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Fort Amhurst -- Chatham.
Fort Amherst, Chatham is currently under restoration by the Medway Military Research Group and the Royal Engineers, Chatham.
The Fort complex is one of the few surviving Napoleonic Fortresses in the country. The following History of the Fort is taken from the just published Guide to the Fort and researched over a period of six months.
The beginnings of Fort Amherst came about when in 1715 a survey of defence requirements was ordered to be prepared by the Duke of Marlborough. In 1755 a Board of Ordnance planner, Mr High Debbig, designed a system of fortifications to defend the Yard, running from the Gun Wharf to enclose the village of Brompton and rejoin the river north of the Yard. These defences were of a regular line of earthwork bastions with a ditch and rampart. The ditch was 27 feet wide with a 9 foot parapet and 8 feet deep. This feature formed what is called an Enceinte. The construction work was supervised by Captain John Desmoretze of the Royal Engineers. The strong point of this fortified line was Amherst Redoubt which was to become the nucleus of Fort Amherst.
While construction work was in progress a Roman villa was uncovered, the site of this is now adjacent to the reservoir wall to the right of the Hornwork Casemate.
The fortifications became known officially as the Cumberland Line and had three gateways with bridges to cross the ditch; one of the gateways went past the Gun Wharf to Chatham, the second gave access to Gillingham through Brompton and the third was a sally port which looked out over the large expanse of open ground known as the Lines. The purpose of a sally port was that when the line was under siege, small raiding parties could make surprise attacks on the enemy encampment and fieldworks, then retire safely back into their own lines.
The armament of the Fort at this time was fourteen 42-pounders, ten 9-pounders, eight 6-pounders and two 4-pounder guns. There was a garrison of 14 gunners and three master gunners to look after the artillery.
These works were completed in 1758; it is also to be noted in that year angry citizens of Chatham threatened to kill Captain Brisac, the Line Superintendent, because the Military Authorities would not allow the townspeople to play cricket or graze their livestock on the Lines, even though they had done so for a great many years.
In 1758 and 1762 the Board of Ordnance purchased more land to extend the fortifications.
Lt General Skinner in 1770 put forward a revised plan for the fortifications. This plan called for the existing lines to be extended to the site of St Mary's Creek, which meant the total length of the Line would be some two miles when completed. Amherst Redoubt was strengthened and a further series of batteries and redoubts added round it. This complex became known as Fort Amherst.
Under Cornwallis Battery, which is the Eastern section of Fort Amherst, a vast network of tunnels and magazines was dug out of the chalk to provide stores and barracks for the Fort under siege. There were three tunnel entrances to the underground works below Cornwallis Battery in the Cave Yard by Kitchener Barracks. A further three entrances to the works were located in the Barrier Ditch below Fort Amherst. There were also three means of access on to the top of Cornwallis Battery.
A large casemated barracks was constructed at the Northern end of the Line, which was used to house the large army of convicts and prisoners who built the Fort and worked in the associated brickfields. This barracks became known as St Mary's Barracks and was in use until its demolition in the 1960's. Barracks and magazines were also constructed around Fort Amherst. These works were completed in 1779/82.
It was originally envisaged that the Lines would mount 190 guns and have a garrison of 700 men. The actual armament of the Fort in 1785, when Major Maurace, RA, submitted his survey of the English coastal defences was: 102 cannons and carronades. Later that year the armament was reduced to a single battery of twenty-three 9-pounder cannons on Prince William's Battery.
The other guns were dismounted and put into store at the Gun Wharf. The carriages were stowed away in a specially built shed in Fort Amherst. When the Napoleonic War broke out the armament of the Lines was quickly increased and a vast sum of money was spent on improving the fortifications. This work included revetting all the ditches and ramparts in brick, constructing new magazine facilities and extending the Lines to include Rochester, but this part of the scheme was only ever half completed. The majority of the work was carried out between 1803 and 1811. In 1803 a recommendation for the new armament for the Fort was made to improve the existing works and arm the new ones. The order was as follows:
"To be brought immediately from the Gun Wharf" 21 - 24 pdrs. ) "Dutch guns on their proper carriages". 22 - 18 pdrs. ) 8 - 9 pdrs. ) "English guns on their proper carriages". 30 - 9 pdrs. ) TOTAL: 81 guns. "To be sent from Woolwich" 8 - 29 pdrs. 40 - 10 pdrs. 4 - 10 pdrs. (Carronades) 4 - 18 pdrs. --------------------------- TOTAL: 56 ---------------------------
A note with the above list states that new carriages must be made for the Woolwich guns and carronades within two months.
A return for the 24th July, 1804 states that up to this time a total of 21,620 feet of timber of all sizes had been used in the construction work.
On the 29th July, 1804 a letter was forwarded to the CRE, Chatham demanding compensation by two local farmers Mr R T Moore and Mr T N Carter, for loss of crops and fruit trees. The lengthy list included 12 apple trees, 50 celery roots, raddish beds, 1 pear tree and other products to the value of £65. 5s. 3d. Their crops had been destroyed owing to the progression of the new fortifications.
Further improvements to the Lines were carried out into the 1820's; after this time the only useful function the Fort served was for the staging of massive yearly siege operation exercises which drew large crowds.
In 1820 a sentry on the Lines spotted the outbreak of the Great Fire of Chatham and reported it to the Captain of the Guard, who sent his men out to wake the townspeople, an act which saved a great many lives.
In 1824 it was recorded that the Resident Master Gunner at the Fort was a Mr William Howie. He had five invalide (assistant) gunners to assist him.
In 1850 the section of the Lines now called the New Ravelin was constructed as a training exercise by the School of Military Engineering. In 1860 the Royal Commission for the Defence of the United Kingdom decided that the Lines were totally obsolete and all new fortifications were constructed on the Thames or well to the south of the Medway Towns.
During the summer of each year in the last century large scale siege operations were carried out on the Lines. Chatham. Charles Dickens immortalised one of these exercises in the Pickwick Papers.
In 1878 the drawbridges at the Line's gates across the ditch were demolished along with their guard towers by the Royal Engineers because of the mounting traffic congestion. The rubble was cleared away by convicts, the drawbridges were replaced by new fixed bridges and then later by back-filling the adjacent section of ditch.
Only one of the Chatham gates survives, which is now part of the Chatham Army Cadet Corps Headquarters.
Up until the end of the 19th century a small Saluting Battery was maintained on Prince William's West Battery. This was for the firing of Royal Salutes and a Midday Cannon which was fired each day.
During the First World War the Fort was used to house troops and stores en route for France. During this time a large dugout was constructed which could hold 3,000 men. It consisted of 6 chambers, 288 feet long by 5 feet broad and 6 feet high. This later became the Naval Radio Station and is still in use today.
During the last war, light anti-aircraft guns were installed at strategic points on the Lines. The Lines were included as part of the GHQ Line Anti-Invasion Defences, for it was considered that ditches made good anti-tank obstacles. There were several spigot mortar positions installed in various parts of the Fort in 1941 which can still be seen today as well as an emplacement for a 6-inch gun at the salient of Prince William's Bastion; these were all manned by local Home Guard Units.
The tunnels under Cornwallis Battery were taken over by the Civil Defence for their Medway Headquarters. These and Fort Amherst were used by the Civil Defence and Home Guard for training exercises until the mid 1950's.
The Fort today is partly under restoration. It is hoped that in the future the Fort will be restored to its days of former glory, a great monument to the designers and builders of fortifications.
Copies of the Guide Book can be obtained -- Price 40p from the Author, Keith R Gulvin, 200, Walderslade Road, Chatham, Kent.