By Oliver Clark
When I told a friend I was planning a visit to Tilbury Fort over the Christmas holidays the reaction was a bemused ‘where’s Tilbury?!’
Unfortunately if people have heard of the town of Tilbury on the Essex coast at all, it’s probably for the wrong reasons.
Since the loss of much of its shipping business in the 1980s, Tilbury has suffered from high unemployment, local shops have shut down, crime is high and there is a sense of urban decay that was well illustrated in its being chosen as a location for Andrea Arnold’s gritty urban film Fish Tank.
But in its well-preserved earthwork and brick bastion fort, complete with intact gun emplacements and waterways, Tilbury has something that should be as popular and visited as the Tower of London or Dover Castle. Although Tilbury was never attacked, it played an important role down the centuries in defending London against invasion.
Tilbury Fort’s story begins during the reign of Henry VIII, when his break with Rome led to the first serious threat of a foreign invasion since Perkin Warbeck.
With some 80% of England’s commerce flowing up and down the Thames it was essential this trade route was protected and Tilbury’s strategic location at the narrowest point of the river made it the obvious choice to guard the great city 50 miles up river.
Built in 1539, the ‘Hermitage Bulwark’ a D-shaped blockhouse armed with cannon, was the first defensive structure built at Tilbury, where it would provide supporting crossfire to the Gravesend blockhouse on the opposite side of the river in Kent.
These along with similar early forts at Milton and Higham in Kent, Tilbury provided a early attempt to secure the Thames Estuary against marauding warships disrupting England’s vital sea lanes.
When Henry took the war to France with the siege of Boulogne in 1544, the need for defences such as Tilbury, receded and the blockhouse fell in disrepair and has since disappeared.
It was to be during the reign of his daughter Queen Elizabeth I that Tilbury would once again become important and its name would enter the history books.
With Catholic Europe ranged against her and the Spanish Armada sailing along the English channel in the hope of landing an invasion force, Elizabeth hastily rearmed the country’s forts, adding a star shaped earthwork at Tilbury, and famously encouraged her make shift army assembled at Tilbury to ward off any invaders with the now famous Speech to the Troops at Tilbury in 1588:
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
With the failure of the Spanish attempt to invade in 1588, Tilbury and other defences were allowed to fall into ruin once again, an error for which the English navy would pay a heavy price.
Following the Restoration, Dutch engineer and Chief Military Engineer to Charles II, Bernard de Gomme, began work on designs for a new modern fort at Tilbury.
The crown’s interest in these plans proved lukewarm until the devastating Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667 which led to the capture of the English flagship Charles Royal and starkly revealed the vulnerability of the Thames Estuary.
In 1670 de Gomme presented plans for a star shaped fort with five bastions with bristling with cannon and infantry trenches. This would that would be protected from the landward side by a ravelin and surrounding moat. Should an attacker attempt to storm the fort, they would be faced with a virtual island and approaches swept by artillery and musket fire.
The fort took 13 years to complete and included an impressive Watergate whose statue of the king in military pose designed to impress and intimidate passers by in equal measure.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe noted the fort’s impressive defences and estimated it had 100 guns and the fort would remain garrisoned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
As military technology changed so did the shape of Tilbury Fort. The appearance of new ironclad warships such as the French-built La Gloire launched in 1859 represented a new threat to British shipping and Tilbury was armed with the latest artillery which required the building of subterranean tunnels to store ammunition which can still be visited today.
By World War I, Tilbury was of minimal military importance, although it’s anti aircraft defences claimed to have helped shoot down the German airship Reichmarine L15 in 1916.
With its guns still pointing out towards the river whose commerce it sought to protect but which has since become a trickle of container ships, small boats and the occasional ferry, Tilbury stands as a reminder of Britain’s naval and imperial past and for that reason alone deserves a visit. Today English Heritage manages the fort.
If the flow of commerce could be replaced with one of eager tourists it could only benefit Tilbury’s economy and help it get back on its feet.