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History of the Fort

In 1859 Lord Palmerston instigated the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom to review the nation’s defences. At the time there was a strong possibility of a French attack and the country’s existing defences were deemed obsolete. The report was published the following year with the recommendation of the construction of a series of forts to strengthen the defences around the country against landward attack. Over 80 forts were built with five being constructed in Medway to protect the Royal Dockyard, Royal Arsenal and the approach to London. Fort Luton was the smallest in the “Chatham Concrete Ring”. The five forts were Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewoods, Fort Horsted, Fort Luton and Fort Darland.

Fort Luton as it appeared during the 1990s Museum

The design and placement of the forts were based on the needs and armament available in 1860, artillery range was three miles and with the site of the forts you could hold the enemy around five miles from the Dockyard at Chatham, an important feature of approach to London was the A2 which Rochester Bridge is part of and this had to be protected, if the enemy could use it they would have a direct route into London and if they destroyed the bridge they could delay our troops from hampering their invasion plans and forcing them to travel miles to cross the River Medway. Construction started on the Medway forts in the mid-1870s however funds became short and work stopped for some years, by the time work began again armament had so improved as to make the forts useless for the defence of the Royal Dockyard and Rochester Bridge, artillery fire was now travelling up to twelve miles. The design of the forts were changed many times reflecting on the improving armament, changing needs for defence and the new suggestion that fixed artillery forts were an unnecessary cost which field works could replace. Due to the constant improvements during this short period many features of Fort Luton were removed from plans including a main magazine, counterscarp galleries and a caponier. The size of Fort Luton was also reduced and a casemate was converted into the use of a magazine. None of the forts received their fixed gun emplacements but instead they were provided with secure bases around the ramparts, this allowed field guns to be wheeled into position when under attack but also removed if there was heavy bombardment. To protect the guns Fort Luton was provided with four gun shelters in which the artillery men could also retreat when in danger.

Forts Borstal, Bridgewoods, Horsted and Luton were built, almost entirely, using convicts from the Borstal Convict Prison with the convicts being transported between the purpose built prison and fort via a Military narrow gauge railway which was built to carry equipment and materials between the forts during their construction. At Fort Luton the proposals were “pegged out” in 1876 and the following year construction began. During excavation work the convicts uncovered a grave which held a number of skeletons, the Kent Archaeological Society assessed the find and determined that they were from the pre-Roman period, one skeleton measured seven feet an impressive height for that time. Near to the grave was an ancient cave dwelling. Construction of the fort began with above ground structures being added first, these would be covered with spoil removed to make the defensive ditch around the fort. Lack of funds made the building of the forts slow progress and many convicts were redirected to construct the new Victorian Extension at Chatham Dockyard. In 1879, three years after beginning construction a plan was made showing the weak areas to the left and right of the fort, to remedy this a gun battery was proposed to defend the land between Fort Luton and Fort Darland with a covered way to allow safe movement of troops, this was not however built. In the early 1880’s work stopped for four years and the proposals were evaluated. Up to six areas were prepared for the erection of high powered quick-firing guns although the fort was never armed. The last large job to be completed was the installation of the drawbridge in 1892. This bridge was a rare rolling bridge and one of very few remaining in the UK. At the beginning of 1896 it was reported that the forts were well into their construction and more money had been voted over towards their completion. It was also said that the Convicts were still at work but that the internal arrangements of the forts, subterranean communications and preparations of armament was of the greatest secrecy, indicating that the convicts were not involved in these areas and private contractors were likely employed. Up until the 10th February of that year the cost of the five forts had reached £140,000, much more than was anticipated.

Field guns were to be stationed at the Fort, these were likely to have initially been Breech-loader 5-inch Howitzer guns on field carriages, these were the choice of the Ordnance Board from 1895 until 1919, these guns were provided with four shelters around the fort to protect them if under very heavy bombardment. Having non-fixed armament gave the defenders the option of being able to retreat with the guns in the event of an invasion, where previously the fixed armament would have to be disarmed and possibly destroyed to ensure they could not be used by the invading forces. As with the other armament issued at the time progression in increasing the range and effectiveness of the guns progressed quickly, from 1908 the field gun issued to the Royal Field Artillery was the Quick Firing 4.5-inch Howitzer, this gun was not taken out of service until 1944.

When fort Luton was under construction the armament had advanced at such a rate as to make it, with the other four forts, obsolete before they were even complete, which led to Miners and Sappers from the Royal Engineers having a more update practice ground! By this time the main defence and offence of these fortifications involved mining. The attacking force would dig underground tunnels towards the fort with various galleries coming off so to provide various places to attack. They would set large amounts of explosives in these galleries and when exploded these would collapse the ditch wall and provide an opening that bridged the ditch and allowed the attackers to enter the fort. To counteract this Victorian forts were provided with countermining areas in the counterscarp galleries that were supplied to protect the ditch. These firing galleries were accessed from the fort but were built on the opposite side of the ditch having an access tunnel that led you under the ditch. From these openings the defending force could mine out from the fort, listen for the attacking miners mining towards them, and locate the enemy’s mines they then set explosives and blew up their attempt to close in on the fort.

Sanitary conditions – Sanitary conditions were becoming a serious problem throughout the United Kingdom during the 19th century. By 1855 most waste in London was being disposed of through the sewers which emptied into the River Thames. Those buildings that were not yet connected to sewers were using cesspits to collect the waste, unfortunately these often overflowed or split, allowing the waste to leak and pollute drinking water. During the summer of 1858 temperatures soared increasing the smell of waste in rivers and in the streets of villages and towns, the Houses of Parliament had lime soaked curtains covering the windows in an attempt to reduce the odour of the Thames and Queen Victoria abandoned a cruise along the river. The problems being experienced by so many people resulted in experiments in improved sanitary arrangements; one of the people who were trying to improve the conditions of his parish was Reverend Henry Moule, the Vicar of Fordington. His parish had yet again suffered from Cholera as well as having the drinking water polluted from leaking cesspools. Moule believed that the poor sanitary conditions contributed to the spread of diseases and was determined to find a way of improving the conditions in his village.

In 1859 Moule had found that by mixing earth with his excreta it decomposed in three to four weeks with no remaining odour. The following year Moule patented his earth closet which included a lever that released a measured amount of earth into the removable bucket used to catch human waste beneath a seat. This became quite a popular invention that was introduced into hospitals, gaols, government buildings. Queen Victoria also had one installed in Windsor Castle. As with most inventions other variations became available and over time were improved. One such variation was installed in Fort Luton during its construction.

At the beginning of the First World War there was a desperate need for barrack accommodation and also storage, many army camps were set up all over Kent using Nissan Huts to house soldiers undergoing training. With the Royal School of Military Engineering being in the same town it is no surprise to find that Fort Luton was used for this purpose. The fort is also reported to have been used as a transit barracks to those heading to Europe and for storage in later the years. An early plan drawn in 1879 whilst the fort was being built highlighted weak areas of defence on either side of the fort, this was still an issue in WWI and fire and communication trenches were constructed to increase the area of defence and also to provide an anti-tank defence on the approaches into Chatham and Rochester.

In 1938 the fort was converted into the Gun Operations Room (GOR) for the 27th Anti-Aircraft Brigade (Thames and Medway South) Gun Defended Area. The fort was almost fully utilised and some further protection, such as blast walls, were constructed. Plans of the fort at this time show that the Magazine was converted into an Engine Room, this is likely due to the front of this casemate being totally enclosed with no window openings. The next casemate was the Signals Room and the next was the Operations Room where all the plotting and decision making was carried out. The following casemate was the Signals Dining and Rest Room and then followed the Commanding Officers Dining Room and the Men’s Dining Room. The remaining two casemates were the Kitchen and Store. A building was added on the parade ground which was used as the Officer’s Rest Room and the Reservoir access tunnel is marked as the Ablutions. The water in the reservoir was likely to still be provided by the large water tanks at Fort Horsted. The original Latrines were fitted out with toilets for the Auxiliary Territorial Service staff and a new toilet block was added for the use of the Men. A hutted camp was also constructed at the rear of the fort by the entrance which included a garage, N.A.A.F.I, and Offices. The GOR remained at Fort Luton until 1945 when it was then used by the Army Cadet Force and Territorial Army. As a result of the fort being put back into use blast walls were added to the tunnel entrances, a hutted camp was set up at the entrance for accommodation for those based there, drainage was installed t enable flushing toilets to be used and to take away other waste water.

The fort stayed in the Ministry of Defence’s hands and reports suggest that the site was used as a summer camp for the Territorial Units and Army Cadet Force Units but in the late 1950s the land around the fort and the fort itself was sold to Kent County Council for £1 to enable a new secondary school to be built. This was built on land immediately to the North of the fort. The school did not find a permanent use for the fort and it remained derelict whilst under its ownership. In March 1988 Kent County Council sold the Fort at auction, the guide price was £10,000 but the fort and a small parcel of land sold for £145,000. The new owner had hoped to develop the site but due to the fort having listed status the planning permission was rejected and the fort was sold again in auction in 1990, at a much lower cost. The new owner converted the fort into a tourist attraction and model museum; the museums attractions included a model railway, a model workshop, dolls and dollhouse exhibition, model village and fairground, bygone tools, Victorian themes areas, as well as an adventure playground, tea rooms, a petting area with goats, chipmunks, a duck pond and shop.

Fort Luton has been under new ownership since 2012, whilst being shown around the new owner was disappointed to learn that the fort had fallen out of use and was no longer open to view by anyone, with this in mind he offered to buy the fort so that he could find a way to put it back into use. Various options were considered and after 3 years it was decided that it should become a Community Interest Company with long term hirings of the casemates and some land to provide long term revenue for the forts upkeep, with short term hirings to allow the local community to access new and interesting events and learning opportunities and to also access and enjoy the fort. A small group of volunteers offered their help in 2013 and have helped to restore parts of the fort and to get it ready for future use, this has allowed the volunteers to join a community and to also develop their skills and more volunteers are offering their time and skills to push towards our goal of giving the fort a new lease of life.