During the mid 1800s there was considerable alarm in the United Kingdom generated by the territorial ambitions of Emperor Napoleon III of France, a traditional enemy, and the growing power of imperial Germany. The threat was so great that a Royal Commission was set up in 1859 to review UK defences and report its findings to parliament, which it did in 1860.
One of its recommendations was the construction of five forts to provide defence to Chatham’s Eastern flank and the strategically important Chatham dockyard where the new iron-clad warships were to be constructed. The forts were: Darland, Twydall, Luton, Horsted and Bridgewoods. Military opinion on the usefulness of fixed fortifications was divided possibly leading to the forts becoming known as Palmerston’s follies after the Prime Minister of the day Lord Palmerston.
Work started on Fort Horsted, named after the area and by far the largest of the five, in 1880 using a convict labour force from the newly constructed Borstal prison and supervised by the Royal Engineers. The central tunnel and casemates were the first features to be constructed using bricks laid on timber formers and then covered in concrete to a depth of several metres. If you look at the roof of the main tunnel you can see the impression left by the timber formers. The last feature was the thirty foot deep dry moat that completely encircles the Fort. The chalk and flint from this major excavation was piled on top of the concrete to provide further protection from bombardment. By 1889 the work on the Fort had been completed and its role of providing a garrison, munitions store and water supply top up to Forts Luton and Bridgewoods began.
Constructed in the shape of a six sided arrow head, with each flank protected by machines guns in the counterscarp galleries, the Fort would have been home to a garrison of approximately 400 men and women. Although never permanently so, a fort of this size would have been armed with:
- Eight 8” Howitzers on recoilless carriages
- Four 6.6” Howitzers
- Twelve 20-pounder rifled breech loading guns
- Thirteen 64-pounder rifled muzzle loading guns
- Twelve 32-pounder smooth bore breech loading guns
The guns would have been supplied from ten expense magazines spread around the Fort equipped with hoists feeding munitions to the serving rooms directly above. Most of the guns were movable and could be deployed anywhere around or outside the Fort it enabling a field of fire to protect Chatham’s entire Eastern flank. The style of warfare at the time was for high angle artillery shells to be fired at targets from long range (one to three miles) while close quarter combat relied on sappers digging tunnels under defences and setting off mines. Fort Horsted lies approximately three miles away from the principle target of Chatham dockyard meaning invaders would have to get through the ring to attack the target.
The ring of Forts was put to the test on the 1st July 1907 when 2500 officers and men (the blue army) attacked a much smaller force of 1000 defenders (the red army) to take the dockyard. Since this was a peacetime operation, no shots or artillery were exchanged and both armies relied on the traditional methods of mining, countermining and explosives. The red army concentrated on attacking Forts Luton and Bridgewoods both of which had ‘fallen’ by August 2nd, proving that the Forts were not impregnable but could severely delay an attacking force.
WWI & WWII
For the next 60 years the Fort remained in military hands with a small garrison from the Royal Ordnance Corps and latterly the Royal Artillery in continuous occupation. Although much of their activities during this time is still covered by the official secrets act it is known that the Fort was used to manufacture and store ammunition.
During WWII a light anti-aircraft emplacement comprising 3.7” and Bofors guns were installed and controlled from Fort Luton. On the 15th September 1940, at the height of the Battle for Britain, an observer reported sighting six enemy aircraft being shot down in a 20 minute period. By the early sixties, however, the military no longer had any use for Fort Horsted and it was sold for £10,000 to a development company in 1963.
The unloved years
During the next 34 years the Fort had a variety of owners and tenants including Kent County Council, Ford UK, Boxwell Developments, the Biber Group, The Rootes Group, the Rochester Motor Company and Fort Tyres. Milestone dates were 1972 and 1976. In 1972 an application was made to demolish the Fort and build 120 private homes. A two day public enquiry was held and Geoffrey Rippon, Secretary of State for the Environment, stated that Fort Horsted was an ancient monument of great local interest and the application was denied.
By 1976 the Fort was owned by All Tyres or Fort Tyres a company registered in Germany that ran a number of businesses one of which was tyre remoulding. At some point an estimated 100,000 tyres were dumped on top of the site, in the tunnels and completely filled the moat.
The great fire
At midday on Wednesday July 7th 1976 an enormous fire broke out, probably as a result of a grass fire and burned for weeks. At the peak of the blaze over 50 fire fighters were on the scene, traffic diverted and the local college evacuated. After the blaze, the owners continued trading but the gradual decline of the Fort accelerated. Vegetation was allowed to grow unchecked throughout the site, units fell into disrepair, car breaking businesses moved in and the Fort became a regular haunt for the local constabulary seeking information on missing vehicles.
By the early 1990s the Fort was all but deserted, derelict and in much need of attention. English Heritage and the Environment Agency issued an enforcement notice on the legal owners with a £1,000,000 liability to clear up the site and remove all the tyres. Instead, the owners put up the Fort for auction and it was bought by Avondale Environmental Services Ltd in 1997.
Having decided that the future for this historic monument lay in it being able to sustain itself in terms of income generation and investment, a business plan was put to English Heritage and the Environment Agency to not only clear the site but also to develop it into small business units. By staying within government guidelines for the restoration and renovation of historic sites and keeping all works in character, English Heritage relaxed its normally strict rules and considered relatively modern proposals.
English Heritage continued to support Avondale during the next four years as it cleared the tyres and put the Fort back to a habitable condition. Avondale was finally able to occupy the Fort in August 2001 and begin the next chapter in its long life.
On April 26th 2007, Phase One of Fort Horsted Business Centre was officially opened for business. 6 refurbished business units became available on flexible lease terms together with state of the art conference facilities and a reception area.