Cliffe Fort - Cliffe History

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Cliffe Fort

At the northern border of Cliffe Parish, where it meets the River Thames, stands Cliffe Fort. Cliffe Fort is one of 5 surviving coastal forts in the Thames and Medway; the others are Coalhouse, Garrison Point, Hoo and Darnet. All are these are Royal Commission Coastal Forts, built in the same period 1860-70, and are casemented coastal batteries. Each is different in terms of layout and design. Slough Fort also exists and has recently undergone a degree of restoration, but is substantially smaller than the other coastal forts. There are also remains of two others, Shormead and Grain.

The point at which Cliffe Fort was built was carefully chosen as it stands at the point where the Thames Estuary suddenly narrows and on a bend in the river making the site an ideal spot to hamper and deny enemy shipping to access London. Together, with other river defences at Shornmead Fort and Coalhouse Fort, formed an outer line of defence with Gravesend and Tilbury Forts, a little further upstream, forming an inner defence line.

Cliffe Fort, from OS map of 1897

The land of which it was built upon was purchased from Lord Darnley and the planning of the construction of the fort was supplied by General Gordon. Its position lay on the only area of solid ground on the marshes, with Cliffe & Higham Creeks on either side helping with its protection, and connected to the ‘mainland’ by a narrow military road to the Thames Cement Companies.

General Charles Gordon, whilst overseeing the construction of the fort, wrote to Francis & Co. cement works, complaining of the unpleasant fumes emanating from the cement works kilns stating that they were 'injurious to the health of the soldiers stationed in the fort' and demanded that action should be taken immediately. The cement works had a tall iron chimney, built in sections, so when fitted together enabled the 'noxious fumes' to drift high above the fort.

The building of Cliffe Fort was part of a nationwide programme of updating the country’s coastal defences and Cliffe Fort is one of a number of forts constructed along the River Thames as a consequence of the Royal Commission of 1859.  Work begun in July 1861 and took nine years to complete at a cost of £162,937.  

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.

Initial plans for the construction of the fort included thirteen guns upon the terreplein protected by shields, three guns on barbette mounts and two for land defence with twenty guns within the granite faced casemates protected by iron shields.  The thirteen guns to be installed upon the terreplein were dropped due to trouble with construction.  The site of the fort was to be on marshy ground and it has been written that conditions could be injurious to the health of the officers supervising the construction.

In 1855 building work commenced to convert one of the 9" magazines into a Brennan Torpedo Station, the Brennan Torpedo was introduced at the fort in 1890.  The torpedo was a wire-guided harbour defence missile that was launched from the station via launching rails.  

Cliffe Fort as it is today

In 1861 gravel was found at a depth of sixty feet and chalk at seventy-nine feet.  The fort required thirty-foot long piles but still encountered problems.  Reports from 1865 showed difficulties including subsidence and cracking.  The fort, when complete, was much smaller than planned with only ten guns within the casemates.  Underneath the casemates were two parallel tunnels, one a passage connecting the shell and cartridge stores and the other a lighting passage.  The lighting passage was a narrow tunnel and had many offshoots with steps leading up to light recesses within the walls of the main tunnel.  You could also find these light recesses within the walls of the shell and cartridge stores, the recesses were constructed to prevent explosive material coming into contact with the naked flame of the lamp, this was placed within the recess and would be protected by a glass front and a glass door behind giving access from the lighting tunnel.  A dry ditch and earthworks on the seaward side further protected the fort; it was built for a compliment of 300 men although, apart from troops from various regiments involved on gun drill or on exercises, it was normally manned by a much smaller garrison.
Armament of the fort in 1887 consisted of two 12.5" RMLs, six 11" RMLs. both types within the casemates and two 9" RMLs in the open battery.  In 1855 building work commenced to convert one of the 9" magazines into a Brennan Torpedo Station, the Brennan Torpedo was introduced at the fort in 1890.  The torpedo was a wire-guided harbour defence missile that was launched from the station via launching rails.   In 1895 the armament consisted of two 12.5" RMLs, five 11" RMLs, one 9" RML in the open Battery, three 3pdr QF guns in new concrete emplacements on the roof and the Brennan Torpedo.  The armament was further updated in 1899 to four 4pdr QF guns and again later to either two 4.7" guns or 6" guns.  During the Second World War the fort was armed with two 4" BL guns for the use against enemy aircraft.  Many other guns were mounted within and on the fort during its time in service.
During the Second World War the fort was armed with two 4" BL guns for the use against enemy aircraft.  Many other guns were mounted within and on the fort during its time in service.
As an additional defence, provision was made to flood the marshes with river water by breaching the flood defence walls. This was to create an obstacle to the movement of an enemy landing force attempting to advance inland. By the later 1880s, the ditch of the fort had been infilled. This was to provide a further thickness of protection against incoming shells for the magazines, whose front wall was the escarp of the ditch.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Cliffe Fort today is the remains of an experimental ‘fire by wire’ Brennan Torpedo system – the remains of the launching rails are still visible today.

Brennan Tordeo Rails

Today Cliffe Fort shows signs of neglect and has seriously deteriorated over the past few years and the Scheduled Monument is now badly flooded, the parade ground is under at least one foot of water with the magazines, access tunnels and lighting tunnels under at least two feet of water.  Standing derelict many features remain at the fort, including gun rings, rails and other features within the casemates, gun emplacements, observation posts and shelters upon the roof, two Brennan Torpedo launching rails leading into the river and the retractable observation post for the torpedo.  Although access is possible it is not easy and is very dangerous: it is strongly advised that no attempt should be made to enter the site! It is also on private property and all access is denied. Inside there are many hidden dangers including a deep well that is hidden by the flooding water inside and crumbling roofs, floors and walls that may not hold a person’s weight.

Cliffe Fort, is privately owned, and lies in an area that is use commercially, and this involves the use of machinery and heavy moving plant. There are number of additional significant monuments in the area, included the Lime Kilns and Romano-British cremation and burial site. The fort lies within the area of The Thames Estuary and Mashes SPA and is a designated RAMSAR estuary and wetland, and there is the RSPB Cliffe Pools reserve adjacent to the site.  

More can be found in the following:

V. Smith in Defending London's River, The Story of the Thames Forts.
Ian V Hogg, Coastal Defences in England and Wales 1586 – 1956, Newton Abbot, 1977
J.D. Wilson, Later Nineteenth Century Defences of the Thames, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, XII. 1963
A.D. Saunders, Tilbury Fort and the Development of Artillery Fortifications in the Thames Estuary, Antiquaries Journal, XL 1960
The National Archives, Kew
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