Fort Amherst: Britain’s biggest and best preserved Napoleonic fort!
Fort Amherst’s main purpose was the defence of Chatham Dockyard
from a landward attack by an invading army. With nearly two miles
of ramparts, gun positions, barracks and underground works it was
a formidable obstacle!
FORT AMHERST BACKGROUND
The early settlement of Chatham was huddled around what
we now know as St Mary’s church, looking out over the River
Medway. Early records indicate a settlement here as far back
as the Stone Age over 3,000 years ago! Evidence of Prehistoric,
Roman, Jutish and Saxon activity was found during the
building of the Chatham Lines and Fort Amherst.
Command of the Oceans
Imagine a time when Britain’s power lay in its dominance
of the oceans.
Since Tudor times (over 400 years ago!) Chatham Dockyard
built, repaired and maintained Britain’s warships. From the
defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to the 20th Century
Cold War, Chatham played a vital role.
Britain began to build up its navy during the 17th and 18th
centuries. But in June 1667, the Dutch, another strong
sea-faring nation, launched an attack up the River Medway.
England suffered a terrible naval defeat – with 13 ships
destroyed and the fleet’s flagship (The Royal Charles)
Command of the Heights
Immediately the seaward defences were strengthened.
However, some people believed that the docks could also
be attacked from the landward side – and that the high land
around Chatham should be strategically used to protect them.
Land to build fortifications was compulsorily purchased in the
early 1700s, but it took an invasion scare by the French in 1756
for work to actually begin. These first ‘Chatham Lines’ built
around the dockyard were ditches, earth ramparts and timber
Unfortunately, the people and buildings of the ancient town
of Chatham were in the way. The old town was demolished
and rebuilt on the marshland at the bottom of the hill where
modern day Chatham is now.
Napoleon: Preparing for War
Napoleonic Wars - 1799 to 1815
The Napoleonic wars were a series of conflicts
between European nations and the French Republic,
led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was ambitious
for power. He had risen from the post of artillery
officer during the French revolution to become ‘First
Emperor of the French’ in 1804. It was vital that Britain
was prepared for attack!
During this time, Britain’s navy and soldiers were as
well trained as possible; Fort Amherst and the people
of Chatham would have been on constant high alert,
ever ready for a land-based attack. A British fleet, under Admiral Lord Nelson,
fought and defeated the French Navy at sea in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).
However, the wars continued until Napoleon was defeated at
The Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 by a combined European
army commanded by the Duke of Wellington.
Watercolour of the Rifle Brigade in it's camp on the site in c1858.
American War of Independence
These first Chatham Lines were soon in disrepair and useless,
but between 1775 and 1783 Britain was at war with the
American colonists who had powerful support from France.
There were fears that the French might help America by
attacking the dockyard, and so the Chatham Lines were rebuilt
and strengthened with brick-lined ditches and stronger brick
ramparts. Both ends were fortified with strong redoubts –
Townsend in the north, Amherst in the south. This was the
origin of Fort Amherst.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Lower Lines
were built. Fort Amherst was strengthened with the
addition of Spur Battery and Prince William’s Battery
(at Chatham’s highest point) and a Horn Work (an Italian
style of fortification). The Guardhouse and bridge that
protected the roads was also rebuilt. Cannon were
placed around what was now commonly known as the
Chatham Lines. Cannon must have dry gunpowder - so
the Fort Amherst Grand Magazine was built as the main
Part of the site included a chalk pit with caves. These caves were
extended between 1776 and 1805, creating underground tunnels
and gun positions that would be well protected in the event of
a siege – and allow the enemy to be fired on without being seen.
The tunnels were equipped with a well, privies (toilets), gun
positions, musket galleries and defendable gateways.
A Soldier’s Life
Fort Amherst was on high alert. Army life was harsh, and the pay
was low, at one shilling a day for a private soldier: not an attractive
job! There was no forced enlistment, and most soldiers signed up for
the ‘bounty’ of £23 17s 6d. They were expected to get up early, do
a variety of jobs and train to fight. The Duke of Wellington famously
declared his men to be ‘the scum of the earth’ – adding however, that
‘it is wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows
they are’. Married soldiers received only a half ration extra of food,
but not all wives could stay at the fort with their husbands.
Barrier Ditch: defence from land attack
Fort Amherst: After Waterloo
After victory at Waterloo, technology quickly changed.
Guns were developed with a greater firing range, and
in 1820 Chatham’s once ‘state of the art’ defences were
However, during Victorian times, the entire fortifications
were used as a training ground for the British army. In
fact, for entertainment, thousands of people descended
on Chatham to view these practice sieges, which are
described in detail in Charles Dickens’ book, The Pickwick
Fort Amherst: World Wars
Abandoned as a sleeping giant, Fort Amherst
was woken once more to defend Medway and
Britain during the World Wars of the 20th
World War I
The world’s first anti-aircraft guns were mounted here
to protect the Dockyard from aircraft and Zeppelins
(airships). Fort Amherst and the Chatham Lines were
used to train Royal Engineers and other soldiers for battle
World War II
Winston Churchill declared the Chatham area to be a
‘Nodal Point’ to be defended at all costs. The Chatham
Lines were adapted to form anti-tank ditches. Antiaircraft
guns were installed at Fort Amherst - and used!
The tunnels became a civil defence control centre, and
a military anti-invasion HQ.
The ARP Role
The Fort Amherst tunnels were adapted for Civil Defence
coordination for the North Kent region.
ARP (Air Raid
Precautions) was operated by Medway Group Control.
Messages were taken by phone, usually by women, and
emergency services given instructions of where help was
required during an attack. Today, a section of the tunnels
has been realistically reconstructed and equipped to
demonstrate how people lived and worked in the tunnels
during this time.
THE FORT AMHERST HERITAGE TRUST
The Trust Objectives:
“Acquiring, restoring, maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the historical
fortifications known as Fort Amherst and the Lines in the City of Rochester-
Upon Medway and the Borough of Gillingham in the county of Kent,
and making the same available for research and for the educational and
recreational viewing and use by the public.”
About the Trust:
The original Fort Amherst and Lines Trust was formed in 1981 to fend off
development proposals for the ancient fortress. Supported by the two local
councils of Gillingham and Rochester Upon Medway, the Trust purchased Fort
Amherst from the Ministry of Defence in 1982.
The Trust was reconstituted as the Fort Amherst Heritage Trust, a Charitable
Company Limited by Guarantee in 1998. The Trust owns the freehold of Fort
Amherst, which forms the south-west end of the Brompton Lines Scheduled
Ancient Monument, which was designated in 1959.
Seven Trustees each serve for a three-year period on rotation, after which
they must be reappointed at the Trust’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).
An elected Chairman and Vice Chairman are appointed on a yearly basis.
The Trust is committee based, with several Limited Company Boards and sub
committees reporting to the main Trust Executive for strategic overview and
accountability. In addition, each Trustee has delegated areas responsibility,
and is required to present a written report at each Trust meeting.
The Trust depends on volunteers to help maintain and operate the Fort.
Volunteers reflect a wide range of background, age and gender, and include
mental health service user groups and socially disadvantaged groups such as
the disabled, unemployed and young offenders. The Trust has developed a
culture of social responsibility and integration with the local community.
In 2010 the Trust merged with Medway Historical Ordnance, a separate
Charity established to preserve and maintain the Fort’s nationally important
collection of historic ordnance.
Historical Ordnance Restoration Services
Experts at Fort Amherst have developed a wide
range of skill and experience in the restoration and
repair of guns, cannon, carriages, period ordnance
and equipment. The group is also able to design
and manufacture new items, suitable for display,
re-enactments and filming purposes.
Please enquire for a full discussion of your needs:.
The Fort Amherst archives contain a range of plans
of the Chatham Lines, Fort Amherst and other local
fortifications, along with restoration plans and details
since 1982. They also hold a large collection of
photographs relating both to the restoration of Fort
Amherst and the collection of the Medway Military
Research Group, which contain pictures of the Medway
Forts and further afield. Access is via prior arrangement
only. Please make a request via the Fort Amherst
General Manager: email@example.com
We are always looking for new Trust members. Fort Amherst is going
through some changes due to The Command of the Heights project.
If you would like to be part of driving the project forward and joining
The Fort Amherst Trustees contact firstname.lastname@example.org.