History of Tilbury Fort
Tilbury Fort is one of the finest surviving examples of 17th-century military engineering in England. Built on the site of a smaller Tudor fort, it was designed to defend the river Thames passage to London against enemy ships. It was in nearby West Tilbury that Elizabeth I famously rallied her makeshift army awaiting the Armada in 1588.
Tilbury’s precise geometric design provided multiple lines of fire across the river and twin moats. However, its defences were never tested by any enemy. Though it became obsolete at the dawn of the 20th century, it remained garrisoned until the end of the First World War.
The Tudor blockhouse
Tilbury Fort originated as West Tilbury blockhouse, a gun fort built with four others along the Thames – then the most important route into England – in 1539–40. This was part of a national programme of fortification under Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) during a period of international tension. Each blockhouse was a D-shaped tower equipped with heavy guns and accommodation for its gunners. Their purpose was to sink enemy ships intent on sailing upstream to attack London and the naval dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford.
Henry’s builders sited blockhouses on both sides of the river at and downstream from Gravesend, about 25 miles east of London, just before the river became a broad estuary. A pair furthest downstream stood at East Tilbury on the north bank and Higham on the south, with a trio upstream – two on the south bank at Milton and Gravesend and one on the north bank at West Tilbury. Gravesend and West Tilbury guarded an important ferry crossing, adjacent to a good anchorage, at a point where the river was about 730 metres across.
The blockhouses were planned by Sir Christopher Morris and James Nedeham. Each one was heavily armed with between 20 and 30 big guns. West Tilbury had 23 guns, under a captain and nine men who formed a peacetime garrison, to be reinforced in times of war.
The Elizabethan era
West Tilbury blockhouse was neglected after the end of Henry VIII’s reign but was repaired and extended during the war between England and Spain (1585–1604). With the Spanish Armada expected in 1588, an English army assembled to await the invasion, camped on higher ground at West Tilbury village, about 2 miles north of the blockhouse.
On 7 August Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) landed at the blockhouse, where she met Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was in command of the camp. Having stayed overnight at nearby Arden Hall, the queen returned to the camp the following day and gave a rallying speech, including the famous lines:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.
The extended defences around the blockhouse were designed by an Italian military engineer, Federigo Gianibelli, who created a larger fortified area to enable soldiers to defend the blockhouse from a landward attack. Made of earth and timber, it had a rampart and double moat laid out in outward-facing angles, to enable crossfire over the marshland at an approaching enemy.
The Civil Wars
By the mid 17th century, West Tilbury blockhouse had been neglected for 30 years and had only a tiny garrison – a captain and five men. Gianibelli’s defences were in ruins, leaving cattle to graze the interior, and the civilian ferry house sat inconveniently inside the fortified area.
With some repairs, the blockhouse was held by Parliament throughout the Civil Wars (1642–51) as an outpost for London, and as a checkpoint where ships on the Thames had to submit for inspection if required. The garrison kept a boat at the fort’s landing stage for use by its boarding parties.
Soldiers of Thomas Fairfax’s Parliamentarian army seized the blockhouse in the summer of 1647. This followed rivalry between Parliamentary factions, which resulted in the army occupying London and its radical elements taking control of government. Soldiers of the London City Militia now garrisoned the blockhouse.
In 1648, when the navy revolted against Parliament, 60 soldiers were put into the blockhouse to guard against the passage of ships and soldiers during Royalist uprisings in Kent and Essex. A similar garrison was maintained throughout the rule of the Commonwealth (1649–60). In 1651 it comprised a governor, a lieutenant, an ensign, 4 corporals, a drummer, a master gunner, 16 assistant gunners and 44 soldiers.
The new Tilbury Fort
In July 1667, with England at war with the Dutch, the Dutch navy made a daring attack on the river Medway in Kent. They burned the fort of Sheerness, destroyed or captured several English warships and almost took the naval dockyard at Chatham. This humiliating incident exposed England’s coastal defences as weak and needing improvement. With London vulnerable, the river Thames was a priority.
In 1668 the military engineer at the Board of Ordnance, Sir Bernard de Gomme, prepared plans for a new, much larger fort to replace West Tilbury blockhouse, and work began in 1670. Construction lasted almost 15 years, bedevilled by the difficulties of building on wet marshland and by unreliable contractors. However, by 1685 the new fort was substantially complete.
De Gomme’s fort comprised a powerful gun battery along the river and a bastioned fort to defend it from landward attack. The fort was pentagonal: its rampart was faced in brick and intended to have an angle bastion projecting from each corner. In the event, there were four bastions, as the harsh tidal conditions of the Thames prevented construction of a fifth projecting into the water.
Outside the rampart, two deep concentric moats were filled from the river, with a defensible rampart between them. Two gates allowed access – the Water Gate from the riverside landing and the Landport Gate from the marsh. The latter opened onto a road that crossed the moats on wooden bridges.
Inside, on the perimeter of a large central space, were the east and west barracks for around 186 soldiers, barracks for a master gunner and assistants, a large storehouse, a sutler’s house (canteen), a gunpowder magazine, two guard houses and a chapel.
The old West Tilbury blockhouse was given an extra storey to support guns on its roof, as a substitute for the aborted river bastion.
In 1691 the fort was armed with an astounding complement of 272 heavy guns – a terrible prospect to any ship trying to sail past. But from the late 17th century Tilbury took on an additional role. By 1677 there was a resident storekeeper, a civilian in charge of a storehouse for the Board of Ordnance, which supplied all equipment of war to the army. His role was expanded in 1692, following the conversion of the Tudor blockhouse into a gunpowder storage magazine.
The magazine held a huge quantity of gunpowder in barrels, intended to supply warships of the Royal Navy and transports carrying troops going on campaign, and for returning powder at the end of expeditions. It was an important role, made greater when two more purpose-built gunpowder magazines were added at the north end of the parade ground in 1716–17.
The 18th century
After 1720, Tilbury Fort continued its mixed role as an artillery fort, a Board of Ordnance magazine and an infantry garrison. Its impressive complement of heavy guns – already a formidable obstacle to any ships on the river – was supplemented from 1783 by the guns of a new fort in Gravesend, called New Tavern Fort. In 1799 Tilbury’s infantry numbered 17 officers and 182 men.
Tilbury’s Ordnance magazines supplied the armed forces throughout the 18th century, when Britain was frequently at war. In 1757, almost 8,500 barrels of gunpowder were stored there, more than at any other stores in Britain. Despite the construction of new magazines upstream at Purfleet in 1765, such was the demand for gunpowder that Tilbury continued to play a major role. During the wars with France from 1793 to 1815, its capacity reached almost 20,000 barrels.
In 1746 the Jacobite Rising that began in 1745 – the last attempt to restore a Stuart to the throne of Great Britain – ended in defeat at Culloden. The losing side was ruthlessly suppressed. Around 3,500 Scottish prisoners were taken to England for trial, including 564 in one convoy of seven ships that sailed from Inverness to the Thames. Most of these were destined for Tilbury.
While their fates were decided, these prisoners were confined afloat in the ships’ holds or in the old magazine of Tilbury Fort. Conditions, food and treatment were appalling, and many died of typhus. As deaths increased, the fort commander petitioned for more sanitary conditions, but his request was flatly denied.
A group of prisoners were set aside for trial on specific charges, while the rest, ordinary soldiers mostly, had to draw lots – a process that resulted in an additional 1 in 20 being tried. Some of them were cruelly executed, and only a very few were pardoned. Those who survived the lottery and lived – about 200 – were transported to work in the colonies, mainly Antigua and Barbados in the West Indies.
A granite boulder, brought from Culloden Moor to the river wall outside the fort in 1998, is inscribed to the memory of all these prisoners.
In 1859 the British government appointed a royal commission to investigate the defences of the nation, which had been neglected since the end of the war with France in 1815. In 1860 its report revealed major weaknesses that were addressed by a huge programme of fortress building and re-armament. The invention of rifled guns had brought greater range, accuracy and destructive power and new forts were built for them. On the Thames, these were constructed further downstream from Tilbury to form a new front line, and Tilbury and New Tavern forts were reshaped as a second line.
Tilbury’s 13 new gun positions were built in 1868–71, on the north-east, south-east and south-west bastions and along the south-east wall, all facing downriver. Built in concrete, brick and granite, they were accompanied by underground magazines for ammunition. The main armament was powerful, with rifled guns of 9-inch calibre, each weighing 12 tons, and a single 11-inch gun of 25 tons. The guns’ range was up to 3 miles.
Such was the pace of change in military technology that by 1900 Tilbury’s relatively new guns were obsolete. This prompted more reconstruction, in 1902–4, when new guns – lighter and quicker to load, aim and fire – were installed on the north-east bastion and south-east rampart. However, the change was short-lived. A national review in 1905 concluded that the likelihood of a naval attack along the Thames to Tilbury was extremely low, and all its guns were withdrawn.
The last use of artillery at Tilbury was during the First World War, when an anti-aircraft gun operated just outside the Water Gate, and saw action against German Zeppelin airships engaged on bombing raids.
Mobilisation centre and ordnance depot
While its defensive capabilities declined, in the 1890s the fort gained another role. An overall scheme for the defence of London during an invasion included a chain of ‘mobilisation centres’. These were important stores of equipment and ammunition, to be picked up by Army units when they were mobilised to face an attack on home soil.
At Tilbury, the Army built huge sheds on the parade ground, with another against the outside wall on the west side, to hold transport waggons and horse harnesses. These stores were issued to the troops headed for France and Flanders when the First World War began in 1914.
The fort then became a barracks for troops in transit until October 1915, when the Army Ordnance Corps moved in and re-established its role as an ammunition and explosives store. At this time, the fort received electric power, and rails were laid for moving the heavy loads to and from the wharf.
By 1925 the fort was redundant and unsuccessful attempts were made to sell it for private development. In 1939–40, during the Second World War, the chapel and guard room were used briefly as an anti-aircraft operations room, but afterwards the fort did not have a major role in the war. In 1950 the Army finally left Tilbury Fort after almost 400 years.
By Paul Pattison, Senior Properties Historian, English Heritage
P Kent, Fortifications of East Anglia (Lavenham, 1988), 33–53
P Pattison, Tilbury Fort (English Heritage guidebook, Swindon, 2004)
A Saunders, ‘Thames fortifications during the 16th to 19th centuries’, in Thames Gateway: Recording Historic Buildings and Landscapes on the Thames Estuary (Swindon, 1995), 135–43
A Saunders, Fortress Builder: Bernard de Gomme, Charles II’s Military Engineer (Exeter, 2004), 192–214
VTC Smith, Defending London’s River (Rochester, 1985)
PM Wilkinson, PR Wilson and IG Robertson, ‘Excavations at Tilbury Fort, Essex’, Post-Medieval Archaeology, 17 (1983), 111–62 (subscription required; accessed 12 August 2020)
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A fatal cricket match
Is it really true that the only recorded bloodshed at Tilbury Fort resulted from a Kent versus Essex cricket match there in 1776?
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