Crownhill Fort is one of ten Forts and Batteries built in the 1860s to defend Plymouth’s naval base from a French attack. Advances in naval power throughout the 1850s led to Lord Palmerston’s government approving the largest upgrade of Britain's fixed defences in peacetime history.
The threat was thought to be from the Second French Empire, under the control of Emperor Louis Napoleon since 1852. During Napoleon III's reign he sought to increase France's influence within Europe and became involved in several conflicts throughout the 1850s. During several of these conflicts Britain and France were allies, most notably in the Crimean War of 1853-56, during which military technology was evolving rapidly and the media were providing day-by-day reports of the battles as they were fought.
The British Government, under the leadership of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, became increasingly unsettled by the improvements in French military power. When France launched its first iron-clad warship, La Gloire, in 1859 Britain set up a Royal Commission to 'Consider the Defences of the United Kingdom' and their effectiveness against the new generation of ships and their long-range artillery.
This Commission proposed substantially refortifying the major naval ports of the day, upgrading existing sea defences and building a new series of defences to repel a landward attack similar to that which captured Sevastopol in 1855. The proposals had several opponents but eventually approval was obtained by Parliament and construction began in 1863.
Crownhill Fort and several of its contemporaries were designed by Captain (and later Major) Edmund du Cane, a Royal Engineer who spent several years designing penal colonies in Australia. His designs borrowed heavily from earlier landward defences and were designed to counter the threat from the new generation of artillery that had rendered the sea defences ineffective. A civilian contractor was appointed to build Crownhill Fort and in the early stages of construction 2000 men were employed to form the massive earthworks on which the Fort buildings are constructed.
Lord Palmerston died in 1865 before construction of any of the defences (latterly named Palmerston Forts or Palmerston Follies by the press) completed. Napoleon III was exiled in 1870 so had the threat from France been credible the possibility of a French attack was minimal by the time the last stone was laid at Crownhill Fort in 1872.
Unlike many of its contemporaries Crownhill Fort was used by the military until 1985, as a training venue in the latter part of the 19th century and as a recruitment and mobilisation depot in the First World War. In 1922 the Royal Corps of Signals was established at Crownhill. In the Second World War substantial alterations were made to the Fort buildings to accommodate Allied troops and to prepare and store equipment for the D Day landings in 1944. In the 1980s Crownhill Fort was occupied by 59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers who provided logistical support to the Falklands Campaign.
Once this conflict came to an end Crownhill Fort was declared surplus to requirements and over a century of military usage came to an end in 1986. At this point the Fort faced an uncertain future and risked falling in to disrepair or suffering unsympathetic alteration.
The Landmark Trust acquired Crownhill Fort in 1987 and have undertaken major work to restore the site to its late Victorian layout. An apartment in the former Officers Quarters is available to let for holidays and many of the former military buildings are let to a community of small businesses thus providing a source of income to cover the cost of repairs and maintenance.
Crownhill Fort is open to the public on the last Friday of each month and more information is available on our 'What's On' page. Schools and pre-booked groups can visit Crownhill Fort on a date of their choosing by calling The Landmark Trust.