Friday, May 30, 2014

I have been errr.. past... Hurst Castle

Not quite a visit but near as dammit... 

On this years sailing trip to all points Solent [clicky] the Jolly Boys had occasion to sail past Hurst Castle on at least two occasions and my interest was piqued enough to do a little research when I came back...

It's position gives as clear an indication of what it's  original purpose was as any...

...that gap between Hurst (marked A) and the Isle of Wight the other side of the water is no more than a mile...  a fort in that position can dominate and control the whole of the western approaches to the Solent.

From the map above it looks like the castle is bit on land, but it's actually built on the end of a long shingle spit that extends out from Milford-On-Sea.

The fort was built by Henry VIII to defend the approaches to Southampton against the French (who seem to have single handedly driven the whole of the military building budget on the south coast for almost 400 years!). As can be seen from the above (courtesy Wikipedia), it was originally just the little central circular building - the bastions either side were added at a later date.

The recommendation to build a castle there was originally made in 1539 (by William FitzWilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton and William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester) and the castle was completed in 1544. From the paperwork of around that time the garrison was small - no more than 30 men (including eight soldiers and 11 gunners) which bears out fully the comparative small size of the original fortification.

By 1593 the fort was already falling into disrepair (there is documentation requesting money to repair the gun platforms which were incapable of supporting guns!) so clearly money was not forthcoming - in 1628 they fort was given orders to stop a ship and they wrote back to say that they would be willing but they had no powder or shot! The same document (1628) gives an interesting insight as to how the fort was armed - it makes reference to 27 pieces of (bronze) ordnance...

In the English Civil War the castle was occupied by Parliament (not surprising given the location, and also Parliaments strength in naval terms), and is perhaps most famous as the last prison of Charles I before he was moved to Windsor prior to his trial. After the war, the fort was granted money to increase the number of guns, and to increase the garrison - but upon the Restoration Charles II ordered the garrison to be disbanded and an estimate made of the expense of demolishing the castle - clearly that idea was dropped though the fort was again in a very poor state. Documentation from 1671 showed that "there was hardly a room not fallen in and into which the rain did not come". Repairs were completed and a new garrison established, and by 1675 nearly thirty guns were mounted at the castle. 
In 1700 the Privy Council ordered that Hurst Castle be used as a prison for priests convicted of fostering the growth of Catholicism - one of whom (and perhaps the only one..) was imprisoned there for 30 years (!) but by the end of the century the fort was again reported as being neglected and in disrepair (I do wonder if the poisition of the fort was somethign to do with this - sea air, exposed condition, shingle foundations etcetc)..
At the end of the 18th century, the first steps to re-fortification were begun, when earth-protected gun batteries were added. Around the 1805/6 (during the Napoleonic Wars), the fort's tower was rebuilt and strengthened such that it was able to mount six 24-pounder guns (with a range of about a mile - so perfect for the job in hand).
Fifty years later and following a recommendations from a Royal Commission in 1859 two large wing batteries were built to house 30 heavy guns - forerunners of the current fortifications you can see now..these were followed in 1873 by a new east wing and castle entrance, in 1889 with more reinforced concrete (for the magazine), and in 1893 a coastal battery was built.
As we move into the 20th Century the fort continued to be in use - December 1902 it was reported that the battery was armed with three 12-pounder and three 6-pounder quick-firing guns and ten 12.5-inch and fifteen 10-inch rifle muzzle-loading (RML) weapons. The gun ports for these are clearly visible and covered with iron plates...
The battery was finally closed in 1928, but the castle was retained by the War Office and on the outboreak of WWII it was re-comissioned and in 1941 at least was armed with two 12-pounder and two 6-pounder quick-firing guns and equipped with searchlights - it would have been ideally placed for providing protection to Southampton Docks....

Fascinating place - really must get there for a visit!


  1. Nice report, interesting to see the castle from the sea. If you do visit (it's worth it to see the original castle and the Victorian ordinance) make sure you catch the little passenger ferry to the site as the walk along the spit is a lot further than it looks.

    1. Matt - thinking I might well combine it with a return visit to Lymington... :o)

  2. Steve

    I have seen that view of Hurst several times in the past - mostly as we shot past the Needles on the way to France. The aerial views are very interesting, as was the history.

    1. Hi Peter - it was your recent posts that prompted me to do this one... shooting past is apt.. that tide fairly races through!

  3. Hurst is a fantastic place to visit, my favourite of the many castles I have been too, you of course have the Henrician castle, plus they've filled a lot of the Victorian wing with all sorts of galleries. It is a long walk along the single I recommend taking the boat over and then walking back over the spit, best of both worlds that way.

    1. Many thanks brownk... I am definitely going to get there!

  4. Hi Steve,
    I've been away for a while (no, not where you are thinking) and had to close down all my blogs (you might remember "At the Old Dessauer's Table" and a couple of others). Poor eyesight meant that I couldn't really see to post, but I've recently had a couple of cataract ops. and now I can actually drive again legally. Hope you don't mind me posting this here but I'm trying to drum up a little interest in my new blogs which can be viewed here:
    and here:

    'Fraid I'm no sailor (I can't even swim a stroke) and my only interest in sea warfare revolves around the huge floating batteries that ruled the oceans in the period 1905-1918, so I can't really comment on your post here. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and found the details concerning the guns in the early 20th C. most enlightening. It's already set me thinking about a scenario involving an attack upon a fortified coast - maybe a cut down version of the Dardanelles fiasco.

    Cheers, and thanks,

    Steve Turner (aka Bob Black)

    1. Hi Steve - no problem - I do indeed remember the Old Dessauer's Table... following Up to their Knees on Feedly as it's right up my street!

  5. Been there a couple of times on the ferry from Yarmouth. If you're there when you've got big tides it's entertaining to watch boats struggling to overcome the race between the castle and the island!

  6. Leagatus - that would have been us then... 3.5 knots through the water against a 3 knot tide equals very little forward progress.... plenty of time to admire the castle though...... :o)

  7. Been there there and back across the shingle. It must of been quite chilly to garrison in winter and they weren't allowed to light fires in case in warned the Germans that the fort was occupied - at least that was on one of the posters. Also been past at a distance on the ferries.