Defences and defensive schemes of one form or another have been a feature of the Thames estuary since the Iron Age. Although there is little written history until the 14th century we do know that a system of early warning beacons was established to communicate news of an attack. One of these beacons was installed at Roundonhyll (now Windmill Hill) Gravesend.
The banks of the Lower Thames display a fascinating range of historic defences spanning the 14th to the 20th centuries. These castles, forts and batteries were constructed against the threat of foreign invasion and to protect the river route to London. The high and grey stone towers of the medieval Hadleigh and Cooling Castles contrast with the low red brick bastioned ramparts of the 17th century (and later) Tilbury Fort. Likewise, the glowering and monumental walls of the mid 19th century Coalhouse, Cliffe and Shornemead Forts contrast with the battery at East Tilbury (from later in the century) so blended into the ground as to be nearly invisible.
New Tavern Fort at Gravesend displays several periods of development from the 18th to the 20th centuries. In about 1891 a Brennan Torpedo installation was added at Cliffe Fort being well sited to hit vessels as they slowed down to make the turn into Gravesend Reach. Air attack in the two World Wars demanded innovative new methods of defence while the threat of nuclear bombardment lead to the building of bunkers during the Cold War. Each of these sites expresses a distinct stage in the rise and fall of various technologies over the centuries.
The Thames defences, several of which have been faithfully restored, are an important cultural, educational and leisure resource. Thurrock and Gravesham Councils together with Thames Defence Heritage, Coalhouse Fort Project, New Tavern Fort Project and English Heritage continue to work for the enhanced presentation of their respective historic defences. Much of this history of the defence of the River Thames is brought to life in a lavishly illustrated book by Victor Smith entitled The Fortification of the Thames 1380 – 1956 as part of a series entitled Defending London’s River.
Defending London's River - The Fortification of the Thames 1380 - 1956 by Victor Smith
Defending London's River 2 - New Tavern Fort, Gravesend by Victor Smith
Defending London's River 3 - The Gravesend Blockhouse by Victor Smith and Eric R Green
See Publications Page.