Tilbury Fort is on the north, Essex, bank of the River Thames and was built to defend London from attack from the sea, particularly during the Spanish Armada and the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The defences were fully rebuilt as a bastion fort in the late seventeenth century and it is the finest surviving example of the military architecture of that era in England. The site is now cared for by English Heritage and open to the public.
It is known that temporary defences were constructed at Tilbury in the 14th and 15th centuries, in order to defend the shipping route along the River Thames to London and the strategic ferry crossing to Gravesend on the opposite bank. These early defence works are known only from documentary sources and their exact form is unknown. The first permanent fort at Tilbury, the West Tilbury Blockhouse, was a D-shaped blockhouse built in 1539 as part of King Henry VIII's fortification programme against the threat of invasion from France; it was initially called the 'Thermitage Bulwark', because it was on the site of a hermitage dissolved in 1536. The Tilbury blockhouse was designed to cross-fire with a the blockhouses at Higham and Milton, positioned on the other side of the river.
During the Spanish Armada campaign in the summer of 1588, the blockhouse was reinforced with an enceinte consisting of two concentric earthwork ramparts with ditches and a palisade; there was also a boom of ships' masts, chains and cables stretched across the Thames to Gravesend, anchored to lighters. The Italian engineer, Federigo Giambelli (or Genibelli), who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, was present at Tilbury and probably devised these works. Queen Elizabeth visited the fort by barge on 8 August 1588 and rode in procession to the nearby temporary camp at West Tilbury, where she made her famous speech to her army, who were awaiting the Spanish invasion. There has been doubt over whether the outer ditch shown on a contemporary plan was ever constructed, given the brief time available between the start of work in July 1588 and the dispersal of the Armada when funding was withdrawn; however, an archaeological excavation in 1990 found a 2.5-metre (8 ft 2 in) wide ditch inside the area of the present fort and of a similar alignment to that shown on the plan.
The fort was held for Parliament during the English Civil War and despite suffering from neglect was never attacked by the Royalists. In 1651, Tilbury Fort's garrison was reported to Parliament as a governor, a lieutenant, an ensign, four corporals, one drummer, a master gunner, 16 matrosses (gunner's mates) and 44 soldiers.
De Gomme's fort
After the English Civil war Charles II was exiled in Holland, where he was influenced by European advances in military architecture. Following the disastrous 1667 Dutch attack on the English fleet moored on the nearby Medway, Charles II set in motion the re-fortification of the site by employing Dutchman Sir Bernard de Gomme, who had been engineer in the Royalist army during the civil war and who followed Charles into exile.
Work started on the current fort in 1670 but was conducted slowly, often with the use of pressed labour from nearby towns, and was still continuing in the 1680s. De Gomme's plan was for a pentagon with projecting bastions facing west, north west, north east and east and a planned river bastion facing directly south. Henry VIII's blockhouse was retained. Major features such as the imposing Water Gate were not complete until about 1682. The river bastion never materialised. The resulting structure was "a nationally important example of angular bastioned defences and is the best preserved example" of de Gomme's work.
Besides the brick fort, there was an earth and brick gunline along the river bank. In 1715 there were 31 demi-cannon and one culverin in the East Gun Line and 17 demi cannon and 26 culverins in the West Gun Line. Two huge powder magazines housing 3,600 barrels each were built in the centre of the fort in 1716, but the same year many of the 161 guns surveyed were declared unserviceable and the effective strength was found to be just 60 pieces. In 1724 Daniel Defoe estimated there were 100 guns ranging from 24-pounder to 46-pounder: "A battery so terrible as well imports the consequence of the place".
There is a memorial to the Highland prisoners captured after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 who were held at Tilbury. A cricket match in 1776 between men from the Kent and Essex sides of the Thames allegedly ended in bloodshed when guns were seized from the guardroom; it was reported that an Essex man was shot dead, an elderly invalid was bayonetted and a sergeant was shot trying to quell the riot, but this account is disputed. The Napoleonic invasion scare of 1803 saw the Royal Trinity House Volunteer Artillery manning 10 armed hulks across the Thames at Tilbury.
As a result of the 17th century rebuilding, part of the fort was in the parish of West Tilbury and part in the parish of Chadwell St Mary. The officers' quarters were in West Tilbury and the other ranks' quarters were in Chadwell. Consequently, officers that died were buried in West Tilbury and other ranks in Chadwell.
19th century improvements
In 1859, fears of an attempted invasion by Napoleon III of France led a the establishment Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom by the Prime Minister , Lord Palmerston. The Commission, drawing on experience gained from the recent Crimean War, recommended that new, more powerful forts be built further downstream and that Tilbury Fort be relegated to a secondary role. Even so, considerable alterations were proposed, although a plan for armoured shields for the new guns was withdrawn from Parliament in 1866. However, by the following year, work on the new defences was well underway. Captain Charles Gordon (later known as "Chinese Gordon" or "Gordon of Khartoum"), who had been appointed commander of the Royal Engineers at Sheerness in 1866 contributed to the execution of the plans. The 17th century walls were reinforced and earth was embanked on the outside to protect the brickwork from the effect of modern high velocity guns. The gun line on the river bank was abandoned and new emplacements were built for large modern guns on the curtain wall and bastions facing south east, in order to engage enemy ships well downstream. The work necessitated the removal of the Henry VIII blockhouse, which was demolished around 1867. By 1880, the fort had been armed with seven 9-inch and one 11-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns, occupying eleven of the thirteen emplacements.
Towards the end of the century, it became clear that these guns were obsolete and by 1905, the fort had been rearmed with two 6-inch breech loading guns and four 12-pounder quick firing guns mounted on concrete emplacements built over the earlier gun positions. These weapons remained in place during both World Wars.
20th century use and preservation
The Victorian modernisation was, in due course, partly built over again prior to the First World War and it is these later concrete emplacements and expense magazines which visitors see today on the south-east curtain.
The fort's sole military success was during the First World War, when anti-aircraft guns on the parade ground were claimed to have shot down a German Navy Zeppelin airship, L15, although other sources suggest that the critical shell was fired from nearby Purfleet. Bombing damage in the Second World War destroyed the 18th century soldiers' barrack block, but the officers' terrace still survives. Demobilised in 1950 and placed in the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works and opened to the public, the site is now cared for by English Heritage.
The fort has several interesting features. The Water Gate, circa 1682, is an ornate opening in the south wall allowing access to the quay on the river. The outer defences consist of two wet moats, a ravelin and a redan.
The fort lies between the World's End public house (formerly the ferry house) to the west and Bill Meroy Creek to the east. There is a separate fort at Coalhouse, East Tilbury, which has a Napoleonic and Victorian history. As part of the Tilbury Riverside project, a pathway has been developed between Coalhouse and Tilbury Fort passing along the river bank and past Tilbury Power Station. This is known as the Two Forts Way. The path is just over three miles and is described as "a challenging route suitable for able bodied walkers and experienced cyclists".