This article appeared in the Summer 1976 (Issue #44) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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The New Tavern Fort Restoration Project.
As we are all perhaps too well aware, 1975 was European Architectural Heritage Year. If the immediate results of EAHY were not as dramatic as some people might have hoped, it must surely have helped in fostering a greater long-term public awareness of the need to retain and restore our architectural heritage.
In Gravesend, the restoration of the medieval Milton Chantry in the riverside Fort Gardens was a contribution of the Gravesham Borough Council to EAHY. However, the remains of New Tavern Fort whose area defines the limits of the gardens were not included in the scheme of restoration.
NEW TAVERN FORT.
New Tavern Fort was built originally in 1778 to cross-fire with Tilbury Fort as part of the Thames river defences. It was an earthwork with an armament of smooth-bore cannon firing through embrasures. In the 1840's it was adapted to take a more modern armament. However, in 1868-72 the fort was substantially reconstructed to take an armament of ten heavy rifled muzzle-loading guns in brick emplacements. Some of the emplacements still remain together with the entire semi-underground magazine system built to hold the ammunition for the guns. In 1905, the fort was partially remodelled to take two breech-loading guns. A further magazine was provided underneath. The emplacements and the magazine also still survive.
In 1930, the then Gravesend Corporation acquired the fort and laid it out as the public sees today. Fortunately, the conversion to a garden entailed no widespread destruction. The ramparts became grassy banks for children to play on and the parade ground gained a band-stand, flower beds and foot paths. The emplacements were left as they had been taken over, to become the object of curiosity and speculation to the many thousands of visitors who wandered through the gardens. As for the magazines, these were dark, unseen places which local rumour said led eventually to a local church and the river Thames. So it remained until European Architectural Heritage Year.
THE RESTORATION PROJECT.
Early in 1975, the Kent Defence Research Group decided to examine the possibility of using volunteers to restore the fort and open the magazines to public view. In March a memorandum recommending this course of action was prepared by the writer and circulated to all members of the Gravesham Borough Council. The Council's Recreation and Amenity Committee subsequently agreed to the proposed restoration and after some details had been resolved the Kent Defence Research Group was clear to go ahead.
Volunteer workers from the Gravesham Society and the Medway Military Research Group were recruited and work commenced in August. It was decided to begin by concentrating effort on the magazines. The first job was to clear the magazine chambers and passages of large quantities of rubbish ranging from giant tree-trunks to cooking stoves and traffic bollards that had accumulated over the years. Some 8 lorry-loads of rubbish were removed for disposal.
A number of the chambers of the magazines built in 1868-72 still possessed their original painted identification plates and some recesses in the walls where candle-lamps were placed for illumination were still fronted with ¼-inch thick plate glass. Two cartridge and two shell lifts were found in the magazine built in 1905 and it is hoped to get one of each in proper working order. One of the cartridge lifts is fortunately already capable of operation. The walls of the chambers and passages were originally painted white. However, the restoration team were, with the passage of time, faced with walls covered with dirt, dust and aged, flaking paint. Complete re-decoration was necessary and quickly begun. This is still in progress but many thousands of square feet have been completed. Applications for grants were made to the Gravesham Borough Council and the Historic Buildings Council but these are still being considered. It is hoped that decoration will be finished in a few months and provided that a proper system of electric lighting is installed and Fire Regulations satisfied perhaps the first visitors to the magazines will arrive this year.
When the results of the applications for grants are known, work can commence on the surface works which are mainly the gun emplacements. It is hoped that several buried emplacements from the 1868-72 reconstruction can be excavated and restored. The emplacements concerned are fronted with massive iron armour and, so far as is known, are paralleled in only one other place in the United Kingdom.
Long-term aims include re-arming representative emplacements with their original type of guns or at least providing replicas. Three guns of the smooth-bore era have already been obtained but it is weapons from the rifled muzzle-loading and breech-loading eras that are now sought. A number of artillery rounds of different periods have already been donated by the Army. Perhaps in time the fort will develop into a military museum. Several hundreds of steel helmets and gas masks from the Second World War which were found in one of the magazines will no doubt form the nucleus.
An illustrated guidebook to New Tavern Fort has been published and is available from the writer, price 25p. -- including postage. Volunteers are still required to help with the work. Anyone who is prepared to wield a spade, paint-brush, trowel (for cementing!), broom or spanner is welcome. No previous experience is necessary. Work takes place at weekends throughout the year. Further details from the writer at 65 Stonebridge Road, Northfleet, Kent.