Coalhouse Fort stands on the north side of the River Thames. The current fort was built in the 1860s under the direction of General Gordon (of Khartoum), when he was based at Gravesend and in charge of the River defences.
However this is only the latest of a number of forts on this site dating back to the 15th century. The fort formed a triad with Shornemead and Cliffe Forts on the Kent side of the river and were designed as a front-line defence for an invasion or raid up the Thames towards London and the docks.
The Forts on the site have been:
1402: Village of East Tilbury protected by earthworks from French raiders
1539-40: East Tilbury Blockhouse, built by Henry VIII as part of his defences following his break with the Roman Church. It was one of 5 such blockhouses including the one at Tilbury a few miles west on the same bank and the one at Gravesend on the opposite bank.
1799: Coalhouse Battery, built in response to the revolutionary wars in France. It was decommissioned in 1814 following Napoleon’s defeat.
1840s: Coalhouse Fort: Recommissioned and expanded to take 17 32-pounder guns. However this was a time of rapid change and these guns were soon outdated. So the fort was redesigned and rebuilt in the 1860s to take the new rifle breach loading guns. This was part of a major upgrade of the river defences and in part was supervised by General Charles Gordon based at Gravesend. The armaments of the fort were changed a number of times due to the fast pace of armament development at the time. An additional battery was built 600m to the north east in the late 19th century.
First World War: Coalhouse Fort served in a number of different ways: searchlight station; minefield operation station (the mines could be exploded by a land based operator if a enemy ship tried to pass); examination station, checking ships entering the river; Anti-aircraft battery
1920-1940: Fort was put into care and maintenance status.
1940: Two guns taken from HMS Hood were installed on the fort to protect against German raids up the river. Two anti-aircraft guns were also fitted.
1944: Manned by Home guard detachment. Navy used Fort as ‘degaussing station’ checking that hulls of outgoing ships had been demagnetised to reduce the possible detonation of magnetic mines.
1946: Sea cadet training centre
After it was decommissioned in 1949, it was used as a storehouse for the local Bata shoe factory. There is a local tradition that the store only contained right (or left) shoes to prevent theft, though in reality this seems unlikely.
In the 1980s it was purchased by the local council and in 1985 it was leased to a conservation group, who set about repairing the decline in the buildings that had happened over 40 years and to establish the fort as a cultural and historical attraction. In conjunction the council developed the surrounding area as a park. Restoration was carried out following funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Voelia and Warner Bros, who used the fort in the 2005 film Batman. The conservation group closed last year handing the responsibility for the site back to Thurrock Council.
For further information on General Gordon and the River Thames Defences at Gravesend see: