Tilbury Fort, also known historically as the Thermitage Bulwark and the West Tilbury Blockhouse, is an artillery fort on the north bank of the River Thames in England. The first permanent fortification at Tilbury in Essex was built as a consequence of international tensions between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire in the final years of the reign of King Henry VIII. Traditionally the Crown had left coastal defences to the local lords and communities, only taking a modest role in building and maintaining fortifications, and while France and the Empire remained in conflict with one another, maritime raids were common but an actual invasion of England seemed unlikely. Basic defences, based around simple blockhouses and towers, existed in the south-west and along the Sussex coast, with a few more impressive works in the north of England, but in general the fortifications were very limited in scale. In 1533, Henry broke with Pope Paul III in order to annul the long-standing marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and remarry. Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and he took the annulment as a personal insult. This resulted in France and the Empire declaring an alliance against Henry in 1538, and the Pope encouraging the two countries to attack England. An invasion of England appeared certain. In response, Henry issued an order, called a "device", in 1539, giving instructions for the "defence of the realm in time of invasion" and the construction of forts along the English coastline.
The River Thames was strategically important, as the city of London and the newly constructed royal dockyards of Deptford and Woolwich were vulnerable to seaborne attacks arriving up the estuary, which was a major maritime route, carrying 80 percent of England's exports. At the mouth of the estuary, the Thames narrowed considerably, forming a natural hub for communications: the "Long Ferry" took passengers into the capital, and the "Cross Ferry" moved traffic across the river. This was also the first point that an invasion force would be able to easily disembark along the Thames, as before this point the mudflats along the sides of the estuary would have made landings difficult. Temporary defences had been constructed at Tilbury as early as the 14th and 15th centuries, although little is known about their design. Under the King's new programme of work, the Thames was protected with a mutually reinforcing network of blockhouses at Gravesend, Milton, and Higham on the south side of the river, and West and East Tilbury on the opposite bank. West Tilbury Blockhouse, part of the inner line, was initially called the "Thermitage Bulwark", because it was on the site of a hermitage dissolved by the King in 1536. It was designed by James Nedeham and Christopher Morice, supported by three overseers; prior to the work, the estimated cost had been given as £211, allowing for stone, timber, 150,000 bricks and 200 tonnes of chalk.
The D-shaped blockhouse was curved at the front, with two storeys of gun-ports, and probably had additional gun platforms stretching along the river on either side of it; ancillary buildings were placed at the rear and the whole site was protected by a rampart and a ditch, with extensive marshlands and creeks giving additional protection to the east. It was initially commanded by Captain Francis Grant and his deputy, and garrisoned with a porter, two soldiers and four gunners, equipped with up to five artillery pieces including a demi-cannon and sakers. The invasion threat passed and in 1553 all of the blockhouses were ordered to return their guns; Milton and Higham were demolished. In the summer of 1588, however, there was a fresh threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada. An army was mobilised to protect the mouth of the estuary and emergency improvements to the fortifications at Tilbury Blockhouse were made by Rober Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Queen Elizabeth I visited the fort by barge on 8 August 1588 and rode in procession to the nearby army camp, where she gave a speech to the assembled forces. Fears of invasion continued even after the defeat of the Armada, and over the course of the next year the Italian engineer, Federigo Giambelli, reinforced the blockhouse with probably two concentric earthwork ramparts, with ditches and a palisade. A boom was stretched across the river to Gravesend at a cost of £305.
In the early 1600s, England was at peace with France and Spain and as a result the coastal defences received little attention; surveys reported multiple problems with Tilbury Fort including flooding caused by the estuary tides, and ferry passengers and animals making their way uninvited into the fort. In 1642 civil war broke out between the supporters of King Charles I and those of Parliament. Tilbury was controlled by Parliament, who placed the Tilbury and Gravesend forts under the command of a military governor, using them to control traffic entering London and to search for spies; it saw no military action during the war. Tilbury remained in use during the interregnum, having a garrison of three officers and sixty-six men in 1651. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he began a wide-ranging programme of work on the coastal defences. The Dutch fleet then attacked up the Thames in June 1667, but were deterred from going further for fear of the Tilbury and Gravesend fortifications. In reality, the forts were poorly prepared to resist a Dutch attack; at Tilbury there were only two guns ready for action. The Dutch struck the English fleet at Medway instead, giving enough time for the government to improve the defences along the Thames and mount 80 guns on the forts. In the wake of the conflict, the King instructed his Chief Engineer, a Dutchman called Sir Bernard de Gomme, to develop Tilbury Fort's defences further.
De Gomme prepared several plans for the King in 1665; a further iteration of the designs was submitted in 1670 and given royal approval. Work began the same year but it took until 1685 to complete the project. The work was carried out by skilled contractors, who were supplemented by large teams of pressed men brought in from across the region; during 1671, up to 256 workers were employed on the site. Around 3,000 timber piles had to be brought from Norway for the project in 1671 to support the foundations in the marshy ground. The resources needed for the King's multiple defence projects became stretched, and one of the planned bastions at Tilbury, originally planned to face the river, was cancelled in 1681, in part to save money. The total cost of the project is unknown, but was significantly more than the original estimate of £47,000. The result was a large, five-sided, star-shaped fort with four angular bastions, revetted in brick, with an outer curtain of defences, including two moats and a redoubt; two new gatehouses defended the entrance from the north. Two gun lines of gun platforms, facing the river, stretched alongside either the side of the fort. The Henrician blockhouse was incorporated into the defences, but the Elizabethan earthworks were destroyed. The interior of the fort was raised up above the level of the marshes to prevent flooding, and barracks and other buildings were constructed inside. The writer John Evelyn praised the new fort as "a Royal work indeede". Further work after 1694 replaced the wooden gun platforms alongside the river with more durable stone equivalents.
By the start of the 18th century, Tilbury Fort was one of the most powerful in Britain. The number of artillery guns varied; in 1715 there were 17 demi-cannon and 26 culverins mounted on the west gun platform, and 31 demi-cannons and one culverin on the east; the following year there were reported to be 161 guns in total at the fort, although 92 of these were in poor repair and inoperable. In addition to its role in protecting the Thames, the fort had various military uses during the 18th century. From 1716 onwards, the Board of Ordnance began to use it as a gunpowder depot; there were safety restrictions on moving gunpowder in and out of the London docks, so Tilbury was used instead. Two large magazines were built, able to hold 3,600 barrels of powder each, and the old blockhouse and other buildings were converted to act as further magazines. Eventually the fort could hold more than 19,000 barrels of gunpowder. It was also used as a transit depot for soldiers and, after the Jacobite rising of 1745, as a prison to hold 268 Highlander prisoners of war. The Jacobite prisoners were kept in the gunpowder magazines and 45 died from typhus before they were sent on to London for trial. The living conditions at the fort were poor. It was surrounded by marshes, with a poor road network, and the garrison had to survive on collected rainwater. A trader called a sutler built a house inside the southern entrance, growing vegetables within the south-west bastion and enjoying an effective monopoly on selling food 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 there. A cricket match in 1776 between men from the Kentish and Essex sides of the Thames reportedly ended in bloodshed when guns were seized from the guardroom; newspapers recounted how an Essex man and a sergeant were shot dead, and a soldier was bayonetted, before both sides fled the scene. It is uncertain how accurate the newspaper account was, although the historians Andrew Saunders and Charles Kightly give it some credence. During the American Revolutionary War there were fears of a French attack on London. In 1780, the Army carried out a practice attack on the fort with 5,000 soldiers, but there were less than 60 guns left at the fort and many of these were in poor condition. Thomas Hyde Page inspected Tilbury in 1788 and reported that the defences facing the Thames were seriously inadequate. As a consequence, a new battery was built in the south-east corner of the defences, armed with 32-pounders pointing down-river, and a new battery, New Tavern Fort, was built along the river to the east. Fears continued during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and smaller batteries were constructed further up the river in 1794. Tilbury continued to be an essential part of the capital's defences because of its control of the crossing point on the Thames, and the guns were upgraded with new traversing platforms; the Gravesend Volunteer Artillery was formed to man the forts on both sides of the river. During the invasion scare of 1803, the Royal Trinity House Volunteer Artillery manned ten armed hulks placed across the river as a barrier at Tilbury.
The size of the garrison varied during the first half of the century, but in 1830 the fort had space for 15 officers and 150 enlisted men. Despite the construction of a new range of facilities in 1809, the living conditions of the soldiers remained poor, with four men sharing each of the two-bed rooms in the barracks, and no running water on the site. During the 19th century, a pump was installed to bring water up from a well 178 metres (584 ft) below the surface. Nationwide investigations into the standard of Army barracks during 1857 led to investment in better facilities at Tilbury; piped water was run into the site in 1877, and improved amenities and sanitation were installed after 1880. By the 1850s, the advent of steam ships meant that enemy vessels could sail up the Thames far more quickly than before, reducing the time available for forts to intercept them. Rifled guns and turret-mounted weapons and new armour-plating meant that enemy warships could fire on forts such as Tilbury from downstream more easily while being protected from their guns. Fears of a potential invasion by Napoleon III of France led to the establishment Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom in 1859. The Commission reported the following year and recommended that new, more powerful forts be built further downstream, with defences such as Tilbury Fort forming a second-line of defence.
Work began on strengthening Tilbury in 1868, under the direction of the then Captain Charles Gordon, focusing on adding heavier gun positions able to fire upstream to support the new forts. The west, north-east and east bastions and the south-east curtain wall were altered to house thirteen rifled muzzle-loading guns, protected by brick walls, earthworks and iron shields. Initially 7-ton, 7-inch (7,112 kg, 17 cm) guns were deployed but these were upgraded to 9-inch weapons by 1888, supported by a heavier 25-ton, 11-inch gun. The old Tudor block-house was destroyed to make way for the new guns. Naval and defensive technology continued to improve over the next few decades, rendering Tilbury Fort's bastion design out-moded. The government considered the defences further down the Thames to be sufficient and Tilbury was not, therefore, improved; it was largely redundant as a defensive fortification by the end of the century, although still in use as a strategic depot. From 1889 onwards it formed a mobilisation centre to support a mobile strike force in the event of an invasion, part of the wider London Defence Scheme, and large storage buildings were built across the site to store materiel.
Fresh concerns grew that the Thames might be vulnerable to attack from torpedo boats and armoured cruisers, and in 1903 four quick-firing 12-pounder, 12 cwt (5.4 kg, 50.8 kg) guns were positioned on Tilbury's south-east curtain wall, supplemented in 1904 by two 6-inch breech loading guns. In 1905, however, the government decided that the Royal Navy and the forts downstream gave sufficient protection for the capital and removed the artillery, leaving only machine-guns in place. Tilbury continued to function as a mobilisation store and, after the outbreak of the First World War, it was used to house up to 300 transit soldiers and to supply the new army camps established at Purfleet and Belhus Mansion. It was initially manned by the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers until 1916, and by various reserve units for the rest of the war. The fort itself was used to store munitions while a depot for remounts was built just to the west; a pontoon bridge was built across the Thames for troop movements, guarded by the fort's guns. Until 1917, also used to house the headquarters of several infantry battalions. Electric lighting was installed, and a narrow-gauge railway and a steam crane on the quay were added to help to move material in and out of the fort. After the Zeppelin raids of June 1915, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were mounted at the fort and they played a role in the shooting down of the German Navy Zeppelin, L15, although it is disputed as to which site in the area fired the shell that brought down the airship.
During the inter-war years, the government concluded that the fort was no longer militarily useful and there were unsuccessful attempts to sell it off for development. During the Second World War, the fort initially housed an improvised anti-aircraft operations room, controlling the defences of the Thames and Medway (North) Gun Zone between 1939 and 1940. Trenches were dug across the surrounding area to prevent an airborne attack. The enlisted barracks and the facilities block, as well as probably the sutler's house, were bombed and damaged, being demolished after the war. The fort was transferred out of military use relatively early in the post-war period, and in 1950 the Ministry of Works took over the site. Restoration work took place in the 1970, including the construction of replica wooden bridges. It was opened to the public in 1982. Tilbury Fort remains largely unaltered from its reconstruction in the late 17th century under the direction of Sir Bernard de Gomme, with some 19th century additions. It was designed in a predominantly Dutch style, with a ring of outer and inner defences intended to allow the fort to attack hostile warships, while being protected from attack from the land. The heritage agency Historic England describes it as "England's most spectacular" example of a late 17th century fort, and the historian Paul Pattison considers the defences the "best surviving example of their kind in Britain".
A good collection of British and German weapons and general militaria is on display within the Officers Quarters on the first floor. There is a narrow staircase up to the first floor. The 'Defending the River Exhibition' is located in the East Gunpowder Magazine. This looks at the history of Thames defences from pre-Tudor times to WW2. Wheelchair Access is via level cobbled surface, tarmac and gravel paths, and smooth grass. Level access to magazines, fort square and some underground workings. Grounds have steep slopes or steps to ramparts and some gun emplacements. Exhibition has level access. Shop accessed via three steps. Ramp to currently unused West Gunpowder magazine. Assistance dogs are welcome. No specific disabled parking spaces or marked bays, but spaces usually available close to the entrance. Staircases to the Chapel & Gatehouse are steep and may not be suitable for all ambulant disabled visitors. There are benches around edge of the parade ground and one on an elevated position overlooking river near front of fort. Picnic tables are also on the edge of parade ground including one specially designed wheelchair access table. For the visually impaired there are Muskets in the shop mounted in a gun rack, cannons and guns in various locations both in the exhibition and around the site, some shells and cannon balls are used to give visitors a tactile experience. There is a dog bowl and dog toileting available. There are toilets for the disabled. There are no braille guides. The audio tour includes Elizabeth I’s Armada speech, and a description of life at Tilbury by ‘Nathan Makepiece’, the fort’s Master Gunner. The interactive oral history programme provides a fascinating insight into Tilbury, and also includes 360 degree views of inaccessible areas.
Location : No 2 Office Block, The Fort, Tilbury, Essex, RM18 7NR
Transport : Tilbury Town (C2C) then bus (1.5 miles). Bus Routes : Ensign bus 99 connects the station to the fort. Ferry: Gravesend to Tilbury then 5 minutes.
Opening Times Central Museum: Wednesday to Sunday + Bank Holidays 10:00 to 18:00
Tickets : Adults £5.10; Concessions £4.60; Children (5 - 18) £3.00
Tel: 01375 858489