REPORT OF THE COMMISSIONERS APPOINTED TO CONSIDER THE DEFENCES OF THE UNITED KINGDOM; TOGETHER WITH THE MINUTES OF EVIDENCE AND APPENDIX; ALSO CORRESPONDENCE RELATIVE TO A SITE FOR AN INTERNAL ARSENAL. 1860
THAMES, MEDWAY, AND CHATHAM.
Importance of - The defence of the Thames involves interests of vast magnitude; it includes the security of the great powder magazine establishment at Purfleet; the important arsenal at Woolwich and the adjoining dockyard; the Government victualing stores and ship-building yard at Deptford; the large amount of valuable property extending for many miles on either bank of the river; the fleet of merchant shipping moored in the port of London; and, lastly, the metropolis itself. Great injury might be inflicted upon any or all of these by the ships of an enemy during the temporary absence of our own fleet from our shores; little argument, therefore, is needed to show that the efficient defence of the Thames is an object of most vital importance.
The navigation of the channels at the entrance offers considerable difficulty to those who are unacquainted with the locality; but we cannot anticipate that an enemy would be unable to obtain experienced pilots to conduct his ships, when we look to the large number of foreign trading vessel and fishermen who have unlimited opportunities of becoming acquainted with the coast, addicted, as they would be, by our charts, beacons, and leading marks. We submit that it would be most unwise to trust such a means of defence, as would be afforded by the removal of the buoys and beacons, now placed to indicate the channels and dangers; the obstruction that would be offered to our own trade would be felt by the commercial world as almost as serious an evil as the attack itself; while, on the other hand, an enemy’s fleet, in command of the North Sea, would have no difficulty in buoying the channel in two or three days for the passage of his own ships.
Entrance to – No. practical project could be devised for protecting the entrance of the Thames by means of permanent fortifications; but, in order to prevent an enemy from obtaining unopposed possession of those waters, we are of opinion that moveable floating batteries, of the description mentioned in the preliminary part of the Report, should be stationed at Sheerness; these vessels, navigating among dangerous shoals, with which our officers would be thoroughly acquainted, would effectually protect the entrance of the Thames against any attempt on the part of a small squadron of the enemy; and would oppose a formidable check to the advance of even a superior force, by retarding them in the operation of buoying the channels, and attacking them when among the shoals, which are so numerous in that locality.
Existing works – The works at present existing for the defence of the Thames are as follow:- On the left bank at Coalhouse Point there is an open battery mounting 17 guns; on the opposite shore at Shornemead, about a mile higher up the river, there is a battery of 13 guns raking the approach; and at a distance of two miles from this latter work, still higher up the stream, are Tilbury Fort and the Gravesend Battery, the one affording fire of 32 heavy guns down and across the channel, and other having 15 guns bearing down the river.
We are of opinion that although the positions are well selected; the works are insufficient to meet the description of attack that would probably be brought against them. The extent of injury that could be inflicted by an enemy, who had succeeded in forcing his way up the Thames, renders it probable that a very powerful naval force would be employed in such a service.
Proposed works – We consider that the part of the river between Coalhouse Point and the opposite bank, where is it about 1,000 yards broad, is that best adapted for preventing, by means of permanent works, the further advance of a hostile fleet; and it has the advantage of being in immediate connexion with the line which we propose for the land defence of Chatham on its western side, the right flank of which rests on the Thames at that spot. We recommend that the Shornemead Battery, which is admirably situated, should be enlarged, and, as its importance is considerably increased by its connexion with the proposed defences of Chatham, it should be converted into a strong work on the land side. At Coalhouse Point, on the left bank, a powerful battery should be placed in addition to or in extension of the existing one, bringing the principal part of its fire to bear down the river and across the channel, but having some guns also bearing up the river in the direction of Gravesend. In addition to these, a work should be constructed on the right bank, opposite Coalhouse Point, at the southern point of the entrance to Cliffe Creak; and a floating barrier should be moored in time of war across the river, under the protection of these batteries, leaving a passage for our own vessels, for closing which every possible precaution should be taken at a time of expected attack.
In the event of the enemy’s ships succeeding in forcing this first line of defence, in effecting which it is probable that he would receive considerable damage, he would then come under the fire of the batteries at Tilbury Fort and Gravesend; and we consider this second line so important that we recommend that these works should be put into the most thoroughly efficient state in every respect; their guns would cross their fire, at a distance of 2,000 yards, with those on Coalhouse Point and Shornemead; and a similar obstruction or floating barrier to that above recommended should be prepared, to be moored between Gravesend and Tilbury Fort.