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.

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

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