Kent Archaeological Review extract

Fort Clarence, Rochester.
by Keith R Gulvin.

Fort Clarence is located a little to the South-West of St Margaret's Church at the junction of St Margaret's Street and Borstal Road, Rochester (0/S Sheet 178 Reference 738 676).

Nowadays the Fort mainly consists of a large red brick tower covered in ivy which looks out over the River Medway. From the outside the tower resembles something like a red brick castle keep complete with turrets.

The history of Fort Clarence dates back to 1808 when under the Defence Land Act, 23 acres, 1 rod and 13 poles were requisitioned by the Crown from the Dean of Rochester, the Bishop of Rochester and a Mr W Head for the construction of fortifications. Work on the construction of the fort proceeded slowly and was not completed until 1812.

The Fort stretched from the Maidstone Road to the River Medway. There was a tower at each end of the Fort and a much larger central one beside the Borstal Road.

PHOTO: Fort Clarence Tower as it would have looked circa 1890.

Fort Clarence Tower as it would have looked circa 1890.

The Fort was in essence a line of fortified ditch and rampart with magazines and strong points along its length. The Fort's function at that time was to defend Rochester from a land attack and prevent a river-borne landing along the stretch of the river that the Fort commands.

The Fort Clarence tower which was the heart of the fortifications had extensive magazines and tunnels which connected it with other parts of the Fort; many of these tunnels are still in existence today including one which runs down towards the River Medway.

At the point where the Borstal Road runs through the line there was con- structed a wooden swing bridge to carry the road across the ditch, and on the Rochester side a large brickwork archway and blockhouse to defend it.

An interesting fact to note is that the Fort was considered obsolete as far as the military tacticians were concerned even before it was completed.

The Fort was to be supplied in the event of an attack by a Sally-Port in the ditch below the Medway Tower where stores and ammunition could be unloaded in relative safety and transported via underground passages into other parts of the Fort.

In January 1819, the armament of the Fort was as follows:

  • Fort Clarence Tower and flanking casemates: Twelve 12-pounder cannons and six 18-pounder carronades.
  • Maidstone Road Tower: Four 18-pounder carronades.
  • Medway Tower: Two 12-pounder cannons and two 12-pounder carronades.

In February 1819, it was recorded that a total of 4,500 barrels of gunpowder were removed from the Fort and tower, as it was stated that the Medical Department was taking it over. Storehouses near the tower were converted into a dwelling for the medical staff (Fort Clarence House).

This was the commencement of Fort Clarence's time as a Naval Lunatic Asylum and Hospital. During this period a military cemetery was provided nearby. In 1845, the Fort ceased to be a hospital, for in 1845-46 it was reconstructed as a Military Prison under the expert advice of Major (later Sir Joshua) Jebb, RE, Inspector of Military Prisons. New buildings, including a house for the Governor, accommodation for the warders, and a new cell block were constructed, and an unconsecrated chapel was added in 1849.

In 1849, it was said by local businessmen that "Fort Pitt and Fort Clarence were objects of great interest and tended materially to promote the trade of the City of Rochester".

In 1858, Phippens Directory of Rochester tells us that at that time the Governor at Fort Clarence was a Captain Manners, Chief Surgeon, Doctor Piper, and the Chaplain the Rev Robert Conway. At this period the cells at Fort Clarence could hold twenty-two prisoners and there was additional accommodation for another eighty-four prisoners.

Taylor's Directory of 1867 states that the Fort at this time had accommodation for about 150 prisoners and could take in 50 more. The staff during this period were Governor Major Hume Edwards, late 55th Regiment of Foot, Officer-in-Medical Charge, C Cowen, MD, who was Deputy Inspector General of Hospitals at that time. The Chaplain was still the Rev Robert Conway. The Schoolmaster and Director of Music was Mr John Denning. Mr Thomas Kenna was Chief Warder and had seventeen warders under him and the Infirmary Warder, Mr William Watling. The Clerk was a Mr John Chamen, and finally the Gatekeeper was a Mr James Carvey.

By 1879 the prison accommodation was down to twenty-two prisoners, the Governor, five warders and three other staff members.

DRAWING: Fort Clarance Military Prison 1879.

Fort Clarance Military Prison 1879.

During this period, when flogging was a common punishment, it was a common sight to see soldiers being marched up the Maidstone Road to Fort Clarence to be flogged. Afterwards they were marched back with their tunics merely buttoned around their throats and their sleeves hanging loose. Their sufferings were so great that they could not bear to put their arms in their sleeves.

In 1924, the archway across the Borstal Road was demolished, which at the time caused a great deal of controversy and prompted many questions and letters in the local press over whether the arch should be saved or whether it should come down in order that the road could be widened. At the time the Rev Wheatley of St Margaret's Church was the chief campaigner for the retention of the arch.

At the same time the old bridge across the ditch was removed and the rubble from the archway used to fill the gap created in the road.

The Fort ceased to be a Military Prison in the early 1930s and from then until the outbreak of World War II the Fort was occupied by the 166 City of Rochester Battery Royal Artillery TA A Company of this Battery manned the AA guns on Fort Borstal nearby, at that time the most modern of their kind in the world.

PHOTO: The Archway, Fort Clarence, during demolition, 1924.

The Archway, Fort Clarence, during demolition, 1924.

The Fort was not vacant for long, for with the formation of the Home Guard in 1940, 33 Battalion (Short Brothers) Kent Home Guard moved in under the command of Lt Col J M Prower, DSO. The Fort served as their HQ, training centre and stores until the disbandment of the Home Guard in December 1944. During that period several alterations were made to the old fort, namely the prison cell block was turned into an ammunition store and the chapel into a gymnasium. The Fort lay derelict for many years until the Post Office bought the site, except for Fort Clarence House, which remained in Army hands until 1974. Until that date is was used to house senior Army Officers. The Post Office bought the house and in 1975 applied to have the house demolished to provide extra storage facilities for their engineering works next door. Fortunately the bid failed owing to the fact that the house is a scheduled monument. The house now stands empty, its future undecided.

In 1965 the Post Office demolished much of the old fort to make way for their new engineering works. The buildings destroyed include the Maidstone Road Tower, prison cell block and the old chapel building.

PHOTO: Fort Clarence Tower 
from the North. 1970.

Fort Clarence Tower from the North. 1970.

All that remains today is the Fort Clarence Tower, the only one of its kind in existence today, Fort Clarence House and a small section of ditch that runs down to the back of the Esplanade factories. The tower was used until recently as a Post Office equipment store.

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