Stokes Bay




Mr Leather's Yard


John Towlerton Leather

Born in 1804, John Leather came from an engineering family, over the years the family were involved in collieries, canal building, railway line construction, railway engine construction and civil engineering work. John Towlerton Leather received an excellent education and by 1829 he had set up in business as a civil engineer, land and mineral surveyor. John, in his early career worked for the Sheffield Waterworks and later became its Chief Engineer. During this time he built seven huge dams in the Sheffield area, and six still remain today.


John Towlerton Leather

The worst disaster in his life was in 1864 when one of his dams catastrophically collapsed, and caused the Great Sheffield Flood, the biggest tragedy in Victorian Britain. Over 250 people died and over a hundred buildings were demolished, including houses, factories, mills, workshops etc. Five hundred buildings were damaged and nearly five thousand buildings flooded. At the time he was not held responsible for the collapse, although it weighed heavily on his conscience. In his early career John was very successful and won several large contracts for building railway lines and many bridges.
John became involved in the building of early locomotives, he founded the Great Hunslet Engine Company in 1864 which he hoped to pass on to his son. His works increased and employed over 100 workers. From here he sold industrial steam engines for use both in England and abroad.  His son was not interested in taking the company over so John finally sold the Engine company in 1871 for £25,000, and it is still in existence today.
He gained a reputation for solving many problems and was often engaged to sort out contracts where other contractors had failed.
It was while building early railways in 1837 that he meet engineer, Edward Pease Smith and they struck up a very successful working relationship, which lasted over 40 years.


In Southern England John Leather was the main contractor of massive the Portland Breakwater in Dorset. The chief engineer on the project was James Meadows Rendel and later John Coode.  In 1849 John Leather was appointed “sole contractor” for the 1.6-mile long breakwater, which took 17 years to construct, and the cost up to 1866 was over one million pounds. The Plymouth breakwater was built to provide a ‘harbour of refuge’, as there was little shelter for ships along the coast between Plymouth and Portsmouth. The foundation stone was laid in July 1849 by Prince Albert.


Portland Breakwater 1852

Portland Breakwater under construction 1852


Leather and the Spithead Forts

In 1861 John Hawksworth F.R.S. (later Sir John), was appointed as chief engineer for planning the five sea forts at Spithead Portsmouth. The forts had been designed by Capt. E. H. Seward R. E. The forts were originally to be built on shoals in the Solent at :- Horse Sand, Noman, Spit Sand, Sturbridge and one between Horse Sand and Portsea Island. This last fort at Sturbridge was abandoned in 1863 because of poor strata of soil to build foundations. The one at Spit Sand it was moved 600 yards southwest for the same reason. A new fort was suggested and started at Ryde Sand but this was abandoned because of poor strata of soil to build foundations. In 1869 another fort built was built at St. Helen's Point on the Isle of Wight.

John Towlerton Leather was offered and accepted the main contract in 1861 for building the forts and all the arrangements to construct them. This also included making concrete blocks, provision of steam engines, steam cranes, pile drivers, the erection of a shipping pier, special barges for transport and circular stages for the construction work. This was all to be done under the general supervision of the Royal Engineers Department.


To build the sea forts, John Leather's resident manager, Edward Pease Smith, designed a ingenious system of  circular staging which carried an overhead gantry on rails.  This gantry carried a steam crab which could be used to drop blocks of granite, stone or concrete weighing between three to eight tons into the desired position. This system was adapted to build the semi-circular front face of Fort Gilkicker.


All the materials came from Mr Leathers works adjacent to fort Gilkicker on the site that later became the Submarine Mining Establishment. It was here that all the granite and stone were brought in by sea using Mr Leathers pier, and also by a rail siding from the main line station at Stokes Bay a few hundred yards away. The material was then transported into Leather's works where it was cut and shaped. Concrete blocks were also made here using cement manufactured on the Isle of Wight and shingle from Stokes Bay.


John Leather brought his old friend Edward Pease Smith as resident engineer, and his agent Mr W. Hill.  Together with their combined expertise, they went on to face the challenges this project would provide.

The Government and the Opposition were showing concern over; the cost, the needs, the sighting, and construction of the forts and the work was postponed for about two years.
Some work did actually continue, the War Department supervised the checking and surveying of the strata of seabed for the foundations of the forts.

Temporary platforms were built over the proposed sites, and each provided with a lighthouse.

Huge wrought iron cylinders six feet in diameter were lowered upright down onto the sea bed, then divers went inside and dug out the centre so the cylinder sunk slowly a bit at a time.  This job must have been extremely difficult, cold, wearing very heavy divers suits and working in the pitch black!!   

The material dug out was analysed and a picture of the strata of the sea bed was obtained. As the tube sank into the sea bed extra cast iron tubes were added to the top.  The final depth was 55 feet below the sea bed when the divers had to give up, because the air pressure in their helmets was three times that of the atmosphere above sea level.  The information for possible foundations gained from sinking the cylinders confirmed the site of some forts and discounted others. Cylinders were then sealed at the bottom and much later this was bored through to a depth of about 500 feet where they found a supply of fresh water.


During this time Mr Leather decided that he would continue to build up his main works site at Stokes Bay. He was convinced that the government would eventually build the forts, and in late 1863 he started work on building the construction platforms he would need to lay the forts' foundations. He added to the original platforms on each site, by using capstans to screw large piles into the seabed, each pile had a cast iron screw head. On these piles he built large platforms covering the whole site of the forts foundations. Planking was laid for roadways to take a circular railway for the travelling steam cranes. The light house was maintained on site by Mr Leather's men who would regularly check and trim the wicks of the lighthouse lamps. Several huts were built for the 50 to 60 men that would be working on site, this would include 12 divers.


Early in 1864 the government gave the go-ahead to build the forts.  Soon Mr Leather's works were so extensive that The Times suggested it was called LEATHER TOWN”.  It ran east from the Stokes Bay Railway Terminus covering an area eastwards towards  Fort Gilkicker,
The area was transformed into a hive of industry. Here thousands on concrete blocks that were needed were made. At the yard was a cement mill, cement stores, blacksmiths, with a village of workshops. Other buildings were constructed to support all the work including a 'Shanty Town' where many of the workmen lived. The works had lines of railway crossing the site in all directions and also a junction with the Stokes Bay Railway company line. Overhead railways were also built, worked by great powerful steam cranes for moving great blocks of stone.
A stout pier was built out into Stokes Bay from the southern edge of the works, with a double railway line and a steam crane on it.


What remained of Leather's Stokes Bay yard in 1870. Leather's yard shortly after the Submarine Miner's moved in.

What remained of Leather's Stokes Bay yard in 1870.

Note the railway siding from the main Stokes Bay line. Also the pier with crane.

By 1891 The Admiralty Mining Dept., had just taken over the site; the outline of Leathers buildings can be seen. His railway, pier and crane are marked.

Portland and Penhryn Stone was delivered to Stokes Bay by sea and Runcorn stone arrived at the site by rail. The crane on the pier not only unloaded the rough cut stone onto the site, but also delivered finished stone from site to lighters/barges which were pulled out to the fort building site by steam tugs. Each stone or concrete block moved  weighed between 3 to 8 tons.


Concrete blocks were used in the foundations of the forts where the least strength was needed.  They were made in the Stokes Bay works from Stokes Bay shingle and cement manufactured on the Isle of Wight.  Hundreds of blocks were made by being moulded in wooden boxes, hardened off then stacked for use.

In 1864 when the main work was re-started the Stokes Bay site had, waiting on site, 15,000 tons of concrete blocks and 7,000 tons of prepared stone.

On a part of the site, a section of ground was cemented over and laid out as a “Drawing board”. Shaped and trimmed stones were laid out here as they would be underwater, then numbered and marked in coloured lines. Using these numbers and coloured lines, the divers were then able to fix them in their correct place on the fort site. Tugs then moved lighters (large barges) heavily laden with stone out to the first site from Stokes Bay, to build the Horse Sand Fort. The sea bed had been prepared and a ring of stone and concrete blocks were to be built, forming the foundations on which the basement would be constructed, then the working part of the fort would be built on the top. The lighters were brought in under the staging and stones lifted off by the steam crane then lowered them down under water to the divers who fixed them into their exact position.


By October 1864 the foundations for Horse Sand Fort were well advanced and a start had been made on No Man's Land Fort as its foundations had to go deeper and were more difficult and this took longer. The forts' foundations were built like giant “doughnuts”. The core of the ring was constructed with the concrete blocks, and the inner and outer surfaces were then were faced with stone blocks. For strength a final layer of granite blocks was built on the outer stone face, this gave a final wall thickness of 59 feet.  The  centres of the rings were then filled in, to 10 feet from the top with clay and shingle.  The last 10 feet was filled in with concrete, finishing 1½ feet above high water. On these foundations the basement floor of the forts were built, the top of the basement finished about 11 feet above the high-water mark. The rear half the fort was granite faced to the top. The rest was protected by iron shields. Then a mainly brick central core was built on top of the basement, which included the officers quarters and some barrack accommodation. This included supporting arches for the iron superstructure to be added latter. 


Spitbank Fort with its masonry portions complete, awaiting the iron superstructure. Spitbank Fort with its masonry portions complete, awaiting the iron superstructure. In the background can be seen Horse Sand and No Mans Land Forts.

Spitbank Fort in 1872 with its masonry portions complete, awaiting the iron superstructure.


It was by this method that rest of the forts' foundations were built except that at St. Helen's Fort, where foundations were built on sunken iron caissons (hollow iron chambers) floated out on site, sunk up to 25ft into the sea bed, and filled with brick and concrete. Like the other forts the exposed faces were covered with granite and stone, but unlike the other forts its superstructure was built of concrete. By 1869 its foundations settled unevenly and several alterations were made to its superstructure to balance the uneven settling. Parts were demolished then rebuilt to a different plan: Reducing gun floors from 2 to 1, also offsetting the guns to balance the subsidence. From the original design they also reduced the number of guns it could support, from 15 guns down to 3 large guns.


The iron superstructure was designed by Capt. Inglis R.E., and Lt. English R.E.   In 1871 a specialist company Fairbairn Engineering of Manchester won the contract to provide the massive iron work structures required for the forts. Fairbairn's was a well established firm and had built many iron structures including over a thousand bridges. One famous construction was the domed roof of the Royal Albert Hall weighing over 400 tons. At that time it was the largest domed roof in the world without internal support. In 1872 the first fort was ready to accept the iron work enabling the fort to be completed. Fairbairn's contract for Horse Sand and Noman's Land was a structure of two floors to carry 49 guns for each fort. This frame work also had to take the weight of all the armour plating which was to be hung on the outer face of the fort and also the weight of the concrete roof.

Each construction was a huge skeleton of ironwork weighing 2,400 tons and took 14 months to build, then it was erected at Fairbairn's works to make sure it all fitted exactly. It was taken apart and moved by rail to Stokes Bay and shipped out to the fort and erected in its final position. The work was supervised locally by Mr. H. M. Harman,  Fairbairn Company's engineer.  Apparently it all fitted exactly “...and not a farthing of expense had to be incurred in correction”.   The iron work covered nearly two thirds of the area of the foundations and was a massive and  impressive construction. Messrs. Cammell and Co. of Sheffield supplied the armour plating. Many plates were 26 feet long and represented a cost of £170 each; the total plates had to cover a circumference of 600 feet for each of the larger forts. The armour was 25 inches thick and was made up of two sandwiched five-inch layers of iron concrete between three five-inch layers of wrought iron. The plates were overlapped and all bolted to the outside of the iron frame work already installed. The total weight of the armour plating for each of Horse Sand and Noman's Land Forts was 3,764 tons. The total weight of the iron used in each large fort was 6,164 tons. Pulleys and tackle were used to put the guns in place before the main  iron shields were placed on the outside of the fort.

Spitbank fort in 2011 No Man's Land Fort in 2011 Horse Sand  Fort in 2011 St. Helen's Fort in 2011
Spitbank Fort No Man's Land Fort Horse Sand Fort St. Helen's Fort

The four Spithead Forts in 2011


Spitbank Fort was completed in 1878, St. Helen's Fort in 1879 and both Horse Sand and Noman's Land Forts in 1880.


The building of Fort Gilkicker

In 1863 a contractor, Jaz Goslin was given the contract to build Fort Gilkicker's foundations; he started but towards the end of 1863 after six months work his company failed. The War Office approached John Leather while he was building the Solent forts and asked him if would complete Fort Gilkicker, he agreed and work started in June 1865.   The semi-circular work  was to be 400 foot long and faced with Cornish granite. It was to have 22 casemates for 22 guns placed behind iron shields. A defensible barrack block was to be provided across the rear of the fort. At Gilkicker Leather used the same system of building, designed by Edward Pease Smith, that was used on the sea forts. It consisted of an overhead gantry with travelling steam cranes to build the main semi-circular front of the fort.


By 1869 the the fort was nearly finished and described in a Government report  as “....skilfully built, both for permanency and for resisting power. There have been no failures of any sort”. The fort was finally completed in 1871.



Sale of Mr Leather's yard 6 May 1872

Sale of Mr Leather's yard at Stokes Bay May 1872


The later use of Leather's Yard

In May 1872 an advertisement appeared in The Times to sell off the remaining materials in his Stokes Bay yard by auction. After Leather moved on from his yard at Stokes Bay the Royal Engineers moved it. It was an ideal site for the Submarine miners and already had a suitable pier. When the Submarine Miners moved out in 1905 the site became the School of electric lighting. It remained in use by the Royal Engineers until 1965 when the site was levelled. Today nothing remains on the surface but the foundations of many of the buildings can still be seen on the site as you walk eastwards from GAFIRS to Fort Gilkicker.


Site of Mr Leather's yard at Stokes Bay in 2011 looking east towards Fort Gilkicker (on the right)

Site of Mr Leather's yard at Stokes Bay in 2011


The Portsmouth Dockyard Extension

By the early 1860's it was realized that not only did our dockyards need better defending but they needed expanding to build and repair larger ships. At Portsmouth “The Great Extension” to its dockyard was planned and it would double its size. It would include 180 acres of mud flats and part of Portsea Island at a cost of £2¼ million.  In 1867 the contract  was offered to John Towlerton Leather and he realized that it was too much to take on alone so he joined with Mr George Smith of Pimlico and,  as “Leather, Smith and Co.”, took on the contract. His younger brother Charles Leather and his friend Edward Pease Smith also joined the group.


1876 Portsmouth Dockyard Extension Engineers. 5th from left, standing. J.T. Leather.

1876 Portsmouth Dockyard Extension Engineers.
5th from left, standing. J.T. Leather


Stokes Bay and the Submarine Miners


I am grateful to my friend and fellow researcher, the late Geoffrey Salter for much of the information on J.T.Leather that went into this page. Geoff was passionately interested in the history of the Victorian forts and he is greatly missed.





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