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

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

A Fatal Fire at Milton Regis 1915

A Fire Fatal at Milton Regis by Alan R. Anstee

In February 1915 with large numbers of troops billeted in and around Sittingbourne the potential benefits of having troops in the area was demonstrated by the effects of a fire in King Street. The following account is based on reports in the Kent Messenger (KM) of the 6th February 1915 and the East Kent Gazette (EKG) of the same date. The later as well as reporting on the fire gave a full account of the subsequent inquest, article in the EKG by implying that military regulations on showing light by ensuring that the shutters were close may have contributed to the severity of Mrs Gibb’s injuries by preventing the fire being see early enough to save Mrs Gibbs.

The information that came out at the inquest held on the following Monday February 1st tells the story in full. The fire occurred at 12 King Street on Friday 30th January 1915 where Mrs Elizabeth Jane Gibbs, a widow, lived with the three youngest of her eight children. A neighbour who saw flames “roaring up the chimney” raised the alarm, the Milton Fire Brigade was called and in the meantime Mr R. Hampton started the ball rolling by throwing the first bucket of water into the house. Sapper Alfred Ernest Tapp R.E. (T) who was billet on Mr Hampton joined in, as did Sgts Kettle and Couldrey, both R.E.s and A.B. Cook Everest of Torpedo Boat No 12. Between them they stopped the fire spreading until the Fire Brigade arrived.

As the flames died a little Mrs Gibb’s body was seen near the door and Spr Tapp, a former member of the Tunbridge Wells Fire Brigade, rescued, what was found to be, her lifeless body. At this time it was thought that Mrs Gibbs young son was in the house but fortunately he was not. The prompt action of those who helped before the arrival of the brigade may well have prevented a major catastrophe by removing from the next door property, occupied by a Mr G. Jordan, quantities of flammable material including gunpowder and paraffin.

At the inquest a variety of witnesses told their story, Spr Tapp said that he thought it took about seven minutes before he got the body out and that the most likely cause was upsetting the oil lamp. Another witness Capt Norval Harry Prentis stated that the Fire Brigade arrived at ten past seven, just as Spr Tapp was bringing the body from the house. He said the front room was ablaze but the did not believe that it was caused by coals from the fire but it was more likely that the table had knocked overturning and smashing the lamp.

Harold William Archie Gibbs, the son of Mrs Gibbs stated that he left the house about 6.30 leaving his mother well. The lamp was lit and on the table, which was a good one and although the fire was lit there was not much fire in the grate and it was protected by a guard. He went on to say that although his mother had had a fit a few days before she was well and about to read a book when he left.

The Coroner Mr C.B. Harris told the jury that he believed that Mrs Gibbs had had a fit, and in falling upset the oil lamp; and had died in the ensuing fire. The foreman of the jury Rev E.D. Bowser the Vicar of Milton stated that the jury agreed with the conclusion of the Coroner and added that perhaps they should recommend to the Local Authority that all people known to have epilepsy should be provided with lamps that could not be overturned. The Coroner replied that he thought this rather Utopian. Final Sgt Kettle of the R.E. proposed a vote of thanks to the Fire Brigade for their prompt action the whole row of houses would have been lost.

The reason the author paid so much attention to the reports both of the fire and the inquest is that he was researching the unit which built the field works in Swale. It had been know for some time that it was one of three R.E. Fortress Companies who built them but which one. In the report of the inquest it stated that Spr Tapp’s full name Alfred Ernest and the (T) after R.E. that he was a member of the Territorial Force, which the three companies were. Fortunately his army record still exists and gives his unit as 2/4th Kent (Fortress) Company R.E., one of the three known to have worked on the Kent field works, thus solving the mystery and it is hoped providing an interesting local story as a by product.