Stokes Bay



Fort Monckton and the Submarine Mining Establishment

Experiments at Stokes Bay

Torpedo Testing at Portsmouth

The term torpedo was initially applied to an underwater charge designed to explode beneath attacking ships. A secret range existed off Portsmouth as early as 1866. It was used for experiments conducted by Captain Maury and Nathaniel Holmes. The torpedo consisted of a fuze, a charge and a tank or torpedo case. It was controlled by an operator remotely using control circuits at Forts Cumberland and Fort Monckton.


Holmes and Maurey's Torpedo The Torpedo Range at Portsmouth The Torpedo Circuits at Portsmouth
Holmes and Maurey's Torpedo The Torpedo Range at Portsmouth The Torpedo Circuits at Portsmouth



Fort Monckton and the Submarine Mining Militia

Submarine mining work began at Gosport in 1873 with a test-room in Fort Gilkicker and an old shed at Stokes Bay, formerly used by the contractor that built the Spithead forts. A submarine mining establishment for the defence mines was built at Blockhouse and this became the centre of the R.E. work. The Submarine Mining Militia was formed in 1878 with the purpose of operating the mine defences of the major ports. The men were mainly experienced boatmen and their annual training was 55 days.


In 1874/75 a series of experiments to test the effect of underwater explosions on the hull of a vessel (Oberon) were carried out at Stokes By by a special committee, the 'Torpedo and Destruction Committee'. The Oberon was tested to destruction by exploding charges of gun-cotton beneath and to the side of her hull which photographs were taken of the columns of water produced by cameras at Fort Monckton.


The first trial was reported in The Engineer as The Oberon Experiments.


In 1875 orders were given for the headquarters and a section of the 33d (Torpedo) Company of the Royal Engineers to proceed from the torpedo-ship Hood to Fort Monckton for submarine mining operations, replacing the 4th (Torpedo) Company already at the Fort.


More experiments with torpedos (submarine mines) took place at the Fort in September 1878 ‘To ascertain by the most practical methods possible under the circumstances how quickly the Navy could clear a channel defended by torpedoes under cover of forts and supported by infantry.
The defended channel was 800 yards broad and 800 yards deep, defended by 22 observation mines and 20 Electrical Contact mines. The latter were set 7 feet below the surface and they would therefore not be effective against countermining vessels. A row of buoys supporting a wire rope was placed at the front of the minefield. The mines were laid by the 4th Company R.E. and the Miner was used as a guard boat. The attack comprised of two steam pinnaces, two steam launches, several dinghies and two gunboats towing launches with countermines.

From 1878 Fort Monckton was used as a barracks for the Portsmouth (Submarine Miners) Militia for their experimental work on submarine mines. In January 1879 the name was changed to the Hampshire (Submarine Miners) Militia. In 1880 it changed again to Southern Submarine Mining Militia.

In 1883 the first company of volunteer miners was formed and they were perceived to be superior to the militia in standing. From 1883 onwards a large detachment of officers and men went yearly from Chatham to Portsmouth for a rough water class which took place at Spithead and Stokes Bay. Accomodation was therefore provided at Stokes Bay in an establishment of buildings with a pier.


In 1888 the Submarine Miners, Royal Engineers, Southern Submarine Mining Militia had three stations, The Hampshire Station at Gosport with Nos 1 and 2 Companies, the Devonshire Station at Plymouth with No.3 Company and the Kent Station at Chatham with No.4 Company.


From 1888 to 1892 the Portsmouth Militia Division (Submarine Miners) was based in Fort Monckton. They moved to Blockhouse in 1892 and remained until 1907. The Needles Company was formed into a separate division in 1893.


Royal Engineers preparing submarine mines at Gilkicker October 25 1879 (Note the fort with armament)

The Royal Engineers preparing submarine Mines at Fort Gilkicker
October 25 1879 (Note the fort with armament)


Experimental Demonstration of Torpedo Warfare at Portsmouth

Experimental Demonstration of Torpedo Warfare at Portsmouth

October 25 1879: Torpedo-tug Towing out Submarine mine past Spit Fort


In 1880 Gosport was the home of the 4th Company Gosport Submarine Miners, who were responsible for the Portsmouth and Spithead area. In October 1883 the Royal Engineers 28th Company S.M. were based at Gosport. In 1884 the school of submarine miners moved out of Fort Monckton and was wholly based in Fort Blockhouse. The Times reported in 1884 that a new pier for the submarine mining school was to be built at Stokes Bay "a splendid water area for the for the purposes of training and remotely situated, together with all the necessary accessories suitable for the establishment of a national school of submarine mining." By 1894 nine military ports in Britain and Ireland with another three in the Empire, also eleven British mercantile ports and five imperial coaling stations, were protected by Submarine mine fields. By 1896 there were six Royal Engineer Submarine Mining companies responsible for designing and firing the mines.


The Electrical Room at Fort Monckton: Submarine Miners at work. ILN August 1880
Submarine Miners at work in Fort Monckton.



The first mine laying vessels were lent by the Royal Navy but after 1875 the Army has its own fleet of vessels.

Miner Class Submarine Mining Vessel Emerald Class Submarine Mining Vessel
Miner Class Submarine Mining Vessel Emerald Class Submarine Mining Vessel



Types of Submarine Mine

Submarine mines were laid on the sea bed in a precise pattern so that they could be detonated by an observer on the shore when an enemy vessel approached the minefield. Two types of mine were employed: Electro Contact mines which where buoyant and tethered to the sea bed by a length of cable and Observation Mines (referred to as Ground Mines) which were placed on the seabed itself up to a depth of 60m or tethered if deeper. Observation mines did not hinder friendly vessels and were not affected by the tide. They were exploded by an observer on the shore when an enemy vessel approached. These mines were useless in fog and during darkness unless the minefield was illuminated by searchlights. Electro contact mines were moored by armoured electric cables and chains, floating just below the surface of the water. They were certain to explode on contact with an enemy vessel but were therefore also a danger to a friendly vessel. They effectively closed or restricted the navigable channel and were consequently laid either side of a busy channel with observation mines placed underneath the channel. Both types of mine were laid by a mining vessel and could be retrieved by grappling for their tripping chains.


Ground (Obervation) Mine Electro Contact Mine: method of mooring Electro Contact Mine
Ground (Observation) Mine Electro Contact Mine: method of mooring Electro Contact Mine


Layout of typical minefield

Layout of a typical minefield


The operations with submarine mines at Stokes Bay were repeated in 1879 but on this occasion they were carried out at night. The attack included nine steamboats and smaller boats. The minefield was arranged with a friendly channel defended by observation mines on the line of mines system. The cables were well protected by old chain etc. and only one was cut during the operation. One gunboat, one counternmine boat and five out of the six launches were ruled as being put out of action by gun fire. An interesting description of this Naval Warfare exercise at Stokes Bay was given in The Times, October 17 1879.

The article can be read here: A Night Attack


The exercise was repeated the following year, but this time in day-light. The report from The Times, August 11th 1880, can be read here: Experimental Naval Attack on Harbour and Fort defences at Portsmouth



Stokes Bay

On November 6th 1885 the Times reported on further experiments with Submarine mines at Stokes Bay.

"Within the torpedo field situated opposite the sea fronts of Forts Monckton and Gilkicker near Portsmouth an important experiment was carried out yesterday morning by Captain Markham and Commander Robinson of the Vernon on the part of the Royal Navy and by Major Buckhill and Captain Wrottesley on the part of the Royal Engineers. At each corner of a quadrilateral was sunk a heavy mine consisting of 500lb of guncotton, enclosed in wrought iron cylinders, all four being in separate electrical connection with a battery in Fort Gilkicker. The distances of the mines apart were the same as is usually observed in the Navy as being in effective destruction range, but which are for obvious reasons kept secret. Both within and without the lines and at various known distances form the charged mines were submerged a great number of cases of various construction and shape loaded down with dummy guncotton as target mines, and the object of the experiment was to ascertain the effect upon the different structures of exploding heavily charged submarine mines in their neighbourhood...."


Exploding a submarine mine in Portsmouth Harbour 1888 (Note the fort on Portsdown Hill in the background)


The Hampshire Telegraph reported on 12 April 1885 that large quantities of creosoted timber, some in baulks 43ft in length, had been arriving from London and were carried to Stokes Bay in the neighbourhood of Fort Gilkicker for the construction of a new pier to be built there in connection with the Royal Engineers' submarine mining School, the headquarters of which will be centred in this locality.


In 1892 two new schools of instruction were formed at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the staff at each being responsible for mining and electric light defence at that port. The one at Portsmouth was at Stokes Bay, Gosport.


The Stokes Bay Submarine Mining Establishment was the centre of Submarine Mining training. Royal Engineers were trained as electricians and as divers. They learned the safe handling of explosives and the use of defensive mines. Submarine mines were laid and tested off Fort Gilkicker in Stokes Bay. That year it was decided that an additional school was needed and a series of buildings called the Submarine Mining Establishment was built to the west of Fort Gilkicker, east of Stokes Bay pier. This site was chosen because a Mr Leather had a construction yard here in 1863 for the purpose of building the three Spithead Forts of Spitbank, No Mans Land and Horse Sand. He built a pier with a crane on the end to land the Cornish granite and Portland Stone used in the construction. After the Spithead forts were completed the site was still owned by the Crown. The pier and site were ideal for use as a Submarine Mining Establishment. The Militia moved from Monckton to Blockhouse and the Royal Engineers occupied Fort Monckton. A small officers' mess was formed in Fort Monckton for the use of the officer's submarine mining class and attached officers.


The Submarine Mining Establishment at Stokes Bay consisted of a series of buildings around the pier. The stores and workshops were on one side, the classrooms and offices on another whilst the mine store and loading shed occupied a third side. On the seaward side was the pier with cable tanks. The mines were moved to and from the mine store, workshops and pier on small narrow gauge trolleys, pushed by hand running on an 18 inch tramway, the standard gauge in use for submarine mining. The school opened in 1892 as an experimental works with detachments of officers and men sent yearly from Chatham for a rough-water class. The establishment was ideal for mining work all year round and being close to Portsmouth it put the school "in touch with the best naval and military opinion".



Leather's yard

Mr Leather's yard at Stokes Bay, used during the construction of the Spithead Forts (dated 1870)


The Submarine Mining Establishment at Stokes Bay on the site of Mr Leather's yard 1890.

The Submarine Mining Establishment at Stokes Bay on the site of Mr Leather's yard 1890.


The Submarine Mining Establishment at Stokes Bay with new buildings on the site of Mr Leather's yard 1892.

The Submarine Mining Establishment at Stokes Bay with new buildings on the site of Mr Leather's yard 1892.


Line of two 500lb buoyant mines slung on a masted vessel


The Royal Engineers built a narrow gauge railway, for steam and sail driven trains from the Stokes Bay Establishment to Fort Monckton and on to Fort Blockhouse. It ran eastwards from the Establishment and turned north crossing the access road to Gilkicker and on north of Fort Monckton, then along Haslar sea wall to Fort Blockhouse. Lt. Col. William Baker Brown R.E. (Baker Brown was an acting Chief Instructor at Stokes Bay from 1894 to 1895) writing in The History of Submarine Mining in the British Army: 1910 (published 1923) wrote of the Gosport establishment "The parade was covered with 18" tram lines which were connected with Forts Monckton and Blockhouse by an 18" railway, on which ran a couple of small locomotives". However this is not strictly true. The later railway (from 1918) that served the S.E.L. Monckton Hutments and Haslar Barracks was 60cm gauge, not the 18" gauge used by the submarine mining for internal tramways. The Establishment had its own pier at Stokes Bay up to 1912, east of the pier that was erected for the rail/steamer link to the Isle of Wight. This small pier was that originally constructed by Mr Leather for his use in the construction of the Spithead forts. It had a small crane on it.



The Submarine Miners explode a mine at Stokes Bay 1897 Fort Gilkicker in 1897 can be seen on the left, without its earth bank, which was added in 1904.


The Submarine Miners explode a mine at Stokes Bay 1897

Fort Gilkicker can be seen on the left, without its earth bank, which was added in 1904.



A watercolour by Mr  Newman, now in the Gosport Museum, showing Fort Gilkicker and the Submarine Mining pier at Stokes Bay.

A water colour by Mr Newman, now in the Gosport Museum, showing Fort Gilkicker and
the Submarine Mining pier at Stokes Bay.




On November 15th 1892 Experiments were carried out at the Mining Establishment, Stokes Bay with a new invention, the Hydrophone. This was developed as a mechanism for protecting roadsteads, minefields and anchorages. Its inventor Captain McEvoy of the Confederate Army (he was British!) was there to witness the trials. The hydrophone consisted of two parts; one part was placed at the bottom of the water outside the minefield at a depth of 5 to 15 fathoms and about 300 yards off Fort Gilkicker, the other part was fixed in a station on the shore. The two parts were connected electrically by a cable which could be from one to five miles in length. The submerged part consisted of a bell shaped iron case, three quarters of an inch thick, 20 inches in height and extreme diameter and weighed 340lbs. At the top was fitted a sensitive vibrator or diaphragm enclosed in a copper box. This was formed of a plate of ebonite with carbon attachments and when the case is submerged the delicate mechanism is kept clear of the water by means of the column of compressed air which is enclosed in a diving bell. When a torpedo boat approaches within a radius of half a mile, or a man-of-war within a mile, the pulsations of the propellers produce a vibratory movement inside the case. These vibrations are transmitted to the shore receiver where the vibrations are displayed by a needle flickering on a graduated arc. When the oscillations become pronounced the needle is clutched by a magnet at the end of the arc. Flashing lights, the ringing of a bell and the firing of a gun then result. The trials at Stokes Bay proved to be successful.


Submarine Mining Volunteers

Volunteer Royal Engineers were also employed defending the harbours by laying submarine mines and employing quick-fire guns and defence electric lights. In all 9 divisions of Volunteer Submarine Miners were formed in 1883:

1 Tyne

2 Severn

3 Clyde

4 Humber

5 Tees

6 Forth

7 Tay

8 Mersey

9 Falmouth


The Submarine Mining Volunteers had no permanent staff or Adjutant but the section of the Coast Battalion serving at the station acted as staff and the officer of the Coast Battalion was Acting Adjutant and Staff Officer to the O.C. Volunteer Unit in addition to his special duties in charge of submarine mining defence.


Reorganization of Submarine Mining

By 1900 things had changed. The R.E. were in charge of defensive mining whilst the R.N. was responsible for offensive counter-mining. The R.N. was allowed to have a say in the deposition of the Army's minefields and the submarine miners took on responsibility for manning searchlights for harbour defence.

In January 1900 the Precedence of Royal Engineer (militia) Submarine Miners was as follows:

1. Portsmouth (Portsmouth & Spithead) at Gosport

2. Needles (Fort Victoria)

3. Plymouth (Plymouth, Devenport and Anchorage)

4. Thames (Gravesend)

5. Medway (Sheerness)

6. Harwich

7. Milford Haven (Pembroke Dock)

8. Western (Severn)

9. Humber (Paull-on-Humber)

10. Falmouth


In 1903 the Committee on Imperial Defence suggested a reorganization of responsibility for defence mining.

In 1904 there were eleven regular R.E. Companies responsible for submarine mines:
      4th  Gosport
    21st  Felixstowe
    22nd  Isle of Wight
    27th  Bermuda
    28th  Malta
    30th  Plymouth
    33rd  Cork
    34th  Gravesend
    35th  Pembroke Dock
    40th  Halifax, Nova Scotia
    48th  Victoria, British Columbia


Submarine Miners at work preparing mines. Submarine Miners at work preparing mines.
Submarine Miners at work preparing mines.  



Submarine Mining transferred to the Navy

In 1902, owing to the increased use of defence electric lights, arrangements were made to give every man of the Submarine Mining Service a general training either as attendant on the lights or as assistant to the engine drivers on the engines, which by this time were all driven by oil.
In 1905 Parliament decided to abolish submarine mining as a means of defence for rivers and estuaries in the U.K. Submarine Mining Defence was transferred to the Navy and the Submarine Mining Schools had to be reorganized. The use of electric lights had, by that time, extended to various ports, such as Gibraltar, where there was no mine defence. The charge of the lights at these ports thus devolved on the ordinary Fortress Companies and men for this work were being trained in the Electrical School at the S.M.E. Such training was necessarily largely theoretical and the same was the case at the Gillingham School, while both Portsmouth and Plymouth had by now a large electric-light defence which could be used for instruction. It was, therefore, decided to close the school at Gillingham and to concentrate all the instruction in electric lighting at the schools at Portsmouth and Plymouth, which were renamed Schools of Electric Lighting. (Taken from: History of the Corps of Royal Engineers)


School of Electric Lighting at Stokes Bay

In the case of the Volunteer R.E. submarine miners Hansard reported in July 1907 "It is proposed to retain the corps, and therefore the officers, at those places where their services were required in connection with electric light duties at an establishment suitable to the requirements in each case." The estimated value of the stores in 1905 was £551,080. These stores, with the exception of a few launches, were handed over to the Admiralty. Sea mining responsibility passed to the Royal Navy and the miners at Fort Monckton were transferred to other Royal Engineer units. The Royal Engineer School of Electric Lighting moved into the buildings at Stokes Bay to train in the use of electric searchlights for defensive purposes. Fort Monckton became the home of the 4th (Fortress) Company Royal Engineers. No.6 Electric Light Company was based at Stokes Bay, Gosport.


More on The School of Electric Lighting at Stokes Bay

More on Searchlights at Stokes Bay.

Fort Blockhouse and the Submarine Mining Establishment






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