The Railway in Gosport

The railway reached Gosport in 1842, but not without many problems in constructing the line. Land slips and the collapse of a length of tunnel delayed the opening of the railway and increased the cost. The London and South Western Railway Company engaged Sir Wiliam Tite to design the terminus station. Gosport Station is one of the finest surviving examples of station architecture in the classical style.

In 1845 an additional 500 metres of track was laid from Gosport Station into the Royal Clarence Yard. A new station and waiting rooms were built for the convenience of the Royal train carrying Queen Victoria en route for Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Passengers services from Gosport ceased in 1953, although the line was used for goods traffic until 1969. A branch line from Gosport to Stokes Bay was opened in 1863 and ran until the 1930s. The former route of the railway now serves as a cycleway from Clayhall to Stokes Bay.

The Lee-on-the-Solent Light Railway Company opened its line in 1894. It ran to Lee-on-the-Solent from Fort Brockhurst via Gomer. The last Lee train ran in 1934.

The Battle of Gosport Railway Station 1840-1841 by Philip Eley

Prologue

In Spring Garden Lane is one of Gosport's more interesting old buildings. The former railway terminus stands forlorn, lacking both roof and railway lines, yet still managing to exude an air of solid grandeur. Nearby are the truncated Gosport Lines which once stretched from Forton Lake to Haslar Lake, fortifications designed to help protect Portsmouth from attack from the west.

Today it is difficult to imagine how the Army considered the railway station to be a threat to the security of Portsmouth, yet both the terminal building and the boundary wall in Spring Garden Lane bear mute witness to the outcome of a series of skirmishes between the Board of Ordnance attempting to defend Portsmouth against the incursions of the Railway Company. This is the story.

Early plans

A railway to Gosport was promoted in 1836 as part of a plan to connect Portsmouth to London via a branch from the London and Southampton Railway (LSR) at Bishopstoke. The terminus was to be in Stoke Road, convenient for potential passengers living in the old town and Anglesey. Strenuous opposition from Portsmouth interests scuppered these plans. However, the lure of the Portsmouth trade was very strong and the LSR, soon after authorization of the floating bridge link to Portsmouth in 1838, re-proposed a line to Gosport which it called the Port of Portsmouth Branch. At the same time it became the London and South Western Railway (LSWR).

The site

To attract passengers from Portsmouth the terminus needed to be closer to the harbour, preferably adjacent to the floating bridge landing area. This was impossible without demolishing half the town. There was plenty of open space within the ramparts but it was all owned by the Crown, reserved for possible defensive use.

Plan of area

The site chosen by the company was immediately opposite to, and within a few yards of, the "Double Gates" where the main turnpike road entered the town through the fortifications. There was a bowling green and the nursery gardens which gave the area its name: Spring Gardens. There were also a few tall houses fronting Spring Garden Lane.

Because of its closeness to the ramparts the Board of Ordnance ensured that the enabling Act, which gained Royal Assent in June 1839, contained a clause giving them control over the siting, height and "architectural form or description" of any buildings. The intent was the "preservation of the effective use of the said fortifications". As events unfolded it became apparent that this clause was open to differing interpretations.

The opening skirmishes

From the outset the railway company intended to utilise the whole of the site right up to Spring Garden Lane, putting their station within a few yards of the ramparts. Their architect, William Tite, drew up plans and elevations of the buildings which, in August 1840 in accordance with the terms of the Act, were submitted to the Board of Ordnance for approval. The battle had commenced.

Elevation of station building

Tite's plans showed the main building with a 15 bay colonnade and a two-storey "superintendent's quarters" just 80 feet from Spring Garden Lane and the ramparts. The goods warehouse was to be on the south-west side of the main building; the engine shed on the north-west. Hoping for a quick decision Tite pointed out that "the season is getting late for building". The Board ordered Inspector General of Fortifications Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederick Mulcaster to give an early report on the plans. He delegated the task to Colonel James Arnold, the Commanding Royal Engineer in Portsmouth, who immediately requested a copy of the Act of Parliament to ascertain what powers he could wield in the Board's name. The delay in sending him a copy played into the hands of the railway company, and lost the initiative for the Ordnance.

Colonel Arnold reports

It was not until early November that Arnold sent in his report. The buildings were far too close to the ramparts but, he suggested, the situation could be retrieved by restricting height to a single storey, putting two foot wide passageways around the roof, and building four foot high parapet walls for men to fire over. The boundary walls of the site should have small ditches and be arranged for men to fire over. In short, he proposed to make the railway station a defensible outwork of the Gosport Lines.

The reply to this report is missing, but it is clear from Arnold's next letter a month later that a Colonel Fanshaw had suggested that it would be better if the terminus could be built within the ramparts, entering alongside the Double Gateway to a piece of Ordnance land called Barrack Field at the corner of the main road and Weevil Lane. Arnold replied that the site was too small. He then dropped a bombshell on his superiors. He let slip that "the [station] buildings have some time been in progress though, as I cautioned Mr Tite, entirely at the risk and the responsibility of the Company". This was something of a revelation to Mulcaster who realised the implications: it would be very difficult to get the railway company to make any major changes now that building work had commenced because there had been implicit agreement between the Board, as represented by Arnold, and William Tite. He asked for a report on the exact progress of the building.

A progress report

Arnold's reply of 7 December, after offering apologies and excuses for the delay, reported that "the roofing of the offices in connexion with the arriving shed is partly fixed and the walls of the arriving shed are nearly ready for the roof which is framing so that considerable progress may be said to have been made". He believed that, because he had "distinctly informed" Tite of his risk if the Royal Engineers did not approve, nothing was irreversible. He tried to salvage some respect by pointing out that the original buildings on the site fronting Spring Garden Lane which had been demolished by the Company, and which were taller and closer to the Lines, were far more objectionable than the new building, especially as he was able to report that the proposed upper storey of part of the main building had been abandoned. Having been again asked to consider the site within the Lines, he reiterated that it was too small, adding that it might be needed in future for military purposes, and was too close to the Victualling Yard. Also, the line would have to cross the main road which was so busy as to require a bridge which clearly would be even more objectionable from a defensive point of view. He ended by restating his belief that, by keeping the new buildings low and making the walls defensible, the terminus would be better than insisting on moving it further from the ramparts "thereby affording a cover to an enemy".

The Board returns fire - on itself

Mulcaster then had to inform the Board of Ordnance of the situation; incredibly this was his first response to their "urgent request" back in August. Permanent buildings, he reported, within 100 yards of, and having a six foot command over, lines of defence within musket shot were "contrary to all principles of fortification", but there now appeared to be no alternative but to permit the work subject to the conditions suggested by Colonel Arnold. Not surprisingly the Board were greatly upset about Arnold's "great neglect", and ordered a special report "on this most important subject" to be made by Major General Sir Howard Elphinstone. Arnold was understandably mortified by the Board's criticism, but continued to stress that all was not lost. Elphinstone reported back in early January 1841 completely agreeing with Arnold.

The question of putting the terminus inside the ramparts had yet again been raised, and he rejected it for the same reasons. He considered that to insist that the station be built 600 yards outside the Lines would simply make things worse as a "town" would spring up in the intervening gap over which the Board would have no control; he cited the position of Bingham Town as objectionable to the defences. Arnold's proposals were modified to include defensible loopholed boundary walls with earth banks for soldiers on the north and south sides. The eastern side towards the Lines was to have an iron railing to keep the station area in line of fire from the ramparts. He pointed out that an existing wall nearby, almost parallel to Spring Garden Lane, would render the defences "almost useless" if taken by an enemy.

Another problem

Doubtless mindful of his earlier neglect, Colonel Arnold immediately reported to Mulcaster a further development. The owners of the New Inn, adjacent to the new terminus on the north, were about to "add considerably" to the old buildings. This would not only "increase the obstruction it now offers to fire from the Lines, but also injure the defence I proposed to derive from the terminus on that side by completely masking the fire from part of the intended boundary wall". Although on private property he suggested that the railway company should forbid it. Mulcaster doubted that the Board would have power except by purchasing the land. In asking Ordnance Solicitor Hignett for his opinion the whole foundations on which Arnold and Elphinstone had based their suggestions began to crumble. Meanwhile Arnold drew up his list of conditions to the LSWR, including suggesting that the Company insist that the rebuilt New Inn be designed with defensible roofs similar to the main station and engine house. This also was sent to Hignett for comment. Arnold's final plans were submitted at the end of January. He had included a pair of small demi-bastions at the western end incorporating the goods warehouse on one side, "the remainder being unavoidably left open for the railway". The loopholed boundary walls, open iron railings towards the ramparts, and parapet walls on three sides of each roof (but not on the side towards the Lines) were also prescribed.

Legal Opinion

Solicitor Hignett met with the LSWR's directors and architect who put their case. They pointed out that the Act did not compel the company to "construct walls of a defensive character nor adapt their buildings for such a purpose". Great inconvenience had already been caused by abandoning the upper storey of the offices, whilst they had constructed the "great shed" with wide gutters and parapets for the troops, covered the colonnade with a lead flat for the same purpose, and put open iron railings on the east. More they could not do as the Company had no power to apply shareholders funds to works of defence. Hignett's report reflected the reasonableness of the Company's position. After much discussion the two sides had agreed that the Act intended for the defences to be preserved rather than enhanced, and this had been met with "in a spirit of largesse and liberality" by the Directors. The Board had little choice but to accept the status quo. Arnold's final comment was that any further buildings should be kept as low as possible and have parapet walls.

The Ordnance in Retreat

By the middle of June it was clear that the company was ignoring any Ordnance requests which involved them in extra expense. The recently completed engine shed, within line of fire from the main building, had been built with "dripping eaves" (ie without a parapet). Arnold's carefully thought out defensive works received another devastating blow when the goods warehouse was built on the northern side. William Tite was willing to put a broad gutter on the warehouse, but would go no further.

The last gasp

The last attempt by the Ordnance to recover the initiative by making the buildings more defensible came at the end of June. The reply came in mid-August from William Tite. He believed that he had complied with the board's wishes with "one slight exception". His letter listed the concessions they had made and stressed the inconvenience and extra expense involved. Losing the upper storey of the Superintendent's quarters meant that he couldn't reside there. The intended high wall towards the fortifications "as security from depredations and protection from inconvenient curiosity of crowds of people" had become costly iron railings The parapets and wide gutters on the goods warehouse for the use of troops, he considered to be "an excess". Finally he had put "lofty" parapets and broad gutters on all four sides of the main building, except over the colonnade as it "really does so much interfere with the effect and character of the colonnade as a piece of architecture by overloading the top with a wall four foot high that I am quite unable to do it". He claimed that in the event of danger a parapet could be erected in a few hours.

The battle concludes

Just before the line opened on 29 November, the LSWR realised that the acute angle of the road outside the station entrance needed rounding off. James Arnold, by now a Major General, replied in February that he had no objections, but he used the opportunity for one last snipe at the railway company. He pointed out that there was a parapet on the main building facing the ramparts, and that the boundary railings had been put on a three foot high wall. Both would afford cover to enemy forces. Tite explained that the dwarf wall had earth piled up behind it to form the "carriage platforms". There the matter rested.

The remains

The legacy of the "battle" can still be seen today, although the context has completely changed since the ramparts were levelled. The restored railings and gates fronting Spring Garden Lane are impressive, and, despite the loss of the roof which rather spoils the effect, the parapets are still visible on the surviving parts of the main building. Thankfully they were never occupied by musketeers, friendly or otherwise. The station, now with a Grade II listing, is recognised as being of national importance - a rare survivor from the early days of railways. It must surely be unique in being the only defensible railway station in the country.

Sources and bibliography

Board of Ordnance correspondence 1840-1841. Public Record Office WO44/281. The Port of Portsmouth Branch Railway Act, 1839. Deposited plans, 1836 and 1838. Hampshire Record Office DP/60 and DP/68. Gosport's Railway Era. G A Allcock, 1975.

Gosport Railway Station c1910