Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Milford Haven was described by Admiral Lord Nelson as the “finest port in Christendom,” and for this reason the Royal Navy chose the natural harbour as a site for one of its dockyards. Visit the Haven today and you will find a series of Victorian forts and gun emplacements. The forts are known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’. Several forts were built to provide interlocking artillery fire designed to defend Pembroke Dock from enemy attack. The reason they became known as follies is an interesting story.
In 1859, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was returned to office as Prime Minister for a second time. Palmerston had been educated at Eton and Edinburgh, could speak and write fluent Italian and had been in almost continuous political office for over 50 years. In the 19th Century the British Empire was at the height of its power, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Lord Palmerston, like many of his peers, regarded British supremacy as a natural condition. Palmerston was a powerful orator but inclined to be abrasive and combative with his opponents, earning him the nickname ‘Lord Pumice stone’. In matters of foreign affairs he was often belligerent and inclined to employ gunboat diplomacy.
One of the first orders of business, after Palmerston’s return to office, was to set up a ‘Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom’. The commission completed its report in 1860. At the time, there were serious concerns that France was building up its navy and, in consequence, there was a likelihood of invasion in the event of a war with the old enemy. To combat this threat, the Royal Commission recommended that naval dockyards should be protected by a series of forts.
During the Napoleonic wars, 60 years earlier, a series of over 100 fortifications had been built to protect major dockyards but these Martello Towers, as they were known, were no longer considered adequate for the job. In the intervening years, gunnery and naval firepower had made major advances.
Palmerston decided to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission but there was a problem; to build the fortification would be enormously expensive. Work started almost immediately and as the forts were constructed around the country questions began to be asked concerning where the money was coming from to pay for the building work. Britain’s finances were already in dire straits and income tax at 5 old pence (2p) in the pound had been introduced. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, objected to the cost of the scheme and sent several letters threatening to resign causing Palmerston to comment, “I have so many resignation letters from Gladstone that I fear they will set fire to the chimney.”
As the building work progressed, costs began to rise and Gladstone was forced to raise more money by increasing income tax to 9 old pence (3.5p). Increasing taxation was not enough and the government began to borrow money to fund the project. It was now that the forts became to be known as Palmerston’s Follies but it was not because of the exorbitant cost. The reason was that some of the gun positions faced inland, away from any expected seaborne invasion. People sneered at the forts, unaware that the guns faced inland for a very good reason; to protect the naval dockyards from French forces that might land elsewhere and attack overland. It was a strategy that the Japanese later used with devastating effect when they took Singapore in 1942 and captured 80,000 allied prisoners of war, many of whom died in captivity. Singapore’s main defences, naval 15 inch guns firing high explosive shells, were positioned to destroy enemy shipping. The Japanese attacked overland, taking Singapore from the rear.
In 1865 Lord Palmerston died but his programme of constructing defensive forts continued. Then, in 1870, a war between France and Prussia broke out in which the Prussian army was victorious. The defeat created an anti war atmosphere in France and significantly changed the politics of Europe. There was no longer any danger of an invasion from France. Instead, a new threat had emerged from a warlike Prussia, led by Bismark known as ‘The Iron Chancellor’, which was now reunited with the rest of Germany.
The cost of Palmerston’s fort building programme continued to grow. In 1890, Members of Parliament demanded to know the true cost and it was revealed that over £12m had been spent on the forts, £5.5m had been spent purchasing the cannons to arm them and a further £3m to provide accommodation for the garrisons that would be needed. Using wage inflation as a guide, in today’s values Palmerston’s forts had cost £12.2billion and many were never finished.
The forts Palmerston built to protect Milford Haven and its Royal Naval Dockyard included Fort Hubberstone, Popton Fort, Scoveston Fort, South Hook Fort, South Roch Fort and Thorn Island Fort. In total, something like eighty five forts were built as a result of Palmerston’s ambitious plan and it was the most expensive defensive building project ever undertaken in the British Isles. Today, there is a ‘Palmerston Forts Society’ whose members have regular meeting and share their interest in Victorian Fortifications.
More interesting Welsh follies can be found here