In which local historian Chris Sams digs into the past and ponders what we should be seeking to preserve..
It is a sad fact of life that you cannot save everything from your past. In 2007 my grandfather passed away and it was with heavy heart that I took responsibility for clearing out his house. It was not an easy task with a lot of the objects holding some sort of sentimental attachment or just that it had been Pop’s. The end result was that in 2016 when I moved house (from his old house to my current address) I found myself packing a lot of stuff that was Pop’s and I had to be brutal with what came with us and what was going to have to be discarded. By contrast when my other grandfather died in 2014 my Mother cleared the house and the majority of the belongings were discarded save for a few keep sakes.
The same is true for heritage sites and local authorities.
In the Medway towns we are quite lucky that there are several key Heritage sites that are being preserved including Rochester Castle and Cathedral, the Bridges, Chatham Dockyard, Upnor Castle, Fort Amherst, the Lines, and of course the historical microcosm that is Rochester High Street. There are other areas that have been less fortunate and have fallen into disrepair or been ripped up over time. This is especially true of the former defences around the Medway Towns.
In the 1850s there was a concern that Chatham Dockyards may face attack in a similar way that the Dutch had done some two hundred years before hand but this time by the French. At the time the defences consisted of the inner defensive ring of Forts Pitt and Amherst and Upnor Castle. The 1859 Royal Commission looked into defensive measures that could be taken around Great Britain and Medway was to receive its fair share of defences.
An outer ring of defensive forts, nicknamed Palmerston Forts after the sitting Prime Minister who championed the cause. They are also known as Palmerston Follies as they were considered to be of limited military value considering the cost and also that the first ones in Portsmouth had their guns facing inland to protect the town from French land invasion rather than the obvious sea route!
Medway’s Palmerston forts were scattered in a circuit stretching from Fort Borstal (where the prison is sited), Fort Bridgewood (demolished in 1975), Fort Horsted, Fort Luton, Fort Darland (demolished), and the twin forts Darnet and Hoo situated on islands in the estuary, and visible from the Strand though not accessible. These forts have had little impact on the history of the country beyond the death at the hands of the Royal Military Police of Rifleman Clayton during World War Two, a story that may be for another day. Many of the fortifications have been demolished over the years and those that remain are either held privately as scheduled monuments which grants them a certain amount of protection from development but not necessarily from dilapidation, and as such there is no plan to save Fort Darnet and Hoo as they collapse over time. It would be a shame to see these forts eventually fall into the Medway and the idea of their loss does sadden me but considering the fact that the islands they rest on are not stable and that during construction they had to abandon a second tier of gun emplacements because the weight would cause the Medway mud to shift and cause the first layer to sink, I can understand that there is not a lot the council can do to save them.
So what has this got to do with contemporary Medway politics?
Well, I was reading the Medway Conservative’s latest leaflet and on there were the following sentences:
- Always support our Military personnel and military heritage, as the only political party to consistently do so.
- Continue to respect and treasure Medway’s rich heritage and culture.
My first thought was of the derelict U-boat out on the mud flats then disregarded that as, other than me, only a small minority of people would really care about that. Then I thought about Fort Darnet and Hoo out on the river and how the council could have missed a trick having a Medway version of Alcatraz with boat tours etc. Then I remembered the mud and the sinking issue. Then I remembered something that one of Medway’s poorer relations is quite famous for, it is right on my doorstep and no one knows about.
As the Royal Commission looked at defending the Medway towns from a seaborne and landward invasion they had to look at defences from a landward attack from the east along the coast. Rather than building another fortification along the grounds of Fort Hoo which was insight of Lower Rainham road the government decided to try something experimental. The Royal Engineers and a civilian contractor were requested to build two sets of Infantry redoubts that had sites for artillery to cover the approaches and the estuary. These redoubts drew on lessons learnt during the Russo-Turkish war 1877-8 where Ottoman earthworks thrown up in defensive positions were able to absorb incoming shells and the garrison using repeating rifles were able to break up the incoming infantry boards.
Both Twydall redoubts were constructed in 1885 with the borthern one called “Grange redoubt” and the southern “Woodlands redoubt.” The latter cost £1800 and was built in 31 days against the £45000 a traditional fort would cost and Fort Horsted taking 10 years to build!
The design featured a low and flat earthen parapet no more than 20ft high and a 1:10 gradient which fell 15-20 feet into a ditch with and “unclimbable” fence or Dacoit fence which was itself 9ft tall with a steep counterscarp to protect the main fortifications from artillery fire. The low profile of the fortifications meant it was hard to spot from over 1500 yards making it hard for enemy artillery to spot it whilst the gradient of the slopes meant the shells were likely to ricochet off. There was also a bomb proof interior that could hold a “modest” garrison. Any forward infantry attack would find themselves caught under heavy fire in the ditch or tangled in the barbed wire covered slopes whilst racked by the garrison’s breach loaded guns and repeating rifle fire. Access to the garrison was over a drawbridge over the ditch.
The design was so successful that it became a blueprint for other defensive positions around the country including Steyne Wood battery on the Isle of Wight, Beacon Hill Battery, Penlee Battery, North Weald Essex, Fort Farningham, Fort Macaulay in British Columbia in Canada, spreading the name of Twydall across the Empire.
So what remains of these redoubts now and can you visit them?
I’m afraid there is not much left at all. They were listed as public air raid shelters in World War One but have fallen into disrepair with Grange Redoubt still having its earth works but no buildings whilst Woodlands has fallen in complete disrepair with both losing large parts of the original structure and only Woodlands having some of its original casemates. Both are in the hands of private landlords and you cannot access them.
What amazes me is that there is very little information available on them within Medway itself. Further to that, from a party and council that supports and treasures our shared military heritage, the land was open for the new Gillingham FC development.
As a lifelong Gillingham FC fan (sorry), I followed the plans to move the stadium from near enough in my old back garden at Priestfield, out to beyond Yokusuka Way in the green spaces right on top of what remains of the Twydall redoubts. The plan did not develop as I understand some of the landlords did not want to sell their land for the development but had they decided to sell up and go would we have seen these valuable militarily historical remains lost under the halfway line of Gillingham’s new ground without so much of a whimper?
Only Cllr Jarrett can answer that question.
This handily leads me back to the first anecdote at the beginning of the article – deciding what to keep and invest in and what to let go when the time comes. Every council is guided by money hence letting Fort Darnet eventually sink into the Medway and allowing two redoubts to go in favour of a new football complex that could draw in visitors and money leaving the tourists to marvel at the history in central Chatham and Rochester bringing their money to local business instead.