Skip to content

History of the Needles Old Battery and New Battery

Two 12-tonne guns on iron carriages in the gun emplacements at the Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight
Two 12-tonne guns at the Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

The Needles Old Battery defended the nation from 1860 with a vantage point on the sea and impressive gun defensives. Find out more about how the site was used when it was decommissioned and discover how the New Battery became the site for top secret rocket tests.

Why build a defence here?

The Old Battery

The Old Battery dates from the early 1860s when England feared attack by the French under Napoleon III.

It was part of a chain of defences built to protect the naval dockyards at Portsmouth on the orders of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. Britain was vulnerable to a sea attack especially after the launch of the first iron-clad French warship.

A good vantage point

Being perched on an exposed headland gives a wide view out onto the Needles Rocks and local coastline. A ditch was dug out to surround the battery to prevent invaders climbing up from the beach and to give a greater defence.

Luckily the invasion never took place and the Needles Old Battery became known as one of Palmerston’s Follies.

Searchlight at the searchlight emplacement Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight.
Searchlight at the Needles Old Battery, Isle of Wight. | © National Trust Images/Jemma Finch

Arms and armour

The searchlight

An underground tunnel in the Old Battery leads to the searchlight emplacement. This prominent position at the edge of the headland provided the ideal placement for the searchlight.


Soldiers based here were Gunners from the Royal Artillery. It took nine men six minutes to fire a gun just the once. During peacetime, the Old Battery was looked after by a lone Master Gunner who lived here with his family.

Sir William Armstrong

In 1873, the original guns at the Battery were replaced with six Armstrong 9-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns. Two of these guns are displayed today in their original positions on the Parade Ground. They were designed by Sir William Armstrong, who was a leading 19th-century industrialist.

The fate of the guns

In 1903 the guns were no longer useful and thought worthless, so were pushed over the cliffs into Scratchell's Bay below.

The guns stayed in the bay until it was decided to rescue them and return them to their rightful place.

Between 1983 and 1985 two guns were hauled up from the seas below and installed back on the Parade Ground.

Fort or battery?

Many of Palmerston’s Follies are forts, like nearby Bembridge Fort and St Helen’s Fort. A fort usually commands a group of two or more batteries and has a permanent garrison of troops. There are no permanent troops at this battery but it still formed part of the nation’s coastal defences.

Building a new site

The Needles New Battery is a small site further up the headland from the Old Battery. Completed between 1893–95, the New Battery was built after the Old Battery site deteriorated from coastal erosion. New technology introduced at the time also needed more space than was available at the Old Battery.

Secret rocket test site

During both World Wars the New Battery was put to action and afterwards it was chosen as the test site for a new type of technology. From 1955 a company called Saunders Roe leased the site and secretly tested the rockets Black Knight and Black Arrow. The satellite Prospero was also tested here before they were all launched in Australia.

Black Arrow at the rocket test site, Highdown, New Battery, Isle of Wight
Black Arrow at the rocket test site, Highdown, New Battery, Isle of Wight | © Alastair White

Black Arrow rocket

The Black Arrow rocket was designed to put the satellite Prospero into orbit. It was developed at the Highdown site from the late 1960s. 

1 of 3

Timeline of the Old Battery and New Battery


Building the Old Battery

Building commences at the Old Battery

Due to the perceived threat of war with France and on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, in September 1861 building the Old Battery begins.

Work finishes on the Old Battery

Designed by Major James Edwards of the Royal Engineers and at a cost of £6,896, the Old Battery is completed.

Three visitors stand overlooking the coast at Needles Old Battery and New Battery, Isle of Wight on an overcast summer's day.

Discover more at the Needles Old Battery and New Battery

Find out when the Needles Old Battery and New Battery is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

Bembridge Fort and Culver Downs, Isle of Wight

History of Bembridge Fort 

Find out more about this Victorian fort that was called into action in both World Wars then left abandoned, including why it was built where it was.

An aerial view of the Needles and lighthouse, Isle of Wight.

History of the Needles rocks and lighthouse 

Find out more about the iconic Needles rocks and lighthouse. The Needles lighthouse stands on a remote spot on the Isle of Wight and has saved many lives. Discover how the rocks were formed and how they got their name.

Visitors looking over St Catherine's Lighthouse (not National Trust) and the view out to sea on the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight, St Catherine's Point, at St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm, Isle of Wight

History of St Catherine's Down and Knowles Farm 

Find out more about the history of the lighthouse, Hoy Monument and Marconi’s radio technology on St Catherine’s Down and Knowles Farm

Exterior of Bembridge Windmill, Isle of Wight

The history of Bembridge Windmill 

Discover the story of Bembridge Windmill, from its 18th-century beginnings to inspiring Turner and being used as a shelter and lookout during the two World Wars.

A view between a gap in a hedge of two people walking in front of the old stone walls of the house at Mottistone Garden and Estate

The history of Mottistone Gardens and Estate 

There has been a dwelling on the site of Mottistone for over a thousand years. Discover how it evolved over centuries of changes and how it came through disaster.

The two-storey, red-brick Newtown Old Town Hall, Isle of Wight

History of Newtown National Nature Reserve and Old Town Hall 

Now a quiet backwater, Newtown was once a medieval town that went on to play a huge role in the brickmaking and salt production industries. Discover more about its history.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.