Tag Archives: Tilbury

Defending The Thames – Coalhouse Fort

Coalhouse Fort on the River Thames at East Tilbury is a short distance further towards the Thames estuary from Tilbury Fort, the subject of my last post.

As with Tilbury Fort, the purpose of Coalhouse Fort was to protect London and the towns and industries along the river’s edge from any naval force that attempted to penetrate the river.

The location of Coalhouse Fort can be seen in the following map. A key location on a bend in the river enabling any attacking force to be shelled on the approach and as it rounds the bend in the river. Two forts on the opposite bank of the river at Cliffe and Shornemead would also have engaged with any attacking force and if they managed to pass through this part of the river, they would then come into the range of Tilbury Fort.

This level of defence highlights the fear that the River Thames could have provided easy access to London, and shows how well London was protected.

As with Tilbury Fort, the origins of Coalhouse Fort are with one of Henry VIII’s blockhouses, constructed in five locations along the Thames following the break with Rome and fears of invasion from Catholic Europe. Unlike Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse was not upgraded or used during the time of the Armada and it fell into disuse.

The original fort was not utilised during the time of the Dutch Admiral, de Ruyter’s incursion into the River Thames and there are local traditions that during this raid the church at East Tilbury was damaged by cannon fire from the Dutch fleet.

Due to continuing threats of war with France during the late 18th century, new fortifications were planned at East Tilbury and building work finally commenced in 1799. A semi-circular defensive structure was built which could support cannon and behind this were constructed the buildings to house supplies and barracks for those manning the fort.

No attack was forthcoming and after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the fort was again abandoned.

Ongoing tensions with France during the 19th century resulted in a plan for significant upgrades at East Tilbury. The original fort was demolished in 1861 and the new fort was constructed at a cost of £130,000.

It is this fort which is still substantially in existence today.


Unlike Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse Fort today is run by a volunteer group, the Coalhouse Fort Project who run occasional open days and are gradually restoring the fort and attempting to stop further decay.

Coalhouse Fort is found at the end of the road that passes through East Tilbury and the original site of the factory and village created by the Bata Shoe Company. (The history of Bata in East Tilbury and the factory / village Bata created is fascinating and there is a website dedicated to the history of the East Tilbury site which can be found here)

On arrival, the solid construction of the fort is clearly visible, now surrounded by landscaped parklands. The fort was constructed to be defendable from land based attack as well as to attack enemy shipping on the Thames.

Coalhouse Fort

The entrance gate to the fort:

Coalhouse Fort

Once inside the fort, the archways ringed around the river facing side of the fort can be seen, these are the gun casements, each originally housing an 11 inch gun (with some 1877 upgrades to 12.5 inch guns), with above the casements, space for a range of 9 inch guns on the roof.

These had a range of 3.1 miles with the whole fort capable of firing many rounds per minute at any attacking force coming up the Thames.

The later brickwork buildings along the top are from the 20th century.

Coalhouse Fort

The view of the fort from the roof. The Gatehouse is on the left, with the barracks for those manning the fort to the left and at the far end of the photo:

Coalhouse Fort

Underneath the gun casements are a series of tunnels and storage rooms to store and move the ammunition needed by the guns. Some of these tunnels are still accessible:

Coalhouse Fort

Storage rooms run the length of the tunnel:

Coalhouse Fort

The bright light at the end of the room is an electric light in the original lighting window. The challenge with lighting underground ammunition storage rooms was to eliminate any possibility of sparks or flames, whilst still providing sufficient light for work. The window was completely sealed of from the room, and held an oil lamp which was lit and refueled from a separate set of tunnels which provided access to these lighting windows. This approach ensured that light could be provided whilst separating the two areas and preventing any sparks or flames being exposed to the contents of the ammunition stores.

Following the initial armament of the fort, upgrades continued, including placing quick fire guns, controlled from the fort, nearer to the river to counter new threats from fast-moving torpedo boats.

Guns with increased range (7 miles) were installed and some of the earthen embankments at the front of the fort were added to improve the camouflage of the fort.

During the 1st World War, an Artillery Company along with the 2nd Company of the London Electrical Engineers moved into the fort to man the guns and the searchlights used to monitor traffic on the river.

Minefields were established in the Thames to manage the traffic flow along the river, with tugs in the river checking incoming vessels. In support of this activity, Coalhouse Fort had the role of firing a warning shot at any suspect vessel, or any vessel that refused to stop for examination.

As with Tilbury Fort, Coalhouse Fort was used as a transit and training camp for troops on their way to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

During the 2nd World War, the fort served a number of functions.

Whilst new gun batteries had been set-up closer to the sea, along with greater naval protection, Coalhouse Fort was one of many batteries along the banks of the Thames designated as anti-invasion weapons, tasked to provide protection to the ports and docks of London from any fast moving cruisers and torpedo boats that had evaded the outer defences, as well as being able to attack any mass landing of enemy troops on the flat lands of the Thames estuary or the river.

The whole area around the fort was heavily defended. Bofor anti-aircraft guns were installed on the roof along with further batteries of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights in the immediate locality. These saw a considerable amount of action during the bombing raids on London as the Thames was a perfect navigation aid providing a route direct from the coast to the docks and central London.

Parts of the roof are still accessible. A single Bofor anti-aircraft gun remains on the roof as an example of the types of weaponry used at the fort and in the locality in the defence of London.

Coalhouse Fort

The view from the roof shows why this is an ideal location for defending the river. This is the view looking downstream towards the point where the river curves to the east. The white fuel tanks are those at the Coryton site and Canvey Island. To the left of the tanks is the new DP World London Gateway Port. The latest incarnation of docks along the River Thames, gradually moving further downstream in order to support the ever-growing container ships and the volume of land needed to manage the growth in container storage and movement.

View from Coalhouse Fort

Later additions on the roof including positions for the control of searchlights and also range finder equipment:

Coalhouse Fort

There were many installations around the fort, a few of which remain. The tower in the middle of the following photo adjacent to the Thames is a 2nd World War Radar Tower which was used to control the approaches along the river and through the minefields.

View from Coalhouse Fort

During the war, the fort also had a special role in protecting shipping leaving the London docks. One of the many threats to ships leaving the Thames was the magnetic mine, capable of detonating at a distance from a passing ship without any contact and either sinking or causing considerable damage, without even being seen.

To counter the threat from magnetic mines, it was found that moving a cable with an electric current along the hull of the ship would, for a relatively short time “de-gauss” or remove the ships magnetic field sufficient to allow the ship to leave London, pass out through the Thames estuary and the Channel into open waters where magnetic mines were less of a threat.

To ensure that ships leaving London were sufficiently de-gaussed, sensors placed on the river bed, fed signals back to a monitoring station on the roof of Coalhouse Fort. Ships which still had a magnetic field capable of triggering a mine could be identified, contacted, and sent back for further attention.

One of the now empty gun emplacements on the roof:

Coalhouse Fort

The construction of the new Coalhouse Fort in 1861 was the result of a Royal Commission recommendation for a whole series of forts around the country to defend strategic rivers, ports, dockyards etc. The recommendation was supported by the Prime Minister of the time, Lord Palmerston. As well as Coalhouse Fort, many others still exist, perhaps the most dramatic being the forts built in the Solent to defend the approaches to Portsmouth and Southampton.

Solent Forts

Although sea based, these forts had exactly the same purpose as the Thames forts, to provide a platform for heavy artillery to fire on any attacking naval force.

After the last war, Coalhouse Fort was used for a short time for the training of sea cadets, and then by the British Bata Shoe Corporation for storage.

The fort is now owned by Thurrock Borough Council with the volunteer Coalhouse Fort Project taking on the task of restoration and enabling open days throughout the year.

Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts provide an example of how London has been dependent on a much wider area around London. For four hundred years Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts have played many roles in the defence of London from the risk of attack along the river and in the last century, from the air.

Details of open days at Coalhouse Fort can be found on the Coalhouse Fort Project website which can be found here.

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Defending The Thames – Tilbury Fort

As well as publishing my father’s photos and tracking down their location, one of my aims with this blog is to give me a push to get out and explore more of London’s fascinating history, locations such as Tilbury Fort.

The history of London is indelibly linked with the surrounding countryside, towns and villages, and what has always interested me is how London’s influence spreads so far beyond the original walled city. Central to London is also the River Thames, without which London would not have come into existence and developed in the way that it has. The influence of the Thames is often somewhat neglected these days, frequently just a scenic backdrop to the developments alongside.

If you follow the river from central London towards the estuary there are two forts at Tilbury that have played a key role in protecting both the River Thames and London from a range of threats over the centuries.

Tilbury today is best known for the Tilbury Docks (the first major commercial docks this far east of London, opened in 1886), as a cruise terminal and with a ferry across the river to Gravesend, however Tilbury has also been the location since Tudor times of a Fort to protect the River Thames and the approaches to London.

The River Thames provided access directly to the City of London, it carried all the import and export trade to the docks, and along the banks of the river were many of the yards that constructed and equipped the countries naval and commercial shipping (for example the Woolwich Arsenal and the Deptford Dockyards).

The relative ease with which these could be attacked was highlighted in June 1667 when a Dutch fleet entered the Thames estuary and sailed up the River Medway to attack the naval shipping at Chatham, burning a number with fire ships, capturing and sailing away a number of others. After this event, the diarist John Evelyn visited Chatham and wrote “a Dreadful Spectacle as ever any Englishman saw and a dishonour to be wiped off”.

The construction of the first Tilbury Fort was a result of Henry VIII’s separation from the Church of Rome. Fearing attack from the Catholic powers of Europe, five “blockhouses” were built along the Thames at West and East Tilbury, Higham, Milton and Gravesend.  The blockhouses had artillery installed on the ground floor and the roof, aligned to provide crossfire across the Thames in conjunction with the blockhouse on the opposite side of the river.

Any attacking force moving up the river would have to pass these five blockhouses, all firing multiple artillery rounds.

Fortunately for Henry VIII, there were no attacks along the river so the blockhouses remained untested. When Mary 1 became queen in 1553, the papal supremacy was restored so the threat of invasion from Catholic Europe was lifted. The blockhouses were disarmed and left.

When Elizabeth became queen in 1558 the Tilbury blockhouse was repaired and re-armed with additional reinforcements during the threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588. The following plan from The History of the Town of Gravesend by Robert Peirce Cruden shows the site in 1588 with the blockhouse in the lower centre surrounded by embankment defences.

Tibury_Fort_AD_1588

The site was completely rebuilt after the 1667 Dutch attack, with construction commencing in 1670 and completion in 1685 resulting in one of the most powerful forts in the country, equipped to protect the City of London, the docks and industries along the river from any attacking force that ventured up the Thames. The new Tilbury Fort also included major defences to protect the fort against any land based attack.

It is this Tilbury Fort which is still substantially in existence today.

Approaching Tilbury Fort today, walking alongside the River Thames, entrance is through the ornate Water Gate, completed around 1682. The plaque above the main entrance reads “Carolus II Rex” – Charles 2nd and there was probably a statue of the King in the niche above.

Tilbury Fort 1

The Water Gate stands out well in this 1849 painting by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield titled Wind Against Tide (source: commons.wikimedia.org – click on image for original link) showing the fort on the right with shipping on the river experiencing rather rough conditions.

Tilbury_Fort_-_Wind_Against_Tide_by_Clarkson_Stansfield,_1849

On entering the fort, the large parade ground gives an indication of how many soldiers would have been stationed here at the height of operations. Throughout the life of Tilbury Fort, numbers were in the range of between 100 and 300.

The officers barracks are at the back of the parade ground.

Tilbury Fort 2The layout of the rebuilt Tilbury Fort and the considerable defences can be seen in this plan of the fort in an engraving from a 1725 plan from The History of the Town of Gravesend by Robert Peirce Cruden. The Water Gate is at the lower centre of the plan. Note the markings for low and high water showing that at high water the river originally came up to edge of the fort.

Tibury_Fort_AD_1725

It is hard to get an impression of the overall scale of the fort from ground level. The following photo is from the Britain From Above website and was taken in May 1934. Tilbury Fort can be seen at the lower right of the photo. The defensive moat that runs around the fort was partially dry at the time and shows up as white. The Tilbury Docks can also been seen, along with a considerable amount of shipping in the river between Tilbury and Gravesend on the opposite shore.

EPW044217As well as defending the river, Tilbury was also a mustering point for soldiers from London.

In March 1587, Queen Elizabeth 1st requested the City to provide a force of 10,000 men, fully armed and equipped. The following table lists the numbers of men from each individual ward:

Farringdon Ward Within 807 Broad Street 373
Bassishaw 177 Bridge Ward Within 383
Bread Street 386 Castle Baynard 551
Dowgate 384 Queenhithe 404
Lime Street 99 Tower Street 444
Farringdon Without 1264 Walbrook 290
Aldgate Ward 347 Vintry 364
Billingsate 365 Portsoken 243
Aldersgate 232 Candlewick 215
Cornhill 191 Cripplegate 925
Cheap 358 Bishopsgate 326
Cordwainer 301
Langbourne 349
Coleman Street Ward 229 Total 10007

These numbers give some idea of the population density of each of the wards, The Earl of Leicester was in command at Tilbury and received 1000 of the London force, only on the condition that they brought their own provisions.

The description of their arrival at Tilbury gives the impression of  London men being dressed for show, rather than for work and fighting:

“The London men wore a uniform of white with white caps and the City arms in scarlet on back and front. Some marched in companies according to their arms. Their officers rode beside the men dressed in black velvet. They were preceded by billmen, by a company of whifflers (trumpeters) and in the midst marched six Ensigns in white satin faced with black sarsenet and rich scarves The dress of the officers and men was just as useless and unfit for continued work as could well be devised. It is melancholy to find that the Earl of Leicester who was in command at Tilbury held a very poor opinion of the London men.”

It was also at West Tilbury that Elizabeth 1st met the Earl of Leicester on the 8th August 1588 and the following day addressed the troops with the speech:

“And therefore I come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have the body of a week 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 realms; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms.”

Although there are a number of different versions of this speech, the evidence appears to be strong that Tilbury was the location where Elizabeth 1st addressed her troops at the time of the Armada.

For those stationed at Tilbury Fort, it must have seemed a remote and barren location. Today, the fort is surrounded by docks and a power station, but up to the building of the docks the area was mainly barren, flat land. To get an idea, the following photo from 1938 is also from Britain From Above and shows the fort in the bottom right hand corner with only a water treatment works before flat fields stretch into the distance. Much of this is now occupied by Tilbury Power Station.

EPW057978

At the far end of the parade ground are the officers barracks. These were originally built in 1685, rebuilt in 1772 with further modifications during the 19th century. These barracks would have been used by the senior officers along with their families. Unfortunately the solders barracks were demolished in the early 1950s. They also faced onto the parade ground.

Tilbury Fort 3

There is an interesting connection between Tilbury and Greenwich. When Charles II approved the construction of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the King allowed £500 towards the new building, together with a supply of bricks from Tilbury Fort, where there was a spare stock, so some of the fabric of both locations is from the same stock of bricks.

As well as acting as a mustering points for troops, the main function of the fort was to protect the river.

Tilbury is the point in the Thames where the river starts to narrow on the approach to London, so it is an ideal location to site guns to fire at any invading ships attempting to move up river. Gun emplacements are arranged along the fort providing firing points looking across the river with Gravesend in the background:

Tilbury Fort 8

Shipping still passes Tilbury Fort, but of a very different type from when the fort was in use:

Tilbury Fort 9

The fort also stored a considerable amount of gunpowder and munitions, both for use in the fort and as a general reserve for the army. Two magazines held large quantities of gunpowder. These are the only powder magazines to remain in Britain from the early 18th Century. Very strong, with a large blast wall around the perimeter.

Tilbury Fort 10

As well as gunpowder, munitions were stored in tunnels constructed under the earthworks. One of the tunnels leading to storage rooms for artillery shells and other munitions:

Tilbury Fort 6

One of the storage rooms leading off the tunnel:

Tilbury Fort 7During the 18th and early 19th centuries there was the occasional threat of an attack on London via the river, although the majority of wars were being fought on the continent or at sea.

Tilbury Fort was permanently manned with numbers being ramped up or down dependent on the perceived threat level. The troops at the fort were also responsible for defending the fort and surrounding area from any land based attack. The fort was very well protected from land based attack with a series of moats and land defences. To the rear of the fort, a reconstructed bridge leads across to one of the island defensive locations, then on to the flat lands north of the river.

Tilbury Fort 4

Soon after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6 Tilbury Fort was used as a prison for survivors of the rebellion whilst they waited for trial in London. Off 303 that sailed from Inverness, 268 survived to Tilbury. They were imprisoned in the gunpowder magazines in such dreadful conditions that a further 50 died. After trial in London in 1747 they were either executed or transported to Barbados and Antigua to work on the sugar plantations as slave labourers.

Another view inside the fort. The Water Gate is on the left with the guard-house and chapel on the right:

Tilbury Fort 5

The gunpowder held at the fort was used for many purposes. In May 1838 the Brigg, William had been run down by a steamer opposite the fort and was causing an obstruction in the river. The people of Gravesend petitioned the Government to have it removed and a party of sappers and miners led by a Colonel Paisley arrived to sink a large amount of powder under the wreck by means of a diving bell. A special fused pipe led to the surface allowing the fuse to be lit from the surface and the sappers to get back to shore in time. There was an “awful explosion” with “waters rising mountains high followed by clouds of black coal and pieces of wreck”.

Tilbury Fort continued in use throughout the 19th century with occasional upgrades as technology provided new and more efficient guns and threats changed, however by the start of the 20th century naval technology had increased so much that large shore forts along the river had become obsolete and naval protection of the Thames was considered a more effective form of defence.

The fort continued to be used for storage and also as a transit centre for troops, a key role during the 1st World War, given the adjacent port of Tilbury.

During the 2nd World War, the fort had a brief role as an anti-aircraft operations centre, controlling the fire from guns along the river.

Tilbury Fort finally ceased any military role in 1950 when it was transferred into the Ministry of Works as a historic monument and the fort is now in the care of English heritage.

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