Historical places in Thurrock

Tilbury Fort during World War One

Tilbury Fort is the best example of a star shaped bastion fort of the late 17th century, it has earlier phases of fortification dating back to 1539 when Henry VIII built a Block house here, the 17th century fort was modified in Victorian times to mount Rifled Muzzle Loading Ordnance and again modified during the 1903 upgrading of forts and during the 2nd World War.

Prior to the Great War Tilbury Fort was a "Mobilisation Store". The accommodation was controlled by the Army Ordnance Department, specifically for storing "mobilisation" equipment for the 4th and 5th Divisional Horse Artillery, and under the administration of an Ordnance Officer Mobilisation.

When hostilities broke out in 1914, its job was realised as the immediate issue of various equipment to the units soon emptied the sheds within the parade ground. Infantry troops drafted to the fort were then being "Barracked" in these sheds and the magazines. By 1915 the place was a mass of activity, including the Belgium Re-mount Depot (preparing horses for army use) had been established besides the "World's End" Public House. Anti-aircraft gun defences were set up, protecting the fort and nearby Tilbury Docks alongside after a successful penetrative Zeppelin bombing raid, recorded by the Commanding Officer on the night of 4th / 5th June, which saw bombs dropped on Chatham, Gravesend and Tilbury!

To accommodate the great numbers of draft finding units, hutted camps needed to be set up throughout the country. Locally at Purfleet, next to the Government powder magazines, was one of the first brought into use, while at Belhus Mansion, with its large area of parkland, a large tent camp was set up and in occupation by April 1915. The equipment for this was supplied by the Chatham Ordnance, using 20, three ton motor lorries, under command of an Army Service Corps Officer from Colchester for a week. In total these two camps accommodated some 10,000 men.

The continuing need to supply stores to these huge camps then fell on the Tilbury Fort Ordnance store, which was re-designated an Ordnance Depot on October 1st 1915. The personnel establishment included one officer, who stayed for the duration of the war, Captain A. A. J. Hall, Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), and attached to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, one Staff-Sergeant, one Lance-Corporal, one civilian subordinate, and some 50 other ranks which increased to a maximum 75 at the height of its work, these were all barracked within the fort.

The Infantry Headquarters of several battalions were already set up in the fort so gradually they had to be moved out as more space was needed in the sheds for the storage of essential stores. These included explosives, gun and small-arm ammunition, infantry equipment, tentage and camp stores, wagons, gun carriages, etc. It was not until the summer of 1917 that the fort was finally totally under the control of the Ordnance Department again. A small Infantry Guard remained, with its own accommodation.

The accommodation for stores at Tilbury had its own problems. In 1915 the condition of the Victorian magazines, set on ground floor level but under the earthen and brick gun batteries, is described as "more or less flooded". Repair work on these was completed by early 1916 and they were used to capacity as were overflow stores at Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury, only a few miles away and its counterpart across the River Thames Cliffe Fort in Kent. To make the Tilbury Fort Depot as effective as possible many improvements were introduced, including "electric light" to the offices and storehouses. Other improvements included a steam crane on the Fort pier and a motor fire engine.

There was also a new roadway and entrance made into the fort, which still exists, cut through the brick curtain wall to the east of the 17th century monumental Water Gate, presumably to allow easier access for mechanical transport as one improvement was the issue of a single 3 ton lorry to the depot. There are also signs still surviving of the small gauge railway track leading from the jetty through to the free standing 18th century and Victorian magazine. Apparently before this, dispatches of urgent stores (sometimes at night time) relied on the use of a dozen or more hand barrows borrowed from the Tilbury Riverside Station Master.

The lorry, it was recorded, justified its existence from April 1916 to March 1919 by clocking up some 30,000 miles. Often for large issues and recipes, eight or nine lorries would be employed. This coupled to easy river and railheads, meant Tilbury Fort Depot was favourably situated and made several direct issues to Russia and France.

The fort had been issued with anti-aircraft protection from 1915, with complimentary searchlights as part of the London outer defences. Its first action came during a Zeppelin raid on the night of 2nd/3rd September 1916. Later on in the war, heavier purpose built Anti-aircraft guns were sited here and popularly known as "Screaming Lizzie". On occasion her nights work ran into hundreds of spent rounds, firing at a rate of twenty rounds a minute.

In February 1918, Northfleet Chalk Tunnels were (after notice had been brought to the authorities by the Ordnance Officer in February 1916!) taken over as a store for explosives, the site being immune from any enemy aerial bombing. The Northfleet Magazine Detachments had an authorised establishment of thirty other ranks and a staff of civilian watchman.

In June 1919, Captain Hall wrote a short history of the role of the fort while under the control of the Ordnance Department, this was published by Gale and Polden, and includes a record of service personnel at the fort from 1914 to 1919. He concludes the history with the thoughts of the "grim realities which associate themselves with the work of the Ordnance men who are charged with the care of warlike stores in the danger area". The 1918 King George V conferred the title "Royal" to the badge of the Army Ordnance Corps.

Today Tilbury Fort is under the control of English Heritage and is regarded as one of the finest examples of the 17th century fortifications in the country. Details of opening times can be obtained by phoning the Custodian on 01375 858489.

Bibliography

  • Tilbury Fort History Guide, English Heritage
  • Recent Excavations at Tilbury Fort, Panorama
  • Fortifications of Tilbury Fort, A. Saunders
  • Proc of the Antiquaries Journal
  • History of Tilbury Fort in the Great war. Capt. Hall
  • Tilbury Fort Guide, English Heritage by Andrew Saunders, 1987