Author Topic: Fort Luton  (Read 3900 times)

Offline Stewie

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Fort Luton
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2024, 05:38:20 PM »
Dear all, the following text is a history of Fort Luton, one of the Chatham ring forts built in the 19th century. The document was compiled by myself as a contribution for the 'Chatham Historical Society' members meeting in January where members were asked to present a five minute talk on a local building which was either 'lost' or 'repurposed'. I have included some pictures to accompany the text explaining some of the defensive terms.

In August 1859, a Royal Commission was set up to review the effectiveness of the nation’s defences against a potential invasion from France. The review was set up following concerns over the respective developments in military capabilities between the two nations and specifically:

i)   The development of the Armstrong riffled breach loading cannon which could fire a projectile nearly 8000 yards (4.5 miles), double the length of contemporary artillery. Although the Armstrong canon was a British invention it was probable that in time other countries would develop a similar weapon.  The consequence of this was that the existing land-based defences for Chatham Dockyard at Forts Amhurst and Pitt could now be attacked by an enemy from a safe distance without incurring serious losses to themselves.
ii)   France had taken a major lead in the development of iron clad ships in the mid-19th century and although the relative fleet strengths were roughly equal, the Royal Navy ships tended to be spread around the world meaning that they were often outnumbered in home waters by the French.

The result of the findings of this commission were threefold:

i)   The setting up of a voluntary military force for national emergencies.
ii)   To surpass the French navy in the number of ironclad ships.
iii)   A review of the land defences protecting vulnerable and strategic areas of the country.
In the case of the Medway towns, the reinforcement of the defences for the Royal dockyard from an invading force was recommended and this would require the provision of a ring of new land forts named Borstal, Bridgewood, Horstead, Luton, Darland and the two Tywdall redoubts. Each fort was to be a self-contained defensive unit with the capability to give supporting fire to its immediate neighbour. In addition to these land defences, two forts protecting against a naval incursion up the river Medway were required named Hoo & Darnet.

Fort Luton was the be the smallest in the chain of land forts and the front overlooked the Luton valley. Polygonal in shape, the original design for the fort required it to be surrounded by a dry ditch 30 foot deep and lined with concrete. Two counterscarp galleries would give covering fire for the front facing ditch and a caponier at the rear of the fort would also be provided. The entrance to the fort would be protected by the provision of openings for flanking fire and a novel design of drawbridge which could be first pulled back into the fort and then hoisted vertical to block the gateway. The fort was designed to have a low profile, blending in with the contours of the land on which it sat.

Within the fort, provision would be made for mounting 25 110 pounder guns. Eight brick-built casemates in the rear of the fort would provide barrack accommodation and associated workshops and stores for a wartime complement of 250 men. A large ammunition magazine, sanitation block and a well for drinking water would be sited near to these. Tunnels either side of the casemates gave access to an open area within the fort and also acted as a means to supply ammunition from the main magazine to the expense magazines for each of the gun emplacements.

After some delay in allocating the necessary funds, the land was purchased in 1872 with the outline being surveyed and ‘pegged out by 1876. Construction work started 1n 1877, the fort with the various structures being built directly on to the land surface, with no form of preliminary tunnelling being undertaken. The workforce utilised was convict labour and this led to slow progress as the labour force was constantly changing due to release or transfers to other prisons. The convicts were housed in a purpose-built facility at Fort Borstal which later became the young offender’s institute.

The Franco Prussian war of 1870/71 resulted in a complete military defeat for France and with a new Germany in military ascendancy on the European mainland the immediate threat of invasion was significantly reduced. This led to a military rethink of the defences (and their expense), and in 1882 work on the fort was paused whilst both the plans and advances in military developments were evaluated with work restarting four years later in 1886.

The new plans for Fort Luton removed a significant portion from the north western area of the fort and the counterscarp galleries and caponier were also removed leaving the ditch without any form of internal defence. The flanking fire arrangements protecting the entrance were similarly removed. The reduction in size of the fort’s footprint also removed the location of the forts main magazine which was now relocated into the left-hand casemate with a lighting passage accessed from the adjoining casemate. The fort’s drinking water well was removed and replaced by a reservoir supplied via a 4-inch main from Fort Horstead. The fort was completed nearly 32 years after inception in 1892 with the final work being the excavation of the ditch, the removed chalk spoil was used to cover the forts buildings and also to construct the defensive ramparts. The planned gun emplacements were never built and the fort was never allocated its own armament, the idea was to use field artillery pieces in times of national emergency. Rendered effectively obsolete long before its completion by advances in long range artillery, Chatham’s new ring forts in common with others of their type around the country, gained the nickname of ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ after the prime minister at the time of the 1859 Royal commission.

During the construction phase a small narrow-gauge light railway was provided connecting the forts at Borstal, Bridgewoods, Horstead and Luton. The intention for this was to allow the transfer of building materials from a small wharf on the river Medway near to Fort Borstal and on to the forts as required. The convict workforce housed at a facility at Fort Borstal might also have used this system. The line was most probably hand worked and existed until the First World War when it was removed for probable reuse in France. Parts of the route for this line are still identifiable to this day.

After completion, the fort (together with Fort Bridgewoods), was used by the military to rehearse siege operations both from a defensive and offensive viewpoint and the largest of these was held in 1907 in a simulated invasion by a ‘foreign’ force aiming to occupy the dockyard at Chatham. The exercises were inspired by the Russian defence of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war, where forts very similar to those at Chatham held out for seven months in 1904-5 against 50,000 Japanese troops.

The exercise was run as a military dress rehearsal for siege warfare with local commanders allowed to make decisions and the siege directors overseeing and making judgements on the effectiveness of the outcome. For the exercise, the fort was garrisoned by two companies of the Royal Engineers, one company of the Royal Garrison Artillery and two companies of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The siege operations predominantly involved the uses of tunnelling both by the attacking and defending forces and also experimented with floodlights (for blinding the enemy) and balloons (for observation). Interestingly, the defenders constructed temporary caponiers in the forward ditch, a feature that had been removed during the 1882 redesign!

The besieging forces drove tunnels towards the fort’s ditch whilst the defending army drove tunnels out from the ditch and then parallel with it to intercept the tunnels of the incoming attackers. Despite the defenders intercepting one of the attackers’ tunnels, the invading force made it to the counterscarp wall and exploded three mines destroying approximately 40 yards of wall and filling the ditch with rubble which was subsequently deemed to be ‘stormed’ by attacking infantry. The defence claimed that this would have been repulsed because concentrated rifle and machine gun fire from the parapet could stop any unprotected assault on a prepared position. In seven years’ the First World War was to show that this principle was right.

Following on from the operations the ditch walls were repaired and during the First World War the fort served as a training ground for the Royal School of Military Engineering and possibly as a transit camp for troops destined for the western front in Europe.
Between the wars, the fort was used as a military store until 1938 when it was converted to become and anti-aircraft command centre becoming operational in August 1939 as the gun operations room for the 28th (Thames and Medway) Anti-Aircraft Brigade. In its new role, anti-blast walls were constructed at the entrances of the two tunnels and the casemates were converted to operations rooms, dining rooms, kitchens and stores. The left-hand casemate formerly used as the main magazine was once again repurposed, this time as a generator room supplying the fort’s electricity supply.

Following the Second World War, the fort was used by the Army Cadet Force and Territorial army units for a summer camp until the late 1950s when the land was sold to Kent County Council in order to build the ‘Fort Luton (boys) and Christchurch (girls) secondary schools to the north. The council had no use for the fort and it became abandoned and with the passing of the years, vandalised and derelict.

The fort was sold on in 1988 to a property developer who failed to obtain planning permission either for a housing development or rumoured entertainment venue as the fort had ‘listed’ status. The fort once again changed hands in 1990 when it became a local tourist attraction as a model museum complete with animated attractions made from recycled materials, children’s playgrounds and a model railway. This venture closed in 2001. The fort was once again sold on but the new owners neglected the structure and used it for landfill, dumping many tons of spoil both within the fort and the western corner of the ditch filling a significant portion to ground level.

The current owners purchased the fort in 2012, with the intention of once again opening it to the public. In the early years, groups of volunteers helped clear the site of vegetation and carried out repairs and maintenance on the structure. The fort is now run as a Community Interest Company with long term hirings of the casemates and some land to provide long term revenue for the forts upkeep. Short term hirings allow the local community to access new and interesting events and there are periodic open days when the public may once again visit the fort. The fort now houses a very good museum of military memorabilia and includes a section on its own history.