Thurrock historical places

Tilbury Fort's early machine guns

Tilbury Fort is situated on the extensive marshes on the north Thames banks in the parishes of West Tilbury and Chadwell St Mary, as the fort straddles the parish boundary. The Fort had originally been constructed as a Blockhouse, being part of Henry VIII's national defensive system in 1539 and had been re-modelled by Charles II in 1680, after the Dutch incursion into the Thames in 1667. This later work was in the shape of a 5 - pointed star, with brick bastion works with double moats providing inland defence in depth, a monumental gate leading to the river, while a land gate on the north side of the fort was accessed by a series of wooden bridges with drawbridge sections to hold up enemy attack if the bridge was assaulted.

Outside were extensive riverbank gun batteries, to destroy enemy ships as they sailed the gauntlet between Tilbury and Gravesend cannon fire, on the journey to London some 21 miles as the crow flies, longer by the meandering river. Inside the fort were a range of buildings including Soldiers' Barracks, Officers' Quarters, gunpowder magazines, Sutler's house, stores and a large stone-laid parade square.

The fort was again upgraded in the 1870's with new rifled muzzle loading guns in three new raised batteries in the south-east, south-west and north-east bastions in stone and concrete gun emplacements and associated brick covered with earth magazines at ground floor level. The building work was supervised by Lt. Col. Gordon the Royal Engineer based in New Tavern Fort, Gravesend.

In this photograph we see an early 'machine gun,' outside the watergate with soldiers from the Fort and the Fort dog (held by soldier, middle row, extreme right). This photograph was taken between 1890 and 1907, as the soldiers wear the uniform of the Royal Garrison Artillery pre-khaki issue of 1907.

The Nordenfelt machine gun (centre) was patented in 1878 by a Swede, who named the gun after his financial backer, Nordenfelt, a banker. The gun consisted of three barrels or more, side by side in a central frame. At the rear of each barrel was its breech, with a bolt style mechanism. These three bolts were connected by a single cocking handing. When the handle was drawn back, the three bolts were drawn back, and the ammunition fell, by gravity, into position from a hopper above (not shown in photo). When the bolts were released, they rammed the ammunition into the chamber, and immediately fired them in unison. When the bolt was again drawn back the empty cases ejected and the process was repeated. The gun was often mounted on a field gun carriage for mobility.

The Royal Navy adopted the Nordenfelt, after trails, in 1881. The Army followed in 1888, by which time however, the true 'machine gun,' as we know it today, based on the blow-back principle had been developed, and was to cause devastation in Europe on an unprecedented scale.