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Coalhouse Jetty, Fort & A Queen's Speech

One of the places we like to take a walk is Tilbury as it en-route between our two homes. The history of the place is truly  and every time we visit, there are new discoveries to be made and we thought you’d like a taster of what we found out from our last visit.

Interestingly, the first defences in Tilbury were built during the late Middle Ages to defend against a French attack and there has been a timber jetty at this location since this time, often being destroyed and then rebuilt. The defences consisted of towers and earthworks. Under the reign of Henry VIII, a blockhouse was built which formed part of our costal defence scheme. This stood near the site of a radar tower that served our coast during WWII—incidentally, the radar tower still stands and was marked on maps of the time as a ‘water tower’ to distract the purpose of its use. Built in 1540, the blockhouse would have held fifteen cannons, which were updated to twenty-seven guns just seven years and had guns a range of one mile.

During the Victorian Era, a jetty was built on the same site, allowing barges to unload supplies and armaments. As you can see from the images we took, some of the wooden structures still stand from what was the railway link.


Remains of the jetty at Coalhouse

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Tilbury has an interesting history—once an important gateway to the capital for temporary visitors on liners it also received one of its most important ones back on 9th August 1588. Queen Elizabeth I sailed from London to review her forces who were in preparation to repel the Spanish Armada. Stepping ashore at Tilbury Fort, a short distance from this site, the original building of which her father—Henry VIII—had built as a defence against the French and Spanish, and that had been extended during her reign, our monarch (due to the marshy terrain) travelled up the hill to what is now the modern village of West Tilbury. Local historians have identified the location of Queen Elizabeth’s speech as having taken place in a field next door to the parish church of Chadwell St Mary.

Famously, the speech she made at this location included these words, “…I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king…”

Tilbury Fort bears little resemblance now to the structure Elizabeth I would have seen. Aware of the threat of a Dutch invasion of the capital, Charles II ordered a review of the coastal defences, and the fort was remodeled into its present pentagonal shape, with a double moat. Ironically, given the threat from the Netherlands, the architect was a Dutchman. Other forts were constructed on this vital stretch of the Thames, where the river makes two 90-degree turns. If the artillery from one failed to deter an invader, there were other opportunities to repel the attack.

Four miles along the riverbank, still on the Essex side and near the village of East Tilbury, the Victorians built Coalhouse Fort. Although by the time it was completed the threat of invasion was over, its construction was overseen by a Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, a job he found less to his taste than his later role in Khartoum. Coalhouse Fort was extended during the First World War, and again in the Second. Extra layers were added to the structure, and large searchlights were installed upon the roof.


Coalhouse Fort WWII Tower


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After years of economic decline there are signs of regeneration, and a growing pride in the area and its heritage. A path, part historical and part wildlife trail is also being developed. When this is finalised the ‘Two Forts Way’ will provide a four-mile walk between the forts: or for those less interested in history, between the pubs next to each.

Coalhouse Fort holds open days, and if a lottery bid succeeds, there will be major renovations. There are no plans as yet to open the grand old Tilbury cruise terminal to the public, but the restaurant is being refurbished and will soon reopen as Tilbury Riverside, a local arts activity center, so there is a lot happening for the future regeneration of this wonderful place.


by Donna Siggers and David Last

St Cedd: A Look Back into Saxon Essex

Thirteen-hundred years ago the Christian faith was being spread throughout Ireland and Scotland. Patrick, in Ireland, had established many monasteries and from there Columba had come to Iona (a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland) where a monastery and other Christian centres were established. From this first Scottish monastery, a man called Aidan was sent, by invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria to set up a monastery at Lindisfarne on the north-east coast. This monastery would also become a school where Anglo-Saxon boys could be trained to become priests and missionaries. It was here that Cedd and his and his brothers Caelin, Cynebil and Chad learnt to read and write in Latin and learnt to teach the Christian faith.

Cedd, after being ordained as a priest later became a bishop. His first mission was to travel to Mercia (the midlands) by request of his ruler, King Paeda, which was a successful mission. After hearing of this success, King Sigbert of the Essex Saxons asked for a similar mission—for Cedd to travel to Essex and teach the Christian faith.

In 653, Cedd sailed down the east coast of England from Lindisfarne to Bradwell, where he found ruins of an old deserted Roman fort. It’s believed he built a small wooden church which was soon replaced by the plentiful stone from the fort, providing a much more permanent building.

The chapel still stands today.

Greatly influenced by the architecture of the churches in Egypt and Syria, Cedd modelled this church in this style. Build on what was called the River Pant (now the River Blackwater) we know that St Anthony of Egypt had built his church from the ruins of a fort on the banks of a river in the same way as Cedd.

Due to the success of Cedd’s mission to the East Saxons he was recalled to Lindisfarne and made Bishop of the East Saxons the same year. His monastery at Bradwell, although simple, would also have been a church. A community of both men and women, a hospital, a library, a school, an arts centre, a farm, a guest house and a mission base. From this base he established other Christian centres at Mersea, Tilbury, Prittlewell and Upminster.

Cedd often travelled north to visit his childhood home and in 659 was introduced to King Ethelwald, who asked him to establish a monastery in Northumbria. While at this site in 664 he caught the plague as he lay dying thirty of his monks from Bradwell came to be with him. They too caught it, with only one boy surviving who returned to Bradwell.


by Donna Siggers and David Last

Viking Invasion

Hythe Quay in Maldon, Essex has already been mentioned within our blog, but it deserves a feature of its own. Home of the sailing barge that has become part of Maldon’s living heritage, many of the lovingly restored barges are still used commercially as charter vessels today. The Hythe—as the port is known—was once a separate hamlet, its skyline dominated by the town of Maldon and the prominent tower of St Mary’s Church, which was first built by Saxon settlers and then rebuilt in the twelfth century.

Maldon is special for many more reasons and is often referred to by TV chefs because if its famous salt but its also famed for much more. It hosts the infamous mud race each year, attracting many entrants, including celebrities and raises charitable funds for varying causes.

On 11th August 991, Anglo-Saxon Men of Maldon once stood their ground. Led by Eldorman Britnorth, they formed a militia force at the causeway end of Northey Island. Vikings had settled on the island, where they’d established a temporary base having already pillaged Folkestone, Sandwich and Ipswich. They were ready to attack Maldon.

Britnorth, refusing to pay the Viking invaders to turn their ships and men around to leave instead challenged them to a battle—he even allowed them to cross the causeway between Northey Island and the mainland to do so, while they formed a human shield wall. Awaiting Viking advance, Britnorth and his militia force were pounded with arrows and, when closer, spears into their masses. Close, hand to hand bloody battle combat followed where loss on both sides was heavy. It wasn’t until the death of Britnorth himself that the battle turned in the Viking’s favour.

Why, then, has the Battle of Maldon been etched into our history when the Vikings raided England so many times? The battle itself seems insignificant in that it wasn’t the first time the Anglo-Saxons fought and lost against the Vikings. This battle, however, is referred to within medieval sources countless times, which includes an epic poem with a clear message for the Anglo-Saxon leadership. Thus, it became part of collective memory, and was the first full-scale battle during King Æthelred’s reign. It was also a signal of a troubled and complex time period.

Æthelred, although proving himself to be pro-active in foreign policy with great success after the Maldon battle, his own retainers undermined his every action to keep the Vikings out of England. They betrayed him to the Vikings or began fighting among themselves. On two occasions Æthelred lost a newly built navy due to his own men (992 and 1009) which caused his Viking enemies, especially Sweyn to persecute him, even sending him into exile until Sweyn’s death in 1014. It wasn’t until Æthelred’s own death, in 1016 that Anglo-Saxon England finally comes under the rule of a Scandinavian (Vi)king, Cnut the Great.


by Donna Siggers and David Last

Cut Throat Lane

Given our enjoyment of walking and in uncovering the unusual, last weekend’s walk just had to begin an investigation into the past. Coming across a road sign, Cut-A-Thwart-Lane, had the cogs in our minds working. The obvious thought was that this might mean ‘Cut Throat Lane’ and indeed there are references to this.

Donna had heard the word thwart before and it wasn’t until she had looked it up that her canoeing days bought forward a boating link to the word. Indeed, its used to describe the wooden seat that reaches from one side of a boat to another.  A thwart cut is a fencing maneuver with swords too but deeper research revealed that an old English meaning of the phrase had been used on the River Blackwater, which is just a short distance away from this lane. When crossing the line of a ship’s path—cut-a-thwart in 15th century England meant to cross from side to side. Cut-throat, similarly, meant a short cut or to cut across, and in this case the lane was an alternative to the milestone-lined London Road that was the main route into Maldon.

Maldon had been granted a Royal Charter by Henry II in 1171 and is an ancient Anglo-Saxon burgh. From the Iron Age it has been settled in by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans--and a blog for another day is that it’s the famous site of the famous Battle of Maldon fought between Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons in 991AD. It was, then, a high-profile town back in the day.

Interestingly, Cut-A-Thwart Lane shows geographic evidence suggesting it was once a hola-weg. The road, in places is much lower than the banks that flank its side, an indication of years of pounding by humans and animals long before modern road surfaces existed. Suggestive that this lane formed the boundary of the estates of Beeleigh Abbey and Fitzwalter’s Park the sunken result still floods to this day. Oliver Rackham (1939-2015) cited thirty-eight mentions of such hola-wegs in Anglo-Saxon charters, and this lane is one of those. Beeleigh (the meaning of which is a clearing in the trees where bee hives are kept) still has a magnificent dwelling very close to the entrance of the lane.

Fascinatingly, during the summer of 1550 Princess Mary (Mary Tudor, later Queen Mary I) was under house arrest at nearby Woodham Walter Hall. Her agents hatched a plan to smuggle her onto an imperial war ship that was moored at Maldon’s Hythe in order that she could escape to the Netherlands—it was believed she would have been somewhat safer there due to her religious beliefs. Sophisticated plans were made that would have avoided the main road into Maldon. Some kind of ‘secret passage’ was planned. Mary developed cold feet, possibly realising that if she gave up and fled, as a true daughter of Henry VIII, she would find her abdications of her royal prerogative hard to accept. Jehan Dubois, Secretary to the Ambassador met with Mary and liaised with her trusted officer Robert Rochester, who begged the imperial secretary for more time. Firm in his message to her, Dubois conveyed that now was the time to escape and that they had to leave immediately. She attempted to stall for more time but Dubois slipped away and the rowing boats left without her as he feared their plot was close to being discovered.

Three years later Mary ruled England, but was Cut-A-Thwart Lane their possible route?

We’d like to think so!


Donna Siggers and David Last