Ancestry UK

Prisoner of War Prison, Forton, near Gosport, Hampshire

What became the Forton (or Fortune) Prison, on Lees Lane, Forton, was erected in 1713 as a hospital for sick or wounded Royal Navy sailors. After a large, new naval hospital opened in 1753 at Haslar, the Forton site was adapted for use as a prison, coming into its own during the Seven Years War (1756-63). In 1761, around 2,000 prisoners were transferred there from a prison at Portchester.

During the War of American Independence many prisoners of that nationality were at Forton, and appear to have been ceaselessly engaged in trying to escape. In 1777 thirty broke out, of whom nineteen were recaptured and were so harshly punished that they complained in a letter which somehow found its way into the London papers. The next year, the Westminster Militia, encamped on Weovil Common, attracted by alarm guns at Forton, marched thither, and found American and French prisoners escaping through a hole in the outer wall, but were too late to prevent five-and-twenty from getting away altogether. The attempt was supposed to be the sequel of a plot by which, a fortnight previously, eleven Americans had escaped. On the same day there was a mutiny in the prison hospital, provoked, it was alleged, by the neglect and the callous treatment of patients by the doctors and their subordinates.

In the same year, 1778, another batch of no less than fifty-seven Americans made a desperate attempt to get out. The Black Hole at Forton was underneath part of the prisoners' sleeping quarters. A hole large enough for the passage of a man was made in the floor of a sleeping room, being covered by a bed that is, a mattress and through this the earth from a tunnel which led from the Black Hole to beyond the prison walls, was brought and hidden in the chimney and in hammocks until opportunities came for its removal elsewhere. As no report was published of the recapture of these men, they presumably got away.

John Howard made several visits to the prison. he recorded:

In a prison not very convenient at Forton near Gosport, there were a hundred and seventy-seven French prisoners, March 2, 1779. On that day the meat was very bad, and had been killed, as the butcher's servant said, that morning : but it was returned, and Mr. Newsham the agent procured them good meat instead of it.—Most of the six-pound loaves wanted weight. I saw the bread weighed for a hundred and forty-two prisoners, and observed a deficiency of three pounds.—The straw, by long use, was turned to duff in the mattresses, and many of them here, and at other places, had been emptied to clear them of vermin. The floors of the bed-rooms and hospitals could not but be dirty and offensive, the boards having been laid rough. I took notice of this kind of bad policy in all the floors of the new prison which was then building here, and almost finished.

The regulations were in the French language, and were the same with those published in a former war. I was informed both here and at Winchester, that they had been hung up, but were torn down. It would be better, to paint them on a board, which should be fastened in some conspicuous place in every prison.

On the prisoners complaining that the bread was too light and the meat bad, I referred them to the ninth article of the regulations, by which they are directed to apply to the agent, and (if not redressed) to the commissioners. One of them pertinently replied, "How is that poslible, when every letter is examined by the agent?"

At my visit November 6, 1782, I found there was no separation of the Americans from other prisoners of war, and they had the same allowance of bread, viz. one pound and a half each. There were a hundred and fifty-four French, thirty-four Dutch, and a hundred and thirty-three Americans; of these, twelve French, twenty-five Dutch, and nine Americans were in the hospital. The wards were not clean. No regulations hung up. I weighed several of the six-pound loaves, and they all wanted some ounces of weight.

The American prisoners then had an allowance from the States, paid by order of Dr. Franklin. I found a gentleman of Portsmouth distributing this kind allowance. From Lady-day to Michaelmas, officers received one shilling per week, and seamen six-pence: and from Michaelmas to Lady-day, officers two shillings and seamen one shilling per week. American officers were not on parole as other officers

The year 1793 was marked at Forton, as elsewhere, by a general insubordinate feeling among the Frenchmen, of whom there were 850 in the prison. In April, a sentry on guard outside the palisade heard a mysterious scraping sound beneath his feet, and gave the alarm. Examination revealed two loose planks in one of the sleeping-rooms, which, being taken up, exposed the entrance to a tunnel, afterwards found to run twenty-seven feet to the outer side of the palisade. One of the prisoners confessed that a plot had been made to kill the Agent and his officers.

In July the following report was made on Forton:

'The French at Forton continue extremely restless and turbulent, and cannot bear their captivity with moderation and temper though they are exceedingly well supplied with provisions and every necessity their situation requires. A sailor made a desperate attempt to disarm a sentinel through the bar of the compartment where he was confined. The sentry with great exertion disengaged himself, and fired at the offender, but wounded unfortunately another prisoner, not the aggressor. Friday se'nnight, the guard discovered a plot by which several prisoners had planned an escape over the wall by tying together their hammocks and blankets. The sentry on duty fired in at the windows, and hit one of the rioters, who is since dead.

'Three French prisoners were dangerously wounded while endeavouring to escape from Forton. One of them with a drawn knife rushed upon the guard, a private of the Anglesea Militia, who fired at him. The Frenchman seized him by the coat, whereupon the guard ran the offender through the body.'

General Hyde, the Commandant at Portsmouth, ordered, in consequence of the insubordination fomented by the French political excitement of the time, that no prisoners should be allowed to wear the national cockade, or to scribble seditious statements on the prison walls, or to play any national music, under penalty of the cachot (the Black Hole). It is almost unnecessary to say that the enforcement of these orders was physically impossible.

In 1794 an epidemic at Forton caused the deaths of 200 prisoners in one month.

In 1806 the great amount of sickness at Forton brought about an official inquiry, the result of which was the superseding of the head surgeon.

In 1807, a fire broke out one day in the prison at 2 p.m., which continued until 9 a.m. The prisoners behaved very well, helping to put the fire out, and not attempting to escape.

In November, 1810, no less than 800 prisoners were on the sick list.

In 1811, Sous-lieutenant Doisy de Villargennes, of the 26th French line regiment, arrived at Portsmouth, a prisoner of war, and was allowed to be on parole ashore pending his dispatch to an inland parole town. He knew that his foster-brother, Germain Lamy, was in prison at Forton, and got leave to visit him. Doisy recorded that in the prison there were no wines or liqueurs, but abundance of 'the excellent ale which England alone produces'. Doisy asked where the money came from to pay for all this abundance. His host told him that, being a basket-maker's son, and knowing the trade, he got permission to work at it and to sell his goods. For a time this was very successful, but the large output of cheap, untaxed work from the prison brought complaints from the straw-workers of Portsmouth, Barnstaple, and other places, with the result that Government prohibited it. But the ingenious Frenchman soon found another string for his bow, and he became, with many others, a manufacturer of ornaments and knick-knacks, boxes, combs, toys, and especially ship models, from the bones of his food. These beef and mutton bones were carefully saved on all sides, and those who could not work them, sold them at good prices to those who could. The foster-brother told Doisy that he and his comrade worked at the bone model of a seventy-four, with rigging made of hair, for six months, and sold it for £40.

Forton was subsequently employed as a military prison and was completely reuilt in 1850. The prison closed in the late 1920s and the buildings were gradually demolished, with housing being erected on the site.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Has Registers of Prisoners of War held at Stapleton.
  • FindMyPast has an extensive collection of Prisoner of War records from the National Archives covering both land- and ship-based prisons (1715-1945).


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.