Tilbury Fort


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Thurrock (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TQ 65152 75504

Reasons for Designation

Tilbury Fort is England's most spectacular surviving example of a late 17th century coastal fort, designed at a time when artillery had become the dominant feature of warfare and therefore built with massive low earthworks, resilient to the shock of bombardment, instead of stone fortifications. The layout and construction was geared to the optimum siting of cannon at the forward batteries which, in conjunction with batteries on the opposing bank of the Thames, could create a field of fire spanning the estuary providing defence for the river itself and the capital. The systems of bastions and complicated outworks defending the batteries from the rear is principally a Dutch design, extremely rare in England, and Tilbury is the best preserved and most complete example of the type.

The fort still retains many of its original internal features with most of the main buildings surviving as standing structures. The magazines are especially notable, as they are rare survivals of a very unusual building type. The buried remains of further structures, associated both with the operation of the 17th century fort and the Tudor blockhouse, will also survive within the fort. The remains of the blockhouse, and of features related to its operation, are important as they represent one of the earliest types of structure built exclusively for the use of artillery in warfare. Only 27 examples are known to survive, in a variety of conditions ranging from buried foundations to incorporation in later military constructions. All such examples with substantial archaeological remains are considered nationally important. At Tilbury Fort, the remains of the blockhouse are particulary significant given that this structure was retained as a component of the 17th century defences.

The foreshore contains waterlogged deposits, including wooden piling which will provide technical information on the construction techniques of the fort and permit detailed dendrochronological dating. The large quantity of contemporary documentation provides a detailed picture of the occupation of the fort and its development, both as a position of foremost strategic importance in the defence of the approach to London, and as part of a larger system of associated forts in the Thames and Medway area. The alterations to the defences resulting from the recommendations of the 1859 Royal Commission place Tilbury within the largest martitime defence programme since the time of Henry VIII. This programme, prompted by fears of French naval expansion, ultimately involved some 70 new and upgraded coastal forts and batteries, colloquially known as `Palmerston's follies'. They formed the visible core of Britain's coastal defence systems well into the 20th century, many of which were still found to be of use by World War II. Features at Tilbury which represent this final military phase (principally the pillbox on the western perimeter of the site), are considered to be an integral part of the fort's history.


Tilbury Fort is situated on low lying ground on the north bank of the River Thames, south east of the modern outskirts of Tilbury. The monument includes the buried remains of an Henrician blockhouse, the far larger and more complex fort and battery which succeeded the blockhouse in the late 17th century, the late 19th and early 20th century alterations to the fort and a World War II pillbox.

The blockhouse, the first permanent defensive structure in this location, was constructed in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's campaign to improve the coastal defences. Small fortified barracks were sited both here and at East Tilbury (about 5km distant), and on the opposite side of the estuary at Gravesend, Milton and Higham. None of these buildings now survive above ground, although contemporary illustrations provide details of their appearance. The Tilbury blockhouse, like the others, had two stories and was D-shaped in plan - the curved elevation, pierced by gun ports, provided a wide field of fire across the river. Alterations to the blockhouse were occasioned by the threat of Spanish invasion in the late 16th century and, following the defeat of the Armada in 1588, the building was encircled by a ditch and counterscarp bank with drawbridge and timber palisade. Within this enclosure (which was located roughly in the centre of the southern side of the present fort) stood barracks and store buildings.

The Thames blockhouses were maintained through the period of the English Civil War, but played little part in the conflict. After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II began a complete reorganisation of the national defences which, following a highly successful Dutch raid up the Thames and Medway in 1667, came to include Tilbury. The new fort and battery, based on principles pioneered in the Low Countries, were designed by Charles' chief engineer Sir Bernard de Gomme. Work began in 1670 and the resulting fortifications remain substantially unaltered to this day. The fighting front of the new fort was a linear battery extending along the shoreline for approximately 250m to either side of the Henrician blockhouse, which was retained as a powder magazine. Of the 14 original gun positions (renewed with brick revetments towards the end of the 18th century) 12 survive along the West Gun Line, marked by triangular projections on the seaward side of an earthen rampart. The East Gun Line has been more severely eroded over the years leaving only a single gun platform. Behind each line are the remains of artillery store buildings dating from the 1840s and the buried foundations of earlier structures. The two gun lines were separated by a square quay (now largely overlain by modern flood defences) where stores and munitions were landed. These were then taken via a narrow causeway (the Powder Bridge) to the blockhouse and the new fort which guarded the landward side of the battery.

De Gomme's fort is pentagonal in plan, with arrowhead-shaped bastions projecting from four of the angles, allowing guns positioned behind the parapets to command wide areas and to be mutually supportive in close quarter defence. Pilings in the intertidal zone in front of the site of the blockhouse indicate an intention to add a fifth bastion to complete the regular appearance of the fort, but work is thought to have been abandoned at an early stage. The scheduling extends across the foreshore in front of the fort (approximately 50m below the modern flood wall) in order to protect these remains and those of various other jetties and piers associated with the frontage of the fort. Some of these are recorded on early maps, others have been identified by recent survey work. The original jetty for the Gravesend ferry, for example, stood here before it was relocated in 1681.

The brick built curtain wall which both encloses and links the bastions is largely original, with some later heightening of the parapet, and survives around all but the south eastern bastion and side of the fort. It supports massive internal earthen banks designed to absorb the impact of bombardment and to provide a firing platform for the defenders. The pentagonal area within the ramparts, known as `The Parade', covers about a hectare, and is raised above the level of the surrounding marsh by layers of chalk, clay and gravel surfaced with stone paving. The Soldiers' Barracks, a rectangular building some 50m in length with 20 rooms, was situated along the western edge of the parade parallel to the curtain wall. It was damaged by bombing in World War II, together with the kitchen, mess hall, hospital and other structures, and has since been demolished. Unlike these other structures, the footings of the barrack block remain marked out on the ground. On the opposite side of the Parade stands the 18th century terrace of the Officer's Barracks.

On the north side of the parade are two brick built powder magazines dating from 1716, the eastern of which is used as a visitors centre and display area. Each magazine has two entrances in the south wall with wooden doors reinforced with copper sheeting. The magazines are surrounded by a brick blast wall constructed in 1746. This originally had entrances corresponding to those of the magazines themselves, although these were later blocked and new staggered entrances added for more effective blast containment. Though altered in the 19th century the magazines still contain many of their original features, including ventilation slits and (within the eastern magazine) raised wooden floors to prevent damp affecting the powder. The two magazines are separated by a passage giving access to the Parade from the Landport Gate directly to the north. The gateway consists of a brick vaulted entrance hall supporting an upper storey with a single room containing some original plaster work and fragments of 18th century wall paintings. The main entrance to the fort, known as the Water Gate, is situated in the middle of the south curtain. This is a two storied brick structure with an elaborate outer facade faced with ashlar and including a frieze with a dedication to Charles II with supporting motifs of gun carriages and other military regalia. A blocked doorway in the east wall would have originally given access to the house of the sutler (camp follower who sold drink and provisions to the troups) which now only survives as foundations. Adjacent to the west side of the Water Gate is a two storied building, the lower part of which served as a guard room and the upper floor as a chapel. There is no direct access between the two floors, the entrance to the chapel being provided from the curtain wall. Also within the parade are three mid-19th century hand pumps used to draw rainwater from underground cisterns.

The elaborate outworks which surround the landward sides of the fort remain substantially unaltered. The curtain wall and bastions are flanked by a broad terrace, or berm, in turn surrounded by a 50m wide moat following the outline of the fort. A narrow strip of dry land separates this channel from a more sinuous outer moat and contains a complex of defensive structures, the main element of which is a rampart, or covered way, traceable as a low earthwork running along most of its length. The covered way, with internal firing step, or banquette, acted as a communications channel linking the outer gun positions with the main body of the fort. In the middle of its eastern and western arms are triangular projections known as `places of arms' which served as muster points for troops defending the covered way, and originally contained platforms for cannon. The covered way to the south of the eastern place of arms was modified in 1779 to provide an additional battery of six guns providing a field of fire down river. Access to the Landport Gate was by a wooden drawbridge across the inner moat. This has not survived but has been replaced by a modern replica. The northern end of this bridge stands on an arrowhead shaped island, or ravelin, within the inner moat. The ravelin would have contained gun emplacements to defend the Landport Gate from direct bombardment and provide covering fire for the northern bastions. A further wooden bridge, also a modern replacement, links the north western side of the ravelin to the covered way between the moats. The approach continues northward over causeways which cross a second triangular island, known as a redan, in the outer moat. The low earthworks of a redoubt (an enclosed area containing further gun emplacements) remain visible on the redan. The two moats are connected by a sluice to the east of the ravelin, and the water level is controlled by a second sluice between the south eastern corner of the outer moat and the adjacent tidal creek (Bill Meroy Creek). Water management formed a significant part of the fort's system of defences. The ability to drain the moats was vital both for periodic removal of silts and to prevent attack over the frozen surface in winter. Beyond the moats, wider areas of the marsh were enclosed by banks and could be partly flooded to hinder an approaching force and prevent the construction of adjacent siege works. This wider basin is defined to the west by Fort Road (which runs along the top of part of the containment bank), to the north by a bank linking Fort Road to the head of Bill Meroy Creek, and to the east by the creek itself - which effectively provided a third moat along this side. These earthworks, and the area which they contain, are included in the scheduling along with the earthen dam across Bill Meroy Creek which regulated the water level.

Tilbury Fort remained at the forefront of the defence of the Thames and London through the 18th and early 19th centuries, although it never saw the action for which it was designed, and it was partly superseded by forward batteries established down river at Coalhouse Point, Hope Point and Shornmead in 1795. The Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom in 1859 found all these defences inadequate and shortly afterwards larger forts were constructed at Coalhouse, Shornmead and Cliffe Creek. It was recommended that Tilbury be made more efficient, but as it was now relegated to a secondary position the alterations were far from radical, allowing the 17th century layout to survive. Embrasures and platforms for new heavy guns were added to cover the river from the north east and west bastions in 1868, the pivots and racers for which remain in position. Each gun was supplied by a brick vaulted expense magazine containing lifts and ventilators from chambers below where the powder and shot were combined. These chambers were joined by passages and linked to main underground magazines situated beneath the centres of the bastions. Separate passages contained lamps which shone through plate glass windows into the magazines and passageways. Both bastions also have positions for 10 inch smooth bore howitzers mounted on the northern flanks to cover the landward approach. The mid-19th century 32 pound guns presently mounted on the west and north east bastions are not original armaments. Towards the end of the 19th century, a light narrow gauge railway was laid out across the Parade to aid the transport of ammunition and stores. A section of the rails can still be seen on the quay, near the powder magazines and in the modern gateway to the east of the Water Gate.

The 1868 gun positions on the east bastion and south eastern curtain wall are masked by later emplacements built shortly before World War I. The curtain wall was realigned to give a better field of fire and four positions with concrete emplacements were let into the earlier embrasures on the wall for breech loading guns. Two more massive emplacements were constructed on the bastion for heavier guns, probably naval 6 inch. The mechanical hoists which served the larger guns still survive. The new defences never saw action in World War I, although anti-aircraft guns mounted in the parade did provide a spectacular military success by bringing down a German airship. In the early stages of World War II the chapel housed the Operations Room which controlled the anti-aircraft defences of the Thames and Medway (North) Gun Zone, until it was relocated to a purpose built structure at Vange in 1940. A small rectangular pillbox, located slightly to the north of the western end of the West Gun Line, was added at this time to control the river front approach to the fort and provide enfilade fire across the rear of the old battery positions. This is included in the scheduling. In 1948 the Commissioner of Crown Lands placed Tilbury Fort in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works to ensure conservation and public display. It is in the care of the Secretary of State.

A number of features within the area are excluded from the scheduling; these are the replica bridges, the Officer's Barracks and attached stable, the 19th century workshop to the south east of the Parade, the public toilets, all fences, fenceposts and signposts, the modern surfaces of all roads and car parks, the replica sentry boxes flanking the passage between the powder magazines, all guns presently positioned on the batteries and within the fort and all modern fixtures such as light fittings and flagpoles; the ground beneath these features and the structures to which they are attached, are included in the scheduling.

The line of the modern flood wall, built along the front of the East and West Gun Lines in the mid-1980s, is totally excluded from the scheduling both above and below ground.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Saunders, A D, Tilbury Fort, (1990), 30
Saunders, A D, Tilbury Fort, (1990)
1st draft scheduling proposal (notes), Wykes, I, Tilbury Fort, (1995)
Moore, P, Tilbury Fort Defences, 1994, Unpublished survey (Essex County Co)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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