Thurrock is fortunate in having within its boundaries a collection of military works spanning a period from the 17th century to the early 1950s, including Coalhouse Fort, Tilbury Fort, Royal Gunpowder Magazines Purfleet, East Tilbury Blockhouse, Battery and Anti-aircraft battery. Even prior to the 17th century there are records of fortification dating back to 1402 when the village of East Tilbury was itself fortified with a rampart and towers for defence against French pirates and it is not surprising that most of our defences are related to the Thames as a major highway in and out of our country.
The first fortifications of which we have details are the Blockhouses built in 1539 by Henry VIII on the North Thames shore at Coalhouse Point and at West Tilbury covering the Gravesend Ferry route. These Blockhouses were in the form of brick and stone towers armed with a variety of cannon and with a garrison of about a dozen men. On the Kent side of the river were blockhouses to complete a system, designed to stop ships of the European Powers led by Spain from reaching the capital London. Although re-used during the Armada scare in 1588 the defences fell into decay any by the 18th century the Coalhouse Point blockhouse mainly had been swept away by the Thames coastal erosion.
Following upon the support provided by the French Navy in the country's Revolutionary War the British Government decided that some provision should be made for forward batteries to defend the river route to the Capital. One of these batteries, built at East Tilbury, was situated under what is now the open battery of the present Coalhouse Fort. It was an earthen battery armed with four, 32pdr. smooth bore cannon and surrounded with a pentagonal ditch. This fortification known as Hope Point Battery was completed by 1799. Although rearmed and the rampart raised in subsequent years, the battery was abandoned following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars by the defeat of the French at Waterloo.
French ambitions to avenge the defeat at Waterloo persuaded the British Government to embark on a programme to strengthen the Dockyards and Harbours of the United Kingdom and as part of this plan a new work at East Tilbury incorporating the existing fortification was constructed and known as East Tilbury Battery. It was completed in 1855 and mounted an armament of 17 x 32 pdr. smooth bore guns.
Increasing concern with regard to the intentions of Napoleon III resulted in 1859 in the setting up of a Royal Commission, which concluded that the existing defences of the UK were inadequate. As a result the recently completed East Tilbury Battery was dismantled and building started on the Coalhouse Fort that exists today. As Commander Royal Engineers, Gravesend, Lt. Col. Gordon (of Khartoum) supervised the building of the fort, but his part in the project has been somewhat exaggerated. He came on the scene after construction had commenced and left before work was completed. Capt. Siborne RE designed coalhouse as with the other Thames forts of this period. Due to the great advances made in the performance of artillery many alterations were made in the forts design during its construction, but despite this, when it was completed in 1874, it was virtually obsolete.
By the 1890's the powerful East Tilbury Battery of breach loading guns had been built just north of the fort, which superseded the greater part of the armament of muzzle loading guns at Coalhouse. By 1907 the entire casemated battery had been dismounted. In 1914 the main defence of the Thames was concentrated down river from Coalhouse, 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 at 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" guns from H.M.S. Hood and was provided with Anti-Aircraft armament. However, its main purpose 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 Co. 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. In 1962 Coalhouse Fort was acquired from the Ministry of Defence by Thurrock Urban District Council and became the centrepiece of a recreational park area.
The Coalhouse Fort Project was constituted as a Registered Charity in 1985 with a lease of the fort from Thurrock Council. The following year the Project was highly commended in the British Archaeological Awards in the British Heritage Section sponsored by English Heritage. Since then the voluntary members of the Project have ensured year on year access to the fort through planned open days and guided tours.
There has been continued important research on the military and social history of the various garrisons based on the surviving archives and records including Royal Engineer plans, Royal Artillery documents, in-house magazines of WWI and private photographs of WW2. Based in Thurrock Museum this important collection will be used to build specifications for re-construction and conservation, as well as the important aspect of interpretation showing the forts role and developments, education activities and the increasing popular re-enactment events accuracy, the archives are overseen by Tom Wilson, the forts archivist.
The Project is now engaged with a substantial Heritage Lottery Bid and with the recent exposure on the BBC2 Restoration series, D-Day to Berlin documentary and the unexpected use of the fort for filming 'Batman begins' by Warner Brothers, further increased the interest to the fort continues.
If you are interested in joining the volunteers of the Coalhouse Fort Project, either visit the fort on an open day or phone 01375 854203 or look at the Coalhouse Fort website.
- 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
- 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