Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome David to the Parish Room to share his extensive knowledge of the history of Felixstowe’s Landguard Fort, based on his many years serving as a volunteer, and the more than 30 guests were impressed with the depth of his knowledge.
David began by showing us an image of the fort and of the estuary beyond, telling us that Harwich was the last deep water port between the Thames and the Humber, where the waters of the Stour and the Orwell flow into the sea. This gave Harwich such significance that it was defended from the Tudor and Stuart eras and beyond, by two major forts: Landguard Fort on the Point and Beacon Hill Battery across the water in Harwich. Reinforcing this point, Landguard was the site of the last sea borne invasion of England and the first land battle of the Royal Marines. It was also heavily modified since then in order to defend Harwich Haven right up to and including the Second World War, with David noting that the Germans didn’t try to invade the point during either of the world wars.
View over the fort and estuary
Fortifications on Landguard Point began with Henry VIII’s coastal defence programme of 1539 when Harwich port was considered a strategic location needing protection, because the only defences at the time were the town's medieval walls. Five earthwork bulwarks were constructed, three on the west side and two on the east - The Dooley. These were circular structures protected by a ditch, capable of supporting a number of artillery pieces and a couple of blockhouses, though these rapidly deteriorated. When the invasion fears passed without incident, in 1552 the guns were returned to the Tower of London, but the Spanish War of the late 1580s saw the construction of a stone blockhouse on Landguard Point, capable of supporting 46 guns.
Development proper began in 1625 when construction of a new fort on Landguard Point was started, in conjunction with a new battery at Harwich. This was a square earthwork fort with 4 bastions, or projecting fortifications built at an angle (to allow defensive fire in several directions) and a ditch. The fort had 62 guns and could accommodate a garrison of several hundred men. It was again not maintained so erosion took its toll on the ramparts, which were only revetted (or faced) with timber; however, it was still garrisoned and the Parliamentarians held it during the Civil War.
In 1652 England entered into a series of naval wars with the Netherlands, placing Harwich on the front line so a dockyard was established in the 1650s, even though the Fort itself remained dilapidated. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War (4 March 1665 to 31 July 1667), England suffered a number of defeats, and in early 1667 there were real fears for the safety of the east coast.
Sir Bernard de Gomme (a Dutch military engineer) was sent to Harwich on an urgent mission to survey the defences and to make improvements. Finding Landguard Fort much-decayed, he ordered work to strengthen the fort as soon as possible. This consisted of enlarging the bastions and restoring the slumped earthwork ramparts (defensive walls having a broad top with a walkway and typically a stone parapet), along with construction of a false bray (a second lower level rampart to increase flanking firepower) at the foot of the rampart all round the fort. The ditch and the false bray were then revetted in brick.
This activity was justified in July 1667 when the Dutch, having burned the English fleet at Chatham, landed a force of some 1,500 marines with small canons and attacked the Fort from the landward side in an attempt to sack Harwich. If successful, they would then have gone on to burn the ships in harbour prior to a full-blown attack on the country. Recently strengthened, the fort and its garrison of 200 Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment of Foot (*), commanded by Captain Nathaniel Darell, repelled repeated assaults by the Dutch, who were forced to retreat, so saving Harwich, and perhaps the country, from certain disaster.
(*) This regiment later went on to become the Royal Marines
Despite this success, the fort was again not well maintained, and when the War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, it was no longer defensible. Considering the fort not worth repairing, a new fort was constructed between 1717 and 1720 just to the south, compact in design with a triangular seaward battery defended on the landward side by two demi-bastions (half bastions consisting of one face and one flank) and surrounded by a dry ditch. Situated on the west side of the point, the majority of its guns faced over the harbour entrance rather than out to sea.
When later plans to improve Harwich defences were cancelled, Landguard fort was upgraded, between 1730 and 1733, with enlarged 3 storey barracks to accommodate a larger garrison, and with heavier guns in the main battery. In 1744 work began to incorporate the fort into a much larger fort with five bastions, designed John Peter Desmaretz, The two main faces of the 1717 fort formed the west and south-west curtains of the new pentagonal fort, which was built between 1744 and 1750. This had a dry ditch and a strong covered way; existing barracks were enlarged and a new governor's residence built on the north side of the parade ground. In 1753 a new battery (Beauclerk's Battery) was built on the covered way in the southwest, to increase firepower across the harbour entrance. Napoleonic Wars then saw major new fortifications constructed at Harwich, leaving Landguard relatively untouched apart from replacement of the out dated guns in Beauclerk's Battery with new 42-pounders.
David now told us about Captain Philip Thicknesse, an infamous Lieutenant Governor of the fort from 1753 to 1766, a larger than life character loved by his men, because he opposed corporal punishment, but who made an enemy of virtually everyone in authority.
Thicknesse emigrated to America when just 16, living a Robinson Crusoe life alone in a wooden cabin on an island. He married three times in 20 years after returning to England, prompting his first mother-in-law to commit suicide by hurling herself out of a window onto iron railings on the very spot where Thicknesse had, quite literally, abducted her daughter. On May 10 1749 he married Lady Elizabeth Tuchet, having a son who later became 19th Baron Audley. She then died in childbirth in 1762 and he wasted no time marrying his late wife’s companion, Anne Ford, before the year was out.
In 1753, he used a sizeable portion of the dowry from his second marriage to purchase the lieutenant governorship of Landguard Fort, and once installed then engaged his favourite hobby of goading rival authority figures, buying a printing press with the sole aim of publishing material to sabotage Lord Orwell’s election in Ipswich. He was tried for libel in 1763 and imprisoned for three months, though surprisingly allowed to resume command of Landguard Fort once he had served his sentence. Wasting no time bringing ridiculous charges against the officer in charge during his absence, he was sentenced to a public reprimand in 1765 and judged unfit for command in 1766.
South East View of Landguard Fort by Thomas Major 1754
In the late 1770’s, Sir Thomas Hyde Page, a decorated military engineer and cartographer, became the commanding royal engineer of the eastern coastal district, supervising refurbishment of defences at Dover, Chatham, Tilbury, Gravesend, Sheerness and Landguard Fort. This also involved sinking wells for fresh water, but in the case of Landguard, being so near to the shingle beach, the water soon became contaminated with salt water and became unusable. He was painted by James Northcote holding a plan of the fort with the fort showing in the background.
Landguard Fort from a painting of about 1780
In 1863, responding to the development of rifled artillery, a new battery of 14 guns was built at Shotley, on the west side of the harbour, though it was not until the 1870s that Landguard was modified to match these advances in artillery. Modifications were large scale, demolishing the south-west and west curtains and the west bastion, to be replaced by a curved face fronted by a caponier (a protected path leading across the ditch to an outwork, itself protected by a bomb-proof quarter sphere nose) at the southern apex, in place of the demolished bastion. The new curved battery had an upper floor of 7 casemates, each containing a huge rifled muzzle-loading (RML) gun, whilst on the ground floor were the magazines, with hoists to lift shells directly to the guns above. According to David, each gun, which weighed about 38 tons, required 17 men to operate and could achieve a firing rate of about one round every five minutes. The rope matting was tied round the gun muzzle and hung from the walls to provide some protection to the men from incoming splinters from the walls.
Armoured casemated battery and huge rifled muzzle loading gun, with giant shell on its trolley
New gun emplacements were added on the tops of the four remaining 18th century bastions, which were also reinforced with concrete. The two southern bastions were each armed with a large RML gun, along with another on the curtain between them, and the two northern bastions mounted smaller calibre RML guns in open emplacements.
In the rear of the curved battery was a curved range of officers' quarters and soldiers’ barracks, with a parade ground between the barrack buildings and the casemates. The new battery and barracks together formed an inner keep for the fort, achieved by making the outer side of the barracks defensible, with all passages between the keep and the rest of the fort sealable. If an enemy attacked from the landward side and penetrated the 18th century walls, defenders could retreat into the Victorian keep and hold off the enemy by closing armoured doors and using loopholes to keep attackers at bay, while the fort's main battery could still continue firing to prevent the enemy gaining control of the harbour entrance.
1888 print of Landguard Point and Harbour
In 1870 the Southwest portion of the fort - the two flanks originally part of the 1717 battery - were demolished and were replaced with an armoured casemated battery - see photo above. The internal barracks, also part of the earlier structure, were replaced with a circular Keep, completed by 1890. In 1878, a submarine mining establishment was constructed by excavating a test room within the thick walls of the Fort, building an observation room and adding a main building on the east side of the Fort - known as the Ravelin Block. Stores and barracks were later demolished and are now underneath Landguard Terminal (part of the Port of Felixstowe).
The anti-ship mines were operated by a special naval section of the Royal Engineers who dressed in naval uniform. The mines were strategically placed in the estuary and could be fired remotely by electricity from the observation point. After manufacture, mines were pushed out to special mine laying boats on narrow gauge tramway trucks.
Mine under construction
In 1901, because the existing armament of the Fort became obsolete, new batteries were built in front of the Fort facing the sea and river, named Left, Right and Darell's Batteries, which were armed with new breech loading (BL) guns. Improvements continued into the 20th century with the arrival of two quick firing guns, installed on the west side of the fort in Darell's Battery (named after the fort's captain during the Dutch attack in 1667) in 1901. Searchlights and control towers were also built for the new guns in the early 20th century, and more guns installed on the far side of the harbour mouth at Beacon Hill.
Landguard Fort was manned throughout the First and Second World Wars, although the only action the fort saw was in its anti-aircraft role. That said, for WW2, it had a number of quick firing twin barrel six pounder guns that could fire at 72 rounds per minute, ideal for tackling fast moving motor torpedo or motor gun boats. After the war, the fort lost its significance and the coastal artillery was disbanded in 1956. The fort remained in military hands until the 1960s, when it was abandoned until restoration began in the 1990s.
The effectiveness of mines was sadly brought home when HMS Gipsy, a G Class Destroyer, was sunk by a German magnetic mine dropped in the channel by aircraft, resulting in 31 fatalities with 115 crew subsequently rescued from the sea.
Twin six-pounder gun in coastal artillery mount
By the 1950’s, the fort was again becoming obsolete; in 1956 the Coastal Artillery was disbanded and Landguard Fort no longer had a national military purpose. After 10 years of military neglect, the Fort was sealed up and left to quietly disintegrate, until the 1980's when local interest was aroused.
In 1997/98 the Fort was structurally consolidated by English Heritage, into whose care it had been placed, and it is now maintained and opened to the public on their behalf by the Landguard Fort Trust
Aerial view of the Harwich defences
Aerial view of Landguard Fort
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:
19th June: Sudden Deaths in Early C19th Suffolk, by Geoffrey Robinson
Fireside hearths, pantries, village ponds and brewing rooms were dangerous places when death was never far away. Sudden deaths & their inquests were the lifeblood of columnists, whose reports fascinated readers with tales of misery and misfortune. Come along for a shockingly good treat.
Whilst the first event of our 2019/20 season will be on:
18th September: St Audrey’s Workhouse and Mental Hospital, by David Phelan
It was believed that people were born to be poor or fell on hard times through their own neglect; whole families entered the workhouse or faced starvation. This is their story, which promises to be both fascinating and probably quite shocking to the 21st century listeners.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.
Andy Sheppard 24th May 2019