20 October 2017

Architecture in focus: Tilbury Fort

By Engaging Places | 3 October 2014

Enemy ships sailing up the Thames estuary towards the Tilbury Fort in the 17th Century would have been confronted by a fearsome row of cannons protected by a steep embankment.

Aerial photo of Tilbury Fort

Aerial view of Tilbury Fort © English Heritage photo library

Soldiers attempting to attack from behind would have seen a strange pentagonal building with arrowhead-shaped bastions allowing the soldiers inside the fort to fire in all directions. A double line of moats further protected the fortifications. No wonder no-one risked attacking Tilbury Fort!

Tilbury Fort was built where the River Thames narrows so ships were within easy reach of onshore guns. It protected London for nearly 400 years. The first fort on this site was built by Henry VIII. The present fort was developed in 1672 in the reign of Charles II and took 13 years to build. It was built from earth embankments faced with brick.

In 1716, two magazines were built to store barrels of gunpowder. The magazines had to be built with very thick walls and the floorboards were secured with wooden pegs instead of metal ones. This was done to make sure the stored gunpowder did not explode inside the fort!

Soldiers were garrisoned at Tilbury Fort until the 1920s and again during World War II, when it was used as a base for anti-aircraft guns to protect the London docks.

Architectural style
17th Century fort

Building highlights
Tilbury Fort has changed little in over 300 years and is the best preserved fort in Britain.

Quirky facts

  • Because the ground was marshy, 2,000 wooden piles were brought from Norway to make the foundations for the fort.
  • Sluice gates were built into the moats so the soldiers could flood the surrounding marshes or empty the moats when there was danger of freezing over.
  • The fort’s defences were never put to the test. The worst bloodshed happened in 1776, when a fight broke out after a Kent-Essex cricket match and a cricketer and the fort's sergeant were killed.
Photo of two boys next to a cannon overlooking the moat surrounding Tilbury Fort

Boys looking out from ramparts on Tilbury Fort © English Heritage photo library

Using this building as a teaching resource
Visiting a fort can help students to understand the importance of fortification for protection throughout history, until changes in warfare in the 20th Century.

Walking through the gate and into the gunpowder magazines, feeling and smelling the damp, thick walls, looking at the huge guns and listening to stories from some of those who worked, visited or were imprisoned in the fort enhances student engagement with history. It provides students with an opportunity to engage with primary evidence and to develop enquiry and thinking skills.

Suggested activities

Key stage 2/3 – History and Art and design
What is this building for? How can we tell? List the features that make it specially appropriate for this purpose. 

Key stage 3 – Citizenship
Forts provided security against attack. Tilbury Fort was designed so that the soldiers could see who was coming from any direction, as well as providing physical protection. How are modern buildings designed to be secure? Ideas storm all the different features that can help to make a public building secure.

Key stage 2 – Art and design
The main entrance to the fort, the Water Gate, is decorated with carvings which show the equipment needed to fire a cannon. Design an entrance gateway for a building of your choice (eg your school), decorated in a way that shows clearly what the building is for.

East of England

Thurrock, RM18 7NR

School visits to Tilbury Fort and all other English Heritage sites are free. You still need to book your visit, see details on the English Heritage website, or call 01223 582732.

Further information

English Heritage website – information on Tilbury Fort

Word definitions
Bastions – a structure that protrudes out from the main fortification, normally at the corners of a wall. It provides the defenders with a broader range to attack intruders.
Magazine – a storehouse for ammunition.
Garrison – a military post where troops are stationed.

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