10 September 2019

Tilbury Fort

In between Tilbury docks and the sewage treatment works Tilbury Fort is not the most picturesque place to visit, but aesthetics wasn't part of the planning process, it was built for purpose, and the docks and the sewage treatment works weren't there when it was built! Tilbury Fort, on the Thames estuary has protected London’s seaward approach from the 16th century through to the Second World War. The largest of the defences built to protect London it is one of the best examples of its type in England.

In 1539 Henry VIII decided to create a string of forts along the Thames to protect access to London. Tilbury was one of five built as a powerful low level gun battery, and Queen Elizabeth I famously rallied her army nearby to face the threat of the Armada. It was here that she made her famous 'Armada speech', saying “I know I have the body 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 realms; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms”.

The fort was very well constructed to give the best possible protection. Surrounded by the river, two moats with outworks in between and four bastions it allowed total visibility of the outside of the walls from within the fort. If you follow the link above you can see an aerial view of how cleverly it was constructed.

This building served as a guard room

and the upper floor as a chapel. 

Quite plain with few embellishments
but I think the plainness gives it a simple beauty.
Notice the sign of the cross built into each window.

Ruins of the soldiers barracks.
The brick footings show the size of the rooms in which four men lived, two to a bed.
Living conditions were poor. Surrounded by marshland with a poor road network the garrison had to rely on collected rainwater.
During the 19th century a pump was installed to bring water up from a well 178 metres below the surface. 
A trader called a sutler built a house inside the southern entrance. He grew vegetables and enjoyed a monopoly selling his produce to the soldiers.
New Barracks for the officers and enlisted men were rebuilt in 1772, but the officers often preferred to live across the river in the more urban setting of Gravesend, near the military headquarters.

Landward Gate bridge and water defences.

East and West gun lines.
Between the lines is a quay, designed to allow the delivery of supplies from the Thames, and you can just make out the remains of the tracks from a narrow gauge railway built during the First World War.

Parade ground and Officers quarters

Artillery and the gunpowder depot in the background

Entrances to gunpowder depot surrounded by a high thick brick wall.
The doors of the powder magazines were made of copper because it is much less prone to generating sparks.

Storing gunpowder is tricky, it needs careful handling and dry storage. By the 18th century a standard powder barrel contained 90lbs of gunpowder. To reduce the risk of sparks barrels were bound with copper. Floorboards were fixed with timber pegs, doors had copper or bronze hinges and were sheathed in copper. 

This rare example of an overhead crane used to stack powder barrels in the board of Ordances's gunpowder magazines at Purfleet. The crane would travel the length of the magazines on timber trails. A man walking along the lower rail pushed the crane into position. Once in place, the jib could be swung to either side and the barrels raised or lowered. These operations were controlled by ropes managed by powder workers on the floor below. The cranes were constructed of timber as any iron parts ran the risk of causing sparks.

This rare 19th century lamp was designed to illuminate the interior of a magazine. If artificial lighting was needed, oil lamps or candle lanterns were placed in special glazed recesses that were approached from outside by separate lighting passages.

Tunnels leading to magazine rooms.
Before entering the tunnels the artillerymen changed into special garments of
finely woven cloth with no pockets, and slippers of leather or canvas.

Small amounts of shells and cartridges were kept in rooms directly underneath the guns, in case of a surprise attack. Shells were stored on wooden floors on the left side of the room leaving the right side for handling. A circular shaft leading through the roof to a serving room next to one of the guns contained a mechanical winch worked by hand from the serving room

Lighting was provided by candles sealed behind thick glass sheets in alcoves. 

Tilbury Fort makes for a good day out, full of very interesting history. 

Tilbury Fort 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 cricket match? 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.
Teams from Kent and Essex agreed to play a ‘great match of 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. 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, saying "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?"
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!

Hope you've enjoyed this little bit of history

Be well  ~
Polly x


  1. I love all of this. Most everything in the US is "newer" than this. I love old history.

    1. Hi Michelle, we have lots of old history over here :-)

  2. A fascinating account of a remarkable place. I've been to Essex v Kent cricket matches and it doesn't surprise me at all! It does seem rather strange though that 20-odd men could just wander into a military installation and play cricket - unless of course the officers were involved in some way but preferred to not mention that in view of what happened.

    1. Hi John, I've only been to a few cricket matches and have seen mostly good behaviour with the occasional few expletives!

  3. That's so cool! I love QE1's quote too! We have a WWII fort near here, and the magazine storage and tunnels reminded me very much of these shots.

    1. Hi Sheila, I think QE1 was quite a feisty lady.


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