Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury
Before aeroplanes, drones and satellites, the main threats to our country came from the sea and our major rivers. To defend the country and its people, forts were built. Coalhouse Fort guarded the Thames and the people of Thurrock.
The site of Coalhouse Fort is on a bend of the River Thames, positioned to give a maximum view both up and down the river.
Its history dates back to 1402 when the village of East Tilbury was fortified with a rampart and towers for defence against French pirates. The site has been regularly adapted and buildings changed or replaced. It was most recently used for defence during World War Two.
In 1539, small defensive structures called Blockhouses were built on the orders of Henry VIII. Based on the north shore of the Thames at Coalhouse Point and West Tilbury, they protected the old Gravesend ferry route. These Blockhouses were built either of wood or brick and stone, armed with an assortment of cannons, and had a garrison of twelve soldiers.
Kent had similar Blockhouses, so both sides of the Thames were covered. They were to be the first line of defence against feared attacks from Spain or Italy. From the late 16th century the Blockhouse fell into disrepair and by the 18th century most of the Coalhouse Point Blockhouses had been swept away by coastal erosion.
In the 1790s, the area was on high alert because of the fear of invasion from France. The British government decided to build an earthen battery armed with 32-pounder smooth bore cannon. It was further protected by a pentagonal ditch.
In 1810, the ramparts were raised to provide greater command of the area and there were small magazines (storage areas) for ammunition. After the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Coalhouse Fort was abandoned and fell again into disrepair.
In 1844, another threat of a French invasion encouraged the building of a set of new defences on the Thames. The Duke of York made recommendations for the improvement in the country’s coastal defences. This was supported by Lord Palmerston and in 1847, construction of this latest fort finally began.
Due to bad workmanship, cracked foundations and subsidence it wasn’t completed until 1855. It was mounted with an armament of 17 x 32-powder smooth bore guns facing the river, while the rear of the fort was designed to repel landing parties with musketry. The whole area was surrounded by a broad water-filled ditch.
In 1861, Coalhouse Fort was demolished and a third fort was built on the site. At the same time, similar forts were built at Shornemead and Cliffe Creek on the Kent side, providing an effective triangle of defence in the lower Thames. In the event of invasion, an extensive minefield and boom defence could be laid between Coalhouse and its partnering forts on the opposite shore.
The work on the Fort that exists today started in July 1861.
As Commander of the Royal Engineers (RE), Gravesend, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon (of Khartoum) supervised the building of the fort but his part in the project has been somewhat exaggerated. He arrived after construction had started and left before it was completed.
Captain Siborne RE designed Coalhouse and many other forts built around that time. As with the previous forts, there were problems of subsidence and cracked foundations and it was finally completed in 1874.
This building was designed to be able to protect from assaults by river or land. It has an inner ditch surrounded by a water-filled outer ditch. The inner ditch is also defended by musketry caponiers (small, heavily re-enforced bays jutting out from the side of the building). The barrack windows had bulletproof steel shutters with tiny windows or ‘loopholes’ for small arm fire.
In 1914, the main defence of the Thames was concentrated down river from Coalhouse Fort, but the fort had been modernised by the mounting of quick-firing guns on the roof, together with searchlights and up-to-date fire control equipment. The main function of the fort during this period was as an Examination Battery controlling shipping on the river. It would appear also that it acted as a forwarding area for troops proceeding to the Western Front and other theatres overseas.
The fort was on a care and maintenance basis between the two world wars, but in the 1940s it was rearmed with 5.5 inch guns from HMS Hood and was provided with anti-aircraft armament. Its main purpose, however, was to operate a 'degaussing' checking system to combat the use of magnetic mines laid in the Thames by the Germans. Following the end of hostilities, Coalhouse Fort was acquired by the Admiralty for training Sea Cadets and renamed HMS St Clement III.
In 1949, the Admiralty gave up the fort and let it to the Bata Shoe Company for storage. About this time it was also used as emergency housing for demobbed ex-service men and their families. The Parade Ground was used as a coal store during a miners' strike in 1959.
Coalhouse Fort was acquired from the Ministry of Defence in 1962 by Thurrock Urban District Council and became the centrepiece of a recreational park area.
In 1985, a voluntary group known as the Coalhouse Fort Project was established as a Registered Charity. Leasing the fort from the council, this group aimed to maintain the building and open it to the public as a heritage attraction.
The following year the Project was highly commended in the British Heritage Section of the British Archaeological Awards, sponsored by English Heritage. This group was in operation until 2019
- Later Nineteenth Century Defences of the Thames - Journal of Army Historical Research 1962
- East Tilbury Fortifications and Coalhouse Fort - J. G. Sparks A.L.A. A.R.HIST.S
- Coalhouse Fort and Artillery Defences at East Tilbury - Victor Smith
- A History of Coalhouse Fort: On Guard for 555 Years - Carole McEntee-Taylor, researched by Martin Clift
- Various issues of "Panorama the Journal of Thurrock Local History Society"
- Documents at the Public Record Office, Kew
- Various W.O. Nos. Essex Record Office
- R.E. Corps Library Chatham