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

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)

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

Fan Bay Deep Shelter

Fan Bay Deep Shelter

Fan Bay Deep Shelter is a system of underground tunnels located on the edge of Fan Hole on the White Cliffs. The shelter is located on the land which was purchased in the national appeal to buy the remaining section of the White Cliffs in 2012. The tunnels are in excellent condition and today remain the biggest and best preserved deep shelter in the Dover area. The underground tunnel system is almost all that remains of the Fan Bay battery. The site is an important part of UK conflict archaeology and it is made even more unique because two sound mirrors were located alongside the lower entrances. Part of the project seeks to uncover these mirrors, the survival of which would make the site nationally significant.

The National Trust local team supported by volunteers is in the process of excavating with the eventual aim of opening the Fan Bay tunnels to the public. This will involve the excavation of all three entrances and stabilization work to the underground structure. The National Trust is seeking to open the tunnels to the public by guided, torch lit tours hopefully in mid 2015. It is envisaged that very little work will be done to the inside of the tunnel system so visitors can enjoy a raw and truly unique historical experience.

fan bay
A typical section inside Fan Bay Deep Shelter

A historical summary of Fan Bay Battery:

The 2nd of September 1940 was a dark day for the town of Dover when for the first time it was the target for German guns now sited on the French Coast. Shells were just 60 seconds flying time from the town and over the following years of war many civilians and servicemen and women would lose their lives to German shells. The Germans had not been idle since the end of the Battle of France and had built large gun batteries in the area of Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, part of the so called Atlantic Wall, which would be used to support the planned invasion of England, Operation Sealion as well as for shelling the coastal area around Dover.

Following the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk, Churchill was infuriated to discover German shipping moved freely in the Dover Strait and with an increasing risk of invasion the War Office met in early September 1940 and approved sites for gun batteries along the most likely area for invasion. Churchill had also given orders that gun batteries should be able to hamper the movement of enemy shipping along the French coast. Fan Bay, along with other batteries to the east and west of Dover made up the ’Fortress’, a crucial part of the UK’s Second World War armaments and would be the first line of defence in case of invasion. To take the fight to the enemy Wanstone Battery was equipped with two 15 inch guns, named Winne and Pooh and along with the large railway guns were the only offensive weaponry out of all of the Dover fortifications, the others being designed for short range defensive purposes.

Construction of Fan Bay Battery began in November 1940 and its three six inch guns were installed by the end of that month. Weather hampered construction through winter of 1940/41 but eventually it was brought into action and the battery fired its first proving rounds on the 28th February 1941. The Battery was manned by 122 officers and other ranks from the 203rd Coast Battery, Royal Artillery, in due course 180 Army personal would be stationed here. When the South Foreland, Fan Bay and Wanstone Farm came under a unified command they became the 540 Coast Regiment. The finished battery had three six inch guns, magazines, radar, plotting rooms and large accommodation blocks both above and below ground (see fig: 1). Next to the lower tunnel entrances, known as drift tunnels were two sound mirrors and were relics of the previous war. The hastily constructed fortification represented cutting edge technology in its day and was personally inspected by Churchill, leading Generals and the American Secretary of State for defence.

The battery also had a large ‘deep shelter’ where troops could take refuge during counter bombardments. Designed to shelter 190 people, the deep shelter was carved out of the chalk by personnel from the 172nd Tunneling Company, Royal Engineers and was reached by one of three entrances. The shelter was constructed by driving through the chalk and then supporting that with reinforced heavy duty Iron girders and metal sheeting. Work commenced on the 20th November 1940 and was complete and handed over on the 28th February 1941, just 100 days of construction. The total floor space of the 6 chambers is 3500 square feet and located at an average depth of 70 feet (21 meters). When the shelter was completed it could accommodate all of the military personnel, with two tier bunks which had spaces between for rifle racks, stores and even a hospital. To enable the spoil to be removed from the tunneling a small narrow gauge railway was constructed allowing hand operated trucks to take the spoil to the cliff edge where it was tipped over. Fan Bay was unique in being the largest deep shelter and the drift tunnels accessed the two Sound Mirrors on the side of Fan Hole (see Fig:2).

Sound mirrors came in a variety of shapes and sizes. One of these features at Fan Bay dates back to the First World War when it was used in conjunction with a Sound Mirror at Joss Bay, North Foreland and provided early warning of enemy aircraft approaching London. From the outbreak of the First World War and up to the late 1930’s the Air Ministry experimented with some degree of success in building a chain of these listening devices to give early warning of aircraft approaching the United Kingdom. Even though these devices had proved themselves in wartime, technology never stands still and Sir Robert Watson-Watt was bringing to fruition a means of early warning using radio waves, what we call radar today. However these devices were not destroyed and indeed did play a small role in the Air Defence of Great Britain in World War 2 when the Luftwaffe paid particular attention to the radar stations that had been built around the coast. What is unique about the Fan Bay Sound Mirrors is the material condition they are in and it is a stated aim of the project to conserve the two sound mirrors at site.

The gun batteries and land remained under military administration until the 1960s, after which the land was returned to their original owners, however this land now had redundant gun batteries sited on it. In the 1970’s a local campaign started to ‘rid the White Cliffs of the eyesores of war’ in which Fan Bay along with other military structures throughout the Dover area were demolished. In Fan Bay only the subterranean features survived and the deep shelter, plotting rooms and magazines had their entrances covered over. Fan Bay had three small brick entrance blocks protecting the entrance to the shelters, when these were demolished they were toppled inwards which protected the main structure of the shelter. It is believed that the sound mirrors that were constructed into the side of the hill side were covered over and after a small preliminary excavation both mirrors have been confirmed to survive and indeed seem to be in remarkable condition.

One of the entrances into Fan Bay become accessible again in the 1980’s but the remote location of the site, combined with the fact that the entrance was extremely difficult to locate, helped preserve the site and has meant that only a few local historians and cavers have visited the tunnels.

What Work has been done so far?

Considerable work has taken place since the National Trust purchased the land around Fan Bay in 2012. NT have been working with a local group called KURG (Kent Underground Research Group). They have compiled a new scale survey of the tunnel network, as well as a report on the condition of the tunnels, as well as a graffiti survey and photographic survey also compiled by the Group. The National Trust then commissioned as asbestos report which found minimal contamination underground. This asbestos has now been removed and air quality tests have confirmed the air is safe to begin work.

With the asbestos removed a full structural survey was undertaken and the tunnels were found to be in good condition with no major structural issues. A second structural and geological survey has also been completed and found the tunnels to be safe apart from a few unlined areas of tunnels on the stairs and the sea ward tunnel. These sections will be supported and finished in wood by mine engineers to match the original wooded supports of the 1940’s.

A secure entrance was put on the shelter in September 2013 to protect the public and allow equipment to be left in the tunnels in between work days. The spoil blocking the Stairway from the surface to the underground tunnels has been removed and the process of removing the entrance spoil from the top set of stairs was commenced and completed by the KURG on the last work day of October 2013. With this work complete it was at last safe for the National Trust to allow volunteers and contractors into the tunnels to begin work.

What work needs to be done:

Fan Bay is located in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and SSSI (Special Site of Scientific Interest). Doing any work in the area must be carefully planned to minimise damage to the chalk grassland. The local property team began a detailed planning application over the winter months and when this application approved we hope to begin surface work some time in 2014. The planning application will need to carry out a detailed biodiversity assessment, archaeological investigation and must show how we will limit or repair any damage to the chalk grassland on the surface.

Whilst we compile the planning application there is all sorts of work which the National Trust volunteers and other contractors have been doing to the inside of the tunnels which includes securing and clearing the underground entrances, stabilising some sections of the tunnels, cleaning and reinstating the internal ductwork. Two new doors have been constructed and installed to protect the lower entrances when they are exposed. Over the course of many working days Volunteers lead by National Trust staff have been at work in the tunnels. One estimate puts the amount of spoil that has been dug and bagged for disposal as sixty tonnes but in addition to this much more has been moved within the tunnels making good some areas and also to cordon off an area of the tunnels that is has been identified as unstable.

When the planning application is approved work will begin to excavate and reinstate the original entrances on the site. Once these entrances have been opened and secured, further improvements and clearing works will be done and it should not be long now before Dover has another very important Conflict Heritage site open to the public. All of this would not be possible without the dedicated work the volunteers have put in at Fan Bay and there is further opportunity for people to get involved with getting the site ready, as well as helping to research the historical background.

fan bay 2

Fig: 1. Plan of Fan Bay Battery, surface and subterranean 1943

fan bay 3

Fig:2 Plan of the underground workings at Fan Bay.

Contact:

For further information or enquires please contact Jon Barker who is coordinating the project.

Jon Barker
Assistant Visitor Experience Manager
South Foreland Lighthouse
The Front
St Margarets Bay
Dover
Kent
CT156HP

Email: jon.barker@nationaltrust.org.uk
Office: 01304 853281
Mobile: 07500782943

HDC talk at Canterbury conference

October conference poster

View this poster for more details on a joint study day organised by The University of Kent with the Kent Archaeological Society and the Council for Kentish Archaeology.

The Grand 50th and 100th Year

Anniversary Conference

Saturday 18th October 2014

2.00pm – 5.15pm

At

Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury

Publications on aspects of the history and archaeology of Kent will be on sale

Including the talk:

If the Kaiser Should Come-

Defending Kent against invasion during the Great War.

Victor Smith

Historic Defences Committee

Defence against invasion!

Brought to you by the Kent Archaeological Society’s Historic Defences Committee, the Friends of Grain Coastal Park and by Bourne Leisure

Defence against invasion!

Visit Slough Fort, Allhallows and the military landscape at Grain

Saturday 25th October 2014, 1045-1530

 

  1.  1045 Start with tea/coffee at the Owners’ Lounge, Allhallows Leisure Park, off Avery Way, Allhallows and an introductory briefing by Victor Smith. Then visit Slough Fort built in 1867 to stop the French (later the Germans) from storming ashore and racing across the Hoo Peninsula to capture Chatham Dockyard.  See also the emplacements for the later ‘pop-up’ guns and learn how they were directed on to target.

 

  1.  1330 After lunch break (bring your own food), leave Allhallows to visit the Grain Coastal Park.  There, guided by Michael Dale learn how the military landscape has become a coastal park.  Walk the verdant trails and see the fine river views showing how the defences cross-fired with those at Sheerness.  Hear from Michael of the rich history and the many curiosities of Grain.

 

Visit information:

 

  • You will need a car to visit both places.  There is parking.  At Allhallows you will be given a map showing you how to get to the car park at Allhallows.
  • Walking distances are very short at Allhallows but longer at Grain.
  • The paths are visitor-friendly at both places but you are advised to wear walking shoes or boots.
  • This is not a tour suitable for those with mobility problems.

 

Booking only:

 

Visits are by booking only.  To book please either telephone Bourne Leisure at Allhallows Leisure Park on 01634 270385 or email craig.austin@bourne-leisure.co.uk to be placed on the visitor list.  £5 is payable when arriving at the Owners’ Lounge (cash or a cheque made payable to the Kent Archaeological Society)