Kent Archaeological Review extract

Shornemead Fort, near Gravesend.
by Victor Smith.

For many years a landmark for river navigation, Shornemead Fort (NGR TQ 692 748) on the south bank of the Thames 4½ Kilometres east of Gravesend, is now little more than a crumbling ruin. The Army's demolition squads, vandals and contractors have conspired to destroy most of the fort at a cumulative rate since the end of World War II. The barrack range has been totally demolished and now, all that remains, perhaps not for long, is an empty facade of gun emplacements behind the sea wall.

Shornemead Fort occupies a strategic position on a bend in the river and has an excellent field of fire with the ability to engage anything in the river to the west in Gravesend Reach and to the north-east towards the Lower Hope. Originally the site was chosen by a Lieutenant Hartcup who was appointed in 1794 to report on the defensive needs of the Thames for the protection of London against attack by an enemy fleet. Forts already existed at Gravesend and Tilbury but the lower reaches of the river were not adequately secure against naval attack or a landing and so three new forts were planned, one at Coalhouse Point, one at the Lower Hope and one at Shornemead. Like the others, Shornemead Fort was quite small, mounting only four '24 pdr' smooth-bore guns with a range of 2,300 metres. It was constructed of earth and was pentagonal in shape with the guns in open emplacements on the river salient.

After the Napoleonic Wars the fort was abandoned until the middle of the 1840's when it was decided to rebuild both it and the fort at Coalhouse Point. The plan of the new Shornemead Fort shows it as still an open battery but with a greatly improved armament, now 13 '32 pdr' smooth-bore guns on the river front. The new guns. were emplaced on traversing carriages and had a range of 2,700 metres Proper barrack accommodation was provided and there were bomb-proof magazines and also caponiers for flanking the ditch. Work began on the fort in 1847 and although much of the actual building had been carried out by 1848, the marshy nature of the ground produced subsidence which protracted completion until 1853. Contemporary drawings show that the cookhouse was badly cracked as was the barracks and one of the caponiers had completely detached itself.

PHOTO: Shornemead Fort from the East.

Shornemead Fort from the East.

In spite of this expensive rebuilding, Shornemead Fort and its counterpart at Coalhouse Point were at best merely a stop-gap. it took the revival of French nationalist ambition and the launching of new ironclad battleships to engender in Britain a massive new programme of coastal defence. The threat from Europe gave full rein to the Royal Commission for the Defence of the United Kingdom (set up in 1859) to plan a standardised fixed defence system to cover most vulnerable anchorages and strategic locations. The Thames estuary was modernised with new forward batteries in which closed emplacements called casemates were used, and Shornemead Fort was rebuilt for the last time as a battery for 14 heavy guns. It was D-shaped in plan with an arc of casemates which ultimately contained 11 by 280 millimetre armour-piercing shell guns of the rifled muzzle loading type. Most of the guns were positioned to fire down river towards the Lower Hope Point. They had a range of 5,500 metres at an elevation of 229 Mils (flight time 16.9 seconds) and so were powerful enough to hit anything turning into the Lower Hope, but they were in any case co-ordinated with the fire-plan of Coalhouse Point Fort opposite. The casemates were fronted by giant granite blocks and behind was a multilayered 'sandwich' of steel and wood totalling 635 millimetres thickness. The guns' recoil was taken up by special garrison carriages and training was facilitated by traverse rails on which the carriages ran. At the western end of the casemates was an open battery of 3 by 229 millimetre armour-piercing shell-guns, also rifled muzzleloading. These guns had a range of 5,500 metres like the 280 millimetre RMLs in the casemates and were pointed up river to coordinate with the guns of Gravesend and Tilbury Forts, now the second line. The rear of the fort was taken up by the barracks of Kentish Rag which had loopholes for riflemen to beat off a land assault but there was no provision for landward defence in the artillery sense.

In the 1880's 2 '6 pdr' quick-firing guns for minefield defence were added to Shornemead Fort but within two decades it was disarmed as it was judged to be strategically redundant and the fabric of the fort was considered unsafe for the firing of the guns. The fort was, however, used by the Thames Militia Division (Submarine Miners) RE for training until 1907. Later the barrack accommodation was used by soldiers doing their annual firing course at the nearby Milton range. In 1940 two 140 millimetre breech-loading guns were emplaced separately behind the sea wall near the fort but were abandoned at the end of World War II as was the fort itself.

The writer has prepared a full report with plans, diagrams and photographs.

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