Cockham Wood Fort

In 1667, the Dutch fleet sailed up the river Medway, taking the fort at Sheerness and destroying it. When they entered Gillingham reach, they found a chain stretched across the river with batteries at either end. Some English ships were guarding the chain, but the Dutch broke through it, burning and capturing a number of English ships including the flagship. The following day, they sailed farther up the river, burning yet more English ships and were only kept from reaching the naval dockyards at Chatham by the deliberate sinking of several vessels in the channel. Upnor Castle, the 16th century fort built to protect Chatham, had been insufficient to stop the Dutch ships, and was too far upstream to protect the whole of the anchorage. It was clear that new fortifications were required on the Medway.

After the Dutch raid on the Medway, Bernard de Gomme'was charged with the task of strengthening the defences protecting the Medway and hence the dockyards at Chatham. In October 1667, he surveyed the river Medway.

One of De Gomme's early designs (early 1669), showing Gillingham Reach and the positions of the two batteries. A profile of both forts is also shown. I have added a magnified view of Cockham Wood Fort in the bottom left corner.

At this time, he suggested possible sites for two batteries at Gillingham Reach. This was a bend in the river (see map above) where ships needed to make some difficult turns to avoid the mud banks.

Looking westwards along the river front of the fort.

De Gomme's idea was that the first fort, near Gillingham, could fire at any hostile vessels sailing upriver. When the hostile ships entered Gillingham Reach, they would be raked from behind by this fort, but also raked from in front by Cockham Wood Fort.

The fort was to have 30 guns, placed in two tiers, one at the water's edge and another 9 metres behind and 4 metres higher. Construction work began in late 1669.

There was a stone redoubt'at the rear of the fort, partly for observation purposes but also to serve as a strong point in the landward defences. The form of this redoubt changed throughout the design phase. In one drawing, it is shown as being parallel to the rear wall, in another it is set diagonally and in one it is fronted by a redan.

A slightly later design for the fort, which has the redoubt set diagonally instead of in line with the rear wall.

Its final form would be that of a tall bastion, able to protect the landward side of the fort with flanking fire. Although the plans described it as 'a stone redoubt', in the end it was built of brick. The redoubt had three storeys and three sentry posts'on the top. It was designed to mount some small artillery, probably sakers.

The western end of the river front, with the remains of the raised section at the end in the foreground.

The entrance to the fort, which was shown on the early 1669 plan as being on the northern front, was in the end placed on the eastern side of the fort. There was a small guardhouse by the entrance, and a raised section at either end of the river front, which could have been for observation posts.

Apart from the river front, the guardhouse and the redoubt in the north, the fort was made up of earthwork ramparts. It was surrounded by a 15m wide ditch. This ditch may have been partially flooded at high tide, but there were no sluices to control the water and silt probably built up in the ditch relatively quickly.

The fort was completed in 1670, and gun platforms were laid with planks covered in tar. There were 17 embrasures'on the river front, plus three embrasures facing west and two facing east (on the raised platforms). The upper tier had 19 embrasures, all facing out over the river.

View out over the river from the second tier. The eastern raised section is visible in the foreground, Gillingham is towards the left of the picture.
Brick lines on the ground that may have been the entrance to the redoubt.

Cockham Wood Fort was manned and maintained well into the 18th century, but fell into disrepair towards the end of the century. Thanks to the strength of the Royal Navy, an enemy never sailed up the Medway after 1667 and the fort did not see action. It was finally abandoned in 1818.

Visiting Cockham Wood Fort

Even before the fort was completed, erosion from the tidal waters of the Medway were a problem, and it has now caused much damage to the river front of the fort. Comparing the 1920 photograph (right) with the same view in 2006 (image 4), it is easy to see how much damage has occured over the last century.

Photograph of Cockham Wood Fort circa 1920 - compare with 'image 4' above, which is the same view in January 2006. Photo: Medway Archives.

Aside from the remains of the river front, the remains of the fort are rather overgrown. Little remains above ground of the redoubt, though it is possible that the lower parts of the walls remain buried. The form of the redoubt can be made out, and one wall of the guardhouse on the eastern side of the fort seems to have survived.

At high tide, the water washes the wall of the fort, gradually eroding it away. The remains of some piling can be seen in the foreground.

The earthworks of the fort have suffered from erosion and some land slides, but the site of the second tier of guns can just be made out. The site was surveyed in 1993 but, even though there is EU funding available for such projects, it seems that no restoration work will be carried out to save the fort.

To get to the fort, park in the free car park at Lower Upnor and Cockham Wood Fort is about a mile's walk along the beach. It is advisable to go at low tide, as at high tide the walk is more difficult and part of the fort's river front is submerged. Just to the east of the fort lie the remnants of a ship, possibly one of the English ships sunk during the 1667 raid. Upnor Castle, about 2 miles up river from Cockham Wood, is also worth a visit.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
2 8 2 2 0 2.8
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