The Only People Ever Killed at Tilbury Fort
England has not been invaded since 1066, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the only fatalities ever reported at Tilbury Fort were thanks to a game of cricket in 1776. Or is this extraordinary story just a tall tale?
A CHEQUERED HISTORY
Tilbury Fort, Essex, built in 1670–84 and much the finest surviving example of 17th-century fortification in the country, has witnessed many curious events during its two and a half centuries of guarding the Thames approach into London.
These have included a mutiny after a soldiers’ ‘bog-house’ collapsed; sad Jacobites imprisoned after the 1745 rebellion; invasions by voracious moles and black rats; and a moment of glory in 1916, when its anti-aircraft guns holed the German zeppelin L15 so badly that it subsequently plunged into the sea.
But is it really true that the only recorded bloodshed at the fort resulted from a Kent versus Essex cricket match there in 1776? A letter sent from Gravesend to the London Chronicle in late October of that year (and then copied in the Chelmsford and Ipswich local papers) set out what apparently happened.
A VERY BLOODY BATTLE
Two teams from Kent and Essex agreed to play a ‘great match at cricket’ at Tilbury. But when the Kentish team turned out to include a man ‘who should not have been there’ – perhaps a ‘professional’ – the Essex men refused to play, ‘on which a very bloody battle ensued’. Facing an obligation to forfeit, one of the Kentish team ran into the guard house, seized a gun from an ‘old invalid’, and shot dead an Essex man.
Everybody now rushed to grab guns, easily overpowering the four soldiers on duty, and ‘fell to it, doing a great deal of mischief’. This included running the invalid through with a bayonet, and killing the sergeant of the guard as he attempted to restore order.
Eventually the Essex men fled over the drawbridge, while the Kentish team ‘made off in their boats, but search is making after them’.
Sober 20th-century cricket historians deny that this incident could ever have happened.
No ‘county cricket match’, according to their arguments, is recorded as having been played at Tilbury, where there was ‘no pitch for a decent game’, since ‘at the time it consisted only of a Fort, a ferry house and a cow shed, set amongst the salt-marshes’. And what were ‘old invalids’ doing with guns?
NOBBLING AND SKULDUGGERY
But this is to view history through modern eyes. Georgian cricket was resolutely unrespectable, being notable for heavy betting, nobbling opponents and general skulduggery.
And as the newspaper account of the terrible affair at Tilbury Fort makes abundantly clear, the pitch was the parade ground within the fortress itself, grassed over for most of the 18th century. As for those invalids, these were actually ‘Royal Invalids’, a unit recruited from aged or partially disabled veterans still fit enough for static garrison duty.
So it looks as if the cricket pundits might be wrong, and that the fatal Tilbury incident really could have taken place in late October 1776. Howzat!
By Charles Kightly