A visit to the impregnable Tilbury Fortress

Last Monday being part of a long Bank-holiday Monday and us entering our months behind schedule first warm weather of the year, I decided to visit Tilbury Fortress in the county of Essex though to all intents and purposes it is on the edge of London.

It’s a property that belongs to English Heritage and as a member for work reasons, I get free access to all of their properties and counting my day out last September, this would be only my second day out since 2019.

The weather was forecast to be warm and sunny at home but Tilbury Fort being right by the Thames and to the east of London is often a few degrees cooler and a bit blowy which made it the ideal place to spend the day.

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. You can see from the photo above that if the Thames if 730 metres wide at this point, the fortress itself and its accompanying series of moats is absolutely huge.

Tilbury Fortress is 25 miles east of what was London and now is Central London and where the Thames is 730 metres across but before it becomes a wide estuary. The photo below gives an idea how wide the Thames used to be in London before 2,000 years of containment works. This stretch of the river is tidal, the tide is out but just beginning to come back in.

Looking across the Thames from Tilbury in the county of Essex to Gravesend in the county of Kent.

On 7 August Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) landed at the site, 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.

Queen Elizabeth I

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.

The photo above is just part of the parade ground with the accommodation of the senior officers in Georgian times. However the officers often apparently preferred to stay in Gravesend, across the river, rather than what must have been rather dire conditions.

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.

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. During the wars with France from 1793 to 1815, its capacity reached almost 20,000 barrels. The photo below is in one of a maze of tunnels and underground rooms where the delicate task of storing gunpowder and putting gunpowder into shells took place.

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.

There are all sorts of old musket balls, cannon balls and artillery shells around Tilbury, above are some of the more battered looking ones I could find.

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.

Myself standing in front of one of the more modern artillery pieces looking out at the Thames.

WordPress seems to have stopped me from adding proper captions to my posts at the moment but this is one of the more modern artillery guns pointing out over the Thames. It would be a brave ship that would try to get past several forts like this and all loaded with multiple big guns.

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.

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.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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