegations of unethical human experimentation at Porton Down, such as those relating to the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, aged 20, in 1953. Maddison was taking part in sarin nerve agent toxicity tests; sarin was dripped onto his arm and he died shortly afterwards.

In the 1950s the station, now renamed the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment (CDEE), became involved with the development of CS, a riot control agent, and took an increasing role in trauma and wound ballistics work. Both these facets of Porton Down's work had become more important because of the unrest and increasing violence in Northern Ireland.

On 1 August 1962 Geoffrey Bacon, a scientist at the Microbiological Research Establishment, died from an accidental infection of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. In the same month an autoclave exploded, shattering two windows. Both incidents generated considerable media coverage at the time.[5]

In 1970 the senior establishment at Porton Down was renamed the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE), remaining under this title for the next 21 years. Preoccupation with defence against nerve agents continued, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the Establishment was also concerned with studying reported chemical warfare by Iraq against Iran and against its own Kurdish population.

Porton Down was the laboratory where initial samples of the Ebola virus were sent in 1976 during the first confirmed outbreak of the disease in Africa. The laboratory now contains samples of some of the world's most aggressive pathogens including Ebola, anthrax and the plague, and is leading the UK's current research into viral inoculations.[6]

Until 2001 the military installation of Porton Down was part of the UK government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. DERA was split into QinetiQ, initially a fully government-owned company, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). Dstl incorporates all of DERA's activities deemed unsuitable for the privatisation planned for QinetiQ, particularly Porton Down.

Non-military businesses[edit]

Porton Down is home to a Public Health England laboratory,[7] although it was announced in September 2015 that most Public Health England staff will move to Harlow.[8] A science park houses companies such as Ploughshare Innovations[9] and a phase of expansion which could create 2,000 jobs[10] was begun in 2016, after receiving £9.5m in funding from Wiltshire Council, the Swindon and Wiltshire Local enterprise partnership and the European Regional Development Fund.[11][12]


In 1942, Gruinard Island was dangerously contaminated with anthrax after a cloud of anthrax spores was released over the island during a trial. In 1981 team of activists landed on the island and collected soil samples, a bag of which was left at the door at Porton Down. Testing showed that it still contained anthrax spores and in 1986 the Government felt obliged to take the necessary steps to successfully decontaminate the island.

Between 1963 and 1975 the MRE carried out trials in Lyme Bay in which live bacteria were sprayed from a ship to be carried ashore by the wind to simulate an anthrax attack. The bacteria sprayed were the less dangerous Bacillus globigii and Escherichia coli, but it was later admitted that the bacteria could adversely affect some vulnerable people. The town of Weymouth lay downwind of the spraying. When the trials became public knowledge in the late 1990s, Dorset County Council, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council and Purbeck District Council demanded a Public Inquiry to investigate the experiments. The Government refused a Public Inquiry but instead commissioned Professor Brian Spratt, to conduct an Independent Review of the possible adverse health effects. He concluded that individuals with certain chronic conditions may have been affected.[13]


Most of the work carried out at Porton Down has to date remained secret. Bruce George, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, told BBC News on 20 August 1999 that:

"I would not say that the Defence Committee is micro-managing either DERA or Porton Down. We visit it, but, with eleven members of Parliament and five staff covering a labyrinthine department like the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces, it would be quite erroneous of me and misleading for me to say that we know everything that’s going on in Porton Down. It’s too big for us to know, and secondly, there are many things happening there that I’m not even certain Ministers are fully aware of, let alone Parliamentarians."[14]

Cannabis cultivation[edit]

Dstl state that "Dstl and its predecessors do not and have never grown cannabis at Porton Down."[15]

The biotechnology company GW Pharmaceuticals, which researches and develops cannabinoid formulations as potential therapeutics,[16] has a facility at the Tetricus Science Park on the Porton Down site.[17] Most of the cannabis plants used by GW Pharmaceuticals are cultivated by British Sugar at their site in Norfolk.[18]

Deaths attributed to Porton Down[edit]

Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison who died an unlawful death at Porton Down in 1953, as determined by a jury in 2004

Porton Down has been involved in human testing. A second inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison during testing of the nerve agent sarin commenced in May 2004, after many years of lobbying by his relatives and their supporters. The inquest found Maddison's death to have been unlawful.[19] The verdict was challenged by the Ministry of Defence,[20] but was upheld and the case was settled by the government.[21]

In February 2006, three ex-servicemen were awarded compensation in an out-of-court settlement after claims they were given LSD without their consent during the 1950s.[22][23]

Use of animals[edit]

DSTL Porton Down is also involved in animal testing. The "three Rs" of 'reduce' (the number of animals used), 'refine' (animal procedures) and 'replace' (animal tests with non-animal tests) are used as the basic code of practice.[24] There has been a decrease in animal experimentation in recent years.[25] The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory complies with all UK legislation relating to animals.[26]

During 2005, 21,118 procedures were undertaken which involved the use of animals,[27] nearly double the number undertaken in 1997.[28] In 2005, approximately 95% of the animals used (20,016) were mice. Other animals used included guinea pigs, rats, pigs, ferrets, sheep, and non-human primates (believed to be marmosets and rhesus macaque). The figures released in 2005 reveal that one cow was used in a secret experiment in 2004.[27]

In 2009, there were 8,168 procedures using animals.[25]

Different departments at Porton Down use animal experiments in different ways. Dstl's Biomedical Sciences department is involved with drug evaluation and efficacy testing (toxicology, pharmacology, physiology, behavioural science, human science), trauma and surgery studies, and animal breeding. The Physical Sciences department also uses animals in its 'Armour Physics' research.

Like other aspects of research at Porton Down, precise details of animal experiments are generally kept secret. Media reports have suggested they include exposing monkeys to anthrax, draining the blood of pigs and injecting them with E. coli bacteria, and exposing animals to a variety of lethal, toxic nerve agents. Different animals are used for very different purposes. According to a 2002 report from the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Defence, mice are used mainly to research "the development of vaccines and treatments for microbial and viral infections", while pigs are used to "develop personal protective equipment to protect against blast injury to the thorax".[29]

UFO claims[edit]

In 2008, the Daily Mail published a story which said "UFO believers" claimed that alien bodies were taken to Porton Down from the site of an alleged UFO crash on the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales, an event most commonly referred to as the Berwyn Mountain Incident.[30]

Dstl states that: 'No aliens, either alive or dead have ever been taken to Porton Down or any other Dstl site.'[31]

Porton Down in popular culture[edit]


  • Grimbledon Down was a comic strip by British cartoonist Bill Tidy, published for many years by New Scientist. The strip was set in an ostensibly fictitious UK government research lab, referring to the controversial Porton Down bio-chemical research facility.[32]


  • "Porton Down" is the name of a song by Peter Hammill.
  • The song "Jeopardy" by Skyclad is about the experiments developed in Porton Down.


  • Porton Down and activities there during the 1940s and early 1950s were a significant plot point in Episodes One and Two of the second season of ITV's mystery series The Bletchley Circle.
  • Porton Down was mentioned in the Sherlock episode "The Hounds of Baskerville" (2012) as the model for fictitious government research facility Baskerville.
  • Porton Down was mentioned in the BBC television programme Spooks, Episode Two, Series Three, in relation to fictional MI5 involvement in chemical weapons testing.
  • Porton Down was mentioned on the British television drama Doc Martin, Season 3, Ep. 6.
  • Porton Down was the subject of the 2016 BBC Four television documentary Inside Porton Down: Britain's secret weapons research facility presented by Michael Mosley.


See also[edit]


  • Porton Down: A Brief History by G B Carter, Porton Down's official historian.
  • Chemical and Biological Defence at Porton Down 1916–2000 (The Stationery Office, 2000). by G B Carter
  • Cold War, Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain's Defence Laboratories, 1945–1990 by Bud & Gummett


  1. ^ "Ordnance Survey map number '184' of the 'Landranger' series of maps". Online Ordnance Survey. 
  2. ^ "Porton Down - a sinister air?". BBC News. 20 August 1999. 
  3. ^ "War Office, Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Defence : Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment, later Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, Porton: Reports and Technical Papers". The National Archives. Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  4. ^ "Magnum Poison Gas Works". Retrieved 29 June 2016. 
  5. ^ Carter, G B (2000). Chemical and Biological Defence at Porton Down 1916-2000. London: The Stationery Office. pp. 126–127. ISBN 0-11-772933-7. 
  6. ^ "The front line of the UK's Ebola prevention efforts". BBC News. Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  7. ^ "Porton food, water and environmental laboratory". gov.uk. Public Health England. Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  8. ^ "'Bright future' for Porton says council despite relocation announcement". Gazette and Herald. 17 September 2015. Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  9. ^ Ploughshare Innovations Ltd
  10. ^ "Science park in Wiltshire wins £2m in council funding". BBC News: Wiltshire. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 22 April 2017. 
  11. ^ "Work begins on multi-million pound science park for Wiltshire". Wiltshire Council. 12 December 2016. Retrieved 22 April 2017. 
  12. ^ "Porton Science Park". The United Kingdom Science Park Association. Retrieved 22 April 2017. 
  13. ^ "The Dorset Biological Warfare Experiments 1963-75". Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  14. ^ "Chemical base 'too big', says MP". BBC News. 20 August 1999. 
  15. ^ "The Truth About Porton Down". Gov.UK. Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. 27 June 2016. Retrieved 28 July 2017. 
  16. ^ "GW Pharmaceuticals - History & Approach". Retrieved 17 August 2017. 
  17. ^ "Tetricus Science Park". Retrieved 17 August 2017. 
  18. ^ Bradshaw, Julia (11 February 2017). "UK set for cannabis boom as GW Pharma storms ahead". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 August 2017. 
  19. ^ "Nerve gas death was 'unlawful'". BBC News. 15 November 2004. 
  20. ^ "MoD 'can challenge Porton case'". BBC News. 19 April 2005. 
  21. ^ "MoD agrees sarin case settlement". BBC News. 13 February 2006. 
  22. ^ "MI6 payouts over secret LSD tests". BBC News. 24 February 2006. 
  23. ^ Evans, Rob (24 February 2006). "MI6 pays out over secret LSD mind control tests". The Guardian. 
  24. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 14 Sep 2010 (pt 0001)". 
  25. ^ a b "House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 23 Mar 2010 (pt 0002)". 
  26. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 24 Mar 2010 (pt 0001)". 
  27. ^ a b "Hansard: 8 May 2006 : Column 34W". The United Kingdom Parliament. Archived from the original on 23 June 2006. Retrieved 5 July 2016. 
  28. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 4 Jun 2003 (pt 14)". 
  29. ^ "Sixth Report of the Animal Welfare Advistory Committee" (PDF). February 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 May 2006. Retrieved 1 March 2016. 
  30. ^ "New UFO witness reopens 1970s mystery of the 'Welsh Roswell'". Daily Mail. London. 
  31. ^ "The Truth About Porton Down". Retrieved 17 August 2017. 
  32. ^ Hammond, Peter M.; Carter, Gradon (2002). From Biological Warfare to Healthcare: Porton Down 1940–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 1. ISBN 9780230287211. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°08′02″N 1°42′06″W / 51.13402°N 1.70159°W / 51.13402; -1.70159