Fort Blockhouse Tour 17 June 2016

Twenty-one of us gathered in the car park of the submarine museum on a cloudy but warm morning. There we met our guides, Clive Kydd and Dave “Knocker” White. Clive is also involved in the restoration and maintenance of Steam Pinnace 199, which can be viewed at Boat House 4 at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I asked Dave how he came by the nickname “Knocker” and he said it attaches automatically in the Royal Navy if your surname is White!

Clive has a very detailed knowledge of the history of Fort Blockhouse and of Royal Hospital Haslar together with a great collection of photographs and anecdotes. Dave, an ex-submariner, was able to give us a great deal of information about the history and involvement of the submarine service and its relationship with Fort Blockhouse. HMS Dolphin, originally a ship moored on the north quay at FBH, was the shore based establishment of the Royal Navy Submarine Service until it was closed in December 1999 prior to its relocation to HMS Raleigh at Tor Point in Cornwall.

The tour started at the gates to the hospital where the remains of railway lines which carried injured seamen on carts from the dock, through the gates and straight in to the hospital, can be seen. When the hospital was opened to the Royal Navy in 1753, press gangs were in operation and the high walls surrounding the hospital were to deter injured seafarers from escaping rather than keeping people out! Incidentally, it was at Haslar that the cure for scurvy was first discovered.

We passed the 33rd Army Field Hospital containers, each of which holds a complete self-contained field hospital and which can be airlifted at very short notice to any location. First stop was the Ward Room, which is still used today for a variety of dinners and events. It is a spectacular room with a minstrel gallery and five paintings by the younger Wylie of ships of the line wearing the original squadron colours of red, white and blue, each squadron being commanded by an admiral, red being the senior. Hence the term admiral of the white etc. for those Patrick O’Brien fans! As you stand in the middle of the Ward Room it is as if you are seeing the view, through a periscope at sea level, of these ships passing you by.

From the Ward Room we went upstairs to the individual cabins where submarine captains would spend their last night ashore before embarking on a voyage. On to the Submariners’ Chapel, where the captains would pray and receive their sealed orders prior to sailing. The Chapel is quite small, spectacular and moving. There is an abundance of history here. It is not usually open to the public so we were fortunate to be allowed to see it.

As we continued our tour the heavens opened but the rain did not seem to diminish our interest and enjoyment. We visited the bar and lounge which overlooks the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and where you may see people on the patio from time to time as you enter or leave the harbour. Thence to the old Signal Tower, now home to Gosport National Coastwatch Institution, otherwise known as Dad’s Army, although I prefer the term Dad’s Navy! On to the battlements overlooking the eastern Solent and the 25mm guns, maintained by HMS Collingwood, and used for saluting these days.

As we neared the end of the tour we saw the old Post Office and Sick Bay together with the building where the daily rum ration was distributed. The ration for Ordinary Ranks was diluted with water so it would not keep and there was always rum left over which was ceremoniously poured down the drain. The story goes that the engineering department fashioned a pan to fit below the drain to collect the rum for a further distribution after the ration party had moved off! Clive felt the story to be apocryphal but Dave assured him it was true!

We are most obliged to the generosity of our hosts for their time and for providing us with such an interesting morning. The guides give their time voluntarily but donations to charity are greatly appreciated. They suggested Combat Stress which is an all services mental health charity providing great support. The guides were delighted with the £135 that was raised by our members for Combat Stress.

David Whitehead, Membership Secretary

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