General Gordon’s Key?

General Gordon's Key
General Gordon’s Key

In the possession of the writer is an iron key thought to have been used by Lt. Col. Charles G. Gordon (later General of Khartoum fame) during his stay at New Tavern Fort in Gravesend from 1865-71 when acting as Commanding Royal Engineer for the Thames District.

Extract from an 1880s plan of New Tavern Fort showing Fort House
Extract from an 1880s plan of New Tavern Fort showing Fort House

Gordon lived for part of his time as C.R.E. at Fort House at the back of the fort, for which this was a key. The words’ FORT. HSE ENT’ were marked into a special infill inserted subsequent to the manufacture of the key.

From handling the key and with a little imagination, it is possible to feel a connection with a great Briton who may once have used it to enter his home.

View of Fort House from the rear
View of Fort House from the rear

Fort House no longer exists, having been demolished following damage received from enemy action during the Second World War but his office in Commercial Place survives, having been converted into a private residence. There is a commemorative statue of Gordon in nearby Gordon Pleasure Gardens.

Victor Smith

View of Fort House from the front
View of Fort House from the front

New Defence Projects at Gravesend

With a study of Kent’s defences during the Great War submitted to the editor of Archaeologia Cantiana for publication and an historical overview of the 20th century defences of Thanet near completion, two research and publication projects by Victor Smith are scheduled to begin in 2016:

The New Tavern Fort project

New Tavern Fort

A study of the fort from 1778-1850. This will be a prequel to ‘New for Old: the development of New Tavern Fort at Gravesend in the Industrial Age’, Archaeologia Cantiana, CXXXIII (2013), 131-166. It will include new record drawings and a range of historical reconstructions, including a bird’s eye view of the fort in 1800.

The Gravesend Cold War bunker project
(see ‘Preparing for Doomsday’, January 6 2015 for more information about the bunker)

Bunker

This study contextualises the growing evidence and, as with the New Tavern Fort project, will include historical reconstructions and record drawings.

It is hoped that these projects – expected to be supported by other academic contributors – will significantly add to the historical knowledge of these two sites and promote an improved understanding and interpretation of them.

The artillery of the Great War anti-invasion defences of the Swale area of Kent

I’m pleased to announce that at long last Volume 23 of the Journal of the Ordnance Society has been published.  From the point of view of the HDC it contains a paper “The artillery of the Great War anti-invasion defences of the Swale area of Kent” by Alan Anstee a member of the HDC.  This illustrated work is the culmination of several years research, both independently and as part of Kent County Council’s Swale 20th century Defence Project.

It is an analysis of the artillery that would have been available for home defence throughout the war.  The role of the various guns is discussed, together with their range and the ammunition available, and also looks at the fire role assigned to many of the batteries both fixed and mobile.  The topography of the area and the defences is discussed, as are the sources available and the command and a control.

Should anyone wish to obtain a copy the journal can be obtained from the Ordnance Society ISBN 0957-1698 website http://ordnancesociety.org.uk/

Guns at Gravesend

New Tavern Fort (armed from the 1780s-1908) on Gravesend’s riverside displays a regionally important collection of 12 pieces of historic artillery. All are relevant to the site, whether as authentic re-arming of its phases of development or representative of other defences in the district at various dates. The Historic Defences Committee have been pleased to respond to a request from their friends at the fort with an offer of guidelines for continuing maintenance for the guns. This follows information supplied by the HDC at an earlier stage.

Original 6-in. breech-loader as mounted at the fort from 1904-8
Original 6-in. breech-loader as mounted at the fort from 1904-8

The fort is well worth a visit. This is both because of the display of guns and on account of the innovative way in which the magazines have been historically refurnished and re-equipped. Details of the opening dates and times for the August-September period will be advised.

Bofors anti-aircraft gun as mounted at the fort very briefly during the Second World War and not part of a continuing armament
Bofors anti-aircraft gun as mounted at the fort very briefly during the Second World War and not part of a continuing armament

More information on visiting New Tavern Fort can be found here: http://www.gravesham.gov.uk/services/leisure-and-culture/tourism-and-travel/local-attractions/new-tavern-fort

Replica 9-inch gun to represent the rifled muzzle loading phase of the fort from the 1870s until the end of the 19th century
Replica 9-inch gun to represent the rifled muzzle loading phase of the fort from the 1870s until the end of the 19th century

Newspapers and Service Records as Tools for Researching the WWI Stockbury Valley Defence Line

Report for the KAS AGM by Alan R. Anstee

An on going research project

The R.E.s have left us a wealth of maps and photos of the fieldworks, so we know that they looked like and where they were. The war diaries gave some information as to which areas units were working in but little more. However there is no real information on the men who built them.

Thanks in no small part to the East Kent Gazette we now know, the names of many of the officers and men. This led to the finding of the service records of a few and through both the newspapers and service records the approximate location of their camps.

What follows is a record of how this was done and what has been discovered to date.

The East Kent Gazette in early 1915

Late in 2013 Dean Coles of the Newington History Group supplied a copy of a cutting from the East Kent Gazette (EKG) of the 9th of January 1915 which told when the R.E.s in Newington (3-1-1915). As this was a poor copy this led to a search for a better one, which led to the discovery of an article telling of a fatal fire in Milton Regis (29-1-1915) which gave the names some of the men, EKG 6-2-15. This also informed us that not all of this unit were in Newington.

Service Record and EKG details of Spr Tapp

One man mentioned in the account of the fire and inquest was Spr Alfred Ernest Tapp whose service record is extant and very informative. This states that he was a very good bricklayer, whilst the EKG (6-2-1915) states that he was an ex-member of the Tunbridge Wells fire Brigade.

Importantly his extant record shows that he was a man who liked his beer; his “crime sheet” is explicit; with 6 drink related offences recorded. It gave names of the C.O, other officers and many NCOs and men.

Also it gave the name of the unit, 2/6th Kent Fortress Company, later the 579th Works Company R.E (6th Kent FC split into two units 1-1-1915). Thus confirming the scant information in the war diary.

Location of the 579th Works Company from EKG & Tapp’s record.

The EKG reported many parties, dances, smoking concerts and the like, put on by or for the company, giving the location. (It did the same for many other units in the area, as well as reporting on inter unit sorting events.)

Every incident in Spr Tapp’s record gave his location, whilst from both his record and the EKG, the unit and/or its sections was reported at Newington, Milton Regis, Stockbury, Oad Street/Borden, Key Street/Keycol and possibly Hartlip.

Capt Griffith, service record and qualifications.

Captain Charles. L. T Griffith was the last CO of the 579th and fortunately his
service record survives. This shows that he had a long history of service in the
Volunteers from 1897 to 1910. This included service in the ranks of the
Queens Westminster Rifle Volunteers and a commission in the Madras Artillery
Volunteers.

Professionally he was an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and would seem, both professionally and militarily to be an ideal man to command such a unit. Personally he seemed well connected with a retired Lt-Col of Royal Marine Artillery and a housemaster of Harrow School (his father was an assistant master there) supplying references to back his application for a commission.

The naming of the fieldworks.

The R.E. maps only give the names of some of the works, usually the larger ones, redoubts etc. However the R.E. photos often give the names of the works, including trenches.

These former were often named after their location (Thrognal Redoubt for example) or officers in the company and possibly other RE officers (Boys Trench).

The four Le Feaux Redoubts appear to have been named after Capt Le Feaux, who seemed to have commanded a section of the company. Perhaps that often stationed at Stockbury, not too far away.

Griffith Redoubt, named for Capt Griffith the last CO.

Other mentions of the company’s location.

It would appear that different sources give different names for the same location, a note from 1917 in the service record of Spr Tapp from Capt Griffith re his
demotion from L/Cpl, gives the units location as Key Street Camp. Whilst Form
W.3068/2 on Tapp’s posting to the BEF in March 1918 gives the units station as
Newington nr Sittingbourne, at most a mile from Key Street.

The EKG 10-5-1919 states that German PoWs were taking over the old RE Camp site at Keycol Hill, only a few hundred yards from Key Street. Again on 1-11-1919 the EKG that the German PoWs had left the camps on Keycol Hill and Stockbury and that they were to be broken up.

So where exactly were these camps? Military telephone lines may give a clue as these camps would have needed to communicate. One runs into the grounds of the old rectory, Stockbury, another to the grounds of the isolation hospital on Key Col Hill and another to a building marked as a Brigade HQ in Newington. These May indicate where the camps were but more work is required.

Lessons learnt

Newspapers can point a researcher in the right direction, however they rarely give the full names of either officers or men mentioned. They can though back up other sources.

Service records give a wealth of information if extant and you have the man’s full name but 65% to 75% (estimates vary) were destroyed in WWII.

But newspapers especially MUST be treated with caution as they rarely give their
sources and were subject to censorship.

Finally

Although I have, perhaps, taken the lead in this work it would not have happened
without the involvement of many others. As previously mentioned Dean Coles
and the NHG, together with Teresa & Richard Emmitt, Simon Mason of KCC and
Victor Smith and many others have helped with information and advice, including
the gentleman who passed on copies of his grandfathers service record with the
579th.

Thanet Defences Project

Following a meeting with historians of Thanet’s military past, an assessment has begun of the available documentary sources to support a possible new project for an enhanced study of the defences of this council district.  This would continue Kent County Council’s Defence of Kent Project which aims to better understand the role, evolution, distribution and survival of the county’s varied military and civil defence structures, built or used during the 20th century.  It is hoped to bring this subject more fully into the public domain, providing greater awareness by publication, educational and interpretational projects, by highlighting sites for protection or conservation as well as by improving physical access.  Four districts have already been studied, with a fifth well underway, Thanet being the sixth.

Thanet already has a strong showing of knowledgeable military historians who have contributed substantially and expertly to what we know about defence sites on the island and a review of records for the island has begun to suggest the potential for further significant discoveries.  It is hoped that existing historians supported by others from the community might take forward the process of discovery.    From this it will be possible to complete a more full understanding of the anatomy and function of Thanet’s triad of land, air and sea defences throughout the whole of the period from 1900 until the Cold War.  Special attention will be given to studying the historical evolution of the infrastructure of Manston airfield.

Recommended reading is Ron Stilwell’s The Defence of Thanet and East Kent (1939-1945), published by the author in 2014.  It contains 197 pages and is profusely illustrated.  Copies may be obtained from him price £12.99p (+ £2.80 for post and packing).  Enquiries should be sent via stilwellrv@yahoo.co.uk

Some exciting discoveries seem likely in the years ahead and progress will be reported later.

Victor Smith

15th June 2015

Fort Luton

Since the beginning of the year work has really taken off at Fort Luton. We have been lucky to have received two groups who have requested to work for a day to help move our project along as well as having weekly work days with our own volunteers. We are currently setting up a Community Interest Company with the aim to allow Fort Luton to be available to the local community with the exterior of the fort used for events and the casemates to be used for community talks, workshops, arts and other creative events. We will also allow rooms to be hired for parties and social gatherings. We intend to allow some of the casemates to be hired on a long term to people are offering something that will benefit our local community.

So far we have made cleared and made available three casemates, two for long term hirings and one for the use of everyone. The community room is in the original magazine and we have installed flooring, water, a fridge and lighting, we are still tidying this room up a little but it is now available for use.

We have been carrying out vegetation clearance and trying to tidy the fort up as it is a little overgrown, this is an ongoing process and we hope that we can have the grounds in a more manageable condition by the end of the year. Due to an unsafe floor we have removed a modern concrete ramp from the left flank tunnel which led to us finding WWII vintage steps leading down into it. We aim to add a wooden ramp into the tunnel to preserve the steps and make access easier into this area. This will become a Time Tunnel depicting the Forts history and outlining our long term plans for the site.

The major work we have at the moment is uncovering the drainage on the roof and restoring it, unfortunately rain water is working its way into the casemates and we need to investigate why this is happening. We have uncovered one section of this and hope to be able to restore this before moving on to the next section.

The biggest issue we have at Fort Luton is spoil removal, during the 1990’s a large amount of spoil was spread over the fort. As a result of this we need to find a way to remove this and restore the levels and landscaping of the fort. Any suggestions welcome!!!

By Kyn (Kent History Forum)

Archcliffe exploding gun

On a Thursday evening of August 1860 the members of the Volunteer Artillery Corps were at Archcliffe Fort practising with three 32-pounder smoothbore muzzle-loading guns that were mounted along the front of the battery. The guns were firing at a target placed in the channel. Although all three of the guns were around 60 years old they had all been fired many times and were thought to be perfectly safe. The guns were being watched by many of the corps who were standing to the right of the battery, they were standing about twelve yards from No.2 Gun. This gun had been fired ten times already that evening and when Mr Hadlow, the gunner responsible for firing it, applied the slow match it was a massive shock when the gun exploded.

 

Mr Hadlow was lucky to escape with a minor injury to his head, some men that had been watching were blown into the defensive ditch that ran around the fort but were uninjured. Lieutenant Thompson however was not so lucky, he was found lying on his back, he stood up with heavy breathing and a wound in his back and said, “I am not hurt, let us see to the others”, with this he turned around, fell backwards and died. A young man called Harris, the nephew of Captain Wollaston the Corps Commander, was taken to the military hospital, a quarter of a mile away with Sergeant John Monger. Harris was suffering from concussion and made a full recovery however Sergeant Monger died on arrival. Robert Foster Junior was the luckiest man of them all, at the time of the explosion he was walking back to the battery from the magazine where he had just collected the next cartridge to be fired, had he been closer to the explosion the cartridge could have also exploded and killed him. The gun had disintegrated with the explosion, the muzzle had dropped to the ground, the breech was blown 30 yards to the rear of the gun and the remaining parts had shattered, throwing fragments in all directions. Two pieces landed in the goods yard of the rail way and another had imbedded itself into the ground.

 

Sergeant Monger was buried with full military honours, the gun carriage bearing his coffin and drawn by seven horses was led through packed streets to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin before being buried at Cowgate Cemetery. Representatives of the Royal Artillery and Rifle Brigades of Dover, Deal, Hythe, Folkestone and other towns and from The Dover Corporation, the Mayor, Aldermaen, Councillors, Freemen and the Town Clerk attended the service. Many towns’ people lined the rain-wet streets to pay their respects and many friends and colleagues attended the funeral. Later a memorial paid for by small subscriptions from the garrison, Volunteers, visitors and town residents was erected over his grave. In life John Monger, 32, had kept a tobacconist’s shop in Snargate Street, he was a father of two young daughters and a husband to Elizabeth, who was buried with him 18 years later.

 

In contrast to the public ceremony for John Monger the second fatality of the evening, Lieutenant Thompson, was a private affair. He was interred in his families vault at St Andrews Church in Sheaperdswell in accordance to his will. Lieutenant Thompson was a solicitor and coroner for the borough, his death caused the authorities some problems as there was nobody to conduct an inquiry into the deaths. It is very rare for a town coroner to die a violent death in his own town.

 

The accident was investigated and Sergeant Matthews, a Volunteer Corps Instructor, concluded that the gun had been loaded properly with it also been washed out (to remove previous gunpowder) and everything done in the correct way. Fragments of the canon were sent to officials at a metal foundry and found to be without fault. Captain Hardy of the Royal Artillery also inspected fragments of the gun that was donated by the Royal Arsenal at Woolich on 13th September 1859, no faults could be found. The gun had fired 180 rounds since it had been with the Volunteers, a gun of this type should be able to fire one thousand rounds in it’s lifetime. The gun had been made by Walker & Co., of cast iron and was proved on 18th May 1805, it was first used aboard H.M.S. Edgar, later on H.M.S. Barham in 1812 and later still on H.M.S. Asia in 1836 before being stored in Portsmouth in 1845. While at Portsmouth the canon was inspected and found the vent was enlarged, this indicated the gun had shot over 500 rounds.

 

The verdict of the accident investigation was the condition of the gun was obviously poorer than expected and that all guns must be inspected periodically.

By Kyn (Kent History Forum)

Preparing for Doomsday

The history and archaeology of a Cold War bunker at Gravesend: a research and reporting project

It has been a remarkable – and at times exciting – journey, beginning with the discovery in 1990 of a 13-room Cold War Civil Defence Control Centre under Woodlands Park, Gravesend.   This was built in 1954 and maintained during the first half of the Cold War as a command post for the coordination of local civil defence forces  in the event of an air attack, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons.

That this may form the basis of a new and more complete cut-away view of the interior of the bunker. (c) English Heritage
That this may form the basis of a new and more complete cut-away view of the interior of the bunker. (c) English Heritage

The second step along the way was a proposal in 1995 by the New Tavern Fort Project (later renamed Thames Defence Heritage) to the owner, Gravesham Borough Council, for a voluntary project to restore and refurnish the bunker for public access.  An enlightened council readily granted permission, leading to historical research to better understand the building and to inform restored layouts.  Parallel with this was a programme to collect appropriate historical artefacts and furnishings, sometimes involving long trips and challenging extractions from holes in the ground as well as from other bunkers no longer required by central or local government.  Before long the council generously funded the introduction of emergency lighting, a fire detection and alarm system, partial rewiring, as well as other works

Visitor booklet for the bunker
Visitor booklet for the bunker

The bunker received its first visitors in 2000 but its refurnishing and display continued to be strengthened.  Following discussions with Chris Pond MP, during 2004 (the bunker’s 50thanniversary year) a formal museum opening ceremony was attended by an Attaché from the Russian Embassy who helped unveil a commemorative plaque with the builder of the bunker,  George Rattray.  A little later and thanks to negotiations between Adam Holloway MP and the Ministry of Defence a menacing nuclear bomb casing was delivered for display to visitors.  The bunker became the most fully refurnished bunker of its type in Britain, made accessible to the public by volunteer guides from Thames Defence Heritage.  Its visitation went from strength to strength.  The Second World War-like ambience of the early Cold War period refurnishing led to the bunker becoming a backdrop to part of a Sean Bean motion picture, Age of Heroes.  However, more recently ground water penetration and flooding has led to temporary closure for remedial works.  Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council hope to re-open the bunker to visitors in 2015.

Although during his time as Director of Thames Defence Heritage the writer produced a research-based visitor booklet on the bunker, he is well-advanced with the preparation of an academic study, also for publication.  This should be helpful in strengthening and varying informational and interpretive outputs for this site at a number of levels.  He is delighted that former senior staff from emergency planning teams (who are also members of the Historic Defences Committee) as well as specialists from English Heritage have agreed to participate.  There may be others.    It is the aim to include enhanced graphics to further interpret the bunker, including a cut-away view of the interior, peopled as though in operational use.  Supplementing this may also be a strip cartoon of a ‘what-if’ scenario.

A look inside the visitor booklet for the bunker
A look inside the visitor booklet for the bunker

The writer thanks members of Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council for their steadfast support and participation in the historic development of the Cold War bunker for public access.

Victor Smith

Formerly Director of Thames Defence Heritage

January 2015

Any enquiries about obtaining a copy of the visitor booklet should be addressed to Sandra Soder of Thames Defence Heritage – sandrasoder@yahoo.co.uk

HOPE FOR A DECAYING TUDOR BLOCKHOUSE AT GRAVESEND?

Gravesend Blockhouse as it looked in the 16th century. (c) Chris Forsey
Gravesend Blockhouse as it looked in the 16th century. (c) Chris Forsey

Displayed in a fenced area in Royal Pier Road on Gravesend’s riverside are the brick and stone remains of one of a network of five cross-firing artillery blockhouses built by Henry VIII in 1539/40 to guard the river approaches to London.  It is the only one of them visible.  Excavated in 1975/6 it was stabilised and then displayed for the public by a succession of owners.  Such was its national historical significance and regional value within the suite of defences of the Thames that it became a Scheduled Ancient Monument and its stabilisation was renewed just over 10 years ago.

Unfortunately in recent years the building has suffered both vandalism and structural maintenance issues, resulting in an attrition of fabric and even removal of bricks and stone off-site.  There is also growth of weeds between bricks and its setting has become untidy.  Before long, the building could become a candidate for the national At Risk register.

Gravesend Blockhouse
Gravesend Blockhouse (c) Victor Smith

This situation has been brought to the attention of the owner of the blockhouse which is considering the issues of the site.  An immediately available ‘pump priming’ fund for remedial works has been identified and advised.  Advice about routine structural inspections and maintenance to avoid more expensive problems developing later has also been given, as well as about control of weeds and a regime of mowing for the grassed surround.  It is hoped soon to learn of an action plan for this nationally important building which is located in a show-case position within Gravesend’s heritage riverside.  Without timely action, the display of this site may have a bleak future.

On another property adjacent it is hoped to undertake a limited archaeological investigation to explore the blockhouse’s Western Gun Line, with the aim of learning more about the site.

Report from Victor Smith, 28th December 2014.

Gravesend Blockhouse
Gravesend Blockhouse (c) Victor Smith