Historic England – Review of Beacon Hill Fort, Harwich
Beacon Hill Fort, and the gun emplacements which preceded it, form part of the complex fortifications which evolved to defend the post-medieval and modern naval harbour at Harwich. The remains of the Tudor blockhouse (a defendable magazine structure) have been largely lost to the sea, although the Napoleonic battery and the practice battery of 1871 will have left archaeological traces of their existence on the promontory.
The main fort of 1889 also belongs to the class of military installation termed `batteries’ – self contained positions where guns were mounted for purposes of offensive or defensive action; the objective being primarily to bring guns to bear on a specific area, to provide the appropriate range and to protect the guns (and crew) during action. Ammunition would be usually stored behind the rampart (the area known as the `gorge’) and by the later 19th century, in purpose built magazines. As a source of information for developments in military technology and as indications of the ebb and flow of international politics, all examples exhibiting a significant degree of preservation are considered worthy of protection.
The later 19th century fort survives extremely well, retaining all the elements of the original design and exhibiting successive layers of modification prompted by the threat of German sea power during and preceding the two World Wars. The original design of the fort was innovative being one of the first of a new generation of fortifications to recognise the vulnerability of highly prominent artillery structures and to adopt a policy of virtual invisibility from the sea. The fort also represents one of the earliest uses of the Twydall Profile on the landward approach, and the bombproof shelter is believed to be the earliest of its kind in England. The original gun emplacements and most of the ancillary structures from this first phase of construction survive either beneath or incorporated within later modifications. The structures for the upgraded weapon systems introduced prior to World War I are clearly evident and the more extensive modifications to the fort in World War II survive in exceptional condition. It is one of very few World War II batteries to survive almost fully intact, and therefore allows a comprehensive picture of operational use at this crucial point in British history.
The retention (and adaptation) of earlier features throughout the evolution of the fort, together with the extensive range of documentary evidence (now mainly stored in the Public Records Office at Kew) provides a significant insight into the development of military theory and technology from the later 19th century onwards. The continuous use of the fort is a reflection of the military importance of the harbour, most especially during the World Wars when it provided the only deep water naval base between the Thames and the Humber. It is therefore of considerable interest in terms of the history of the town, the harbour and the more general defence of Britain.
The monument includes the buried and standing remains of a succession of coastal artillery batteries and associated military installations within two areas of protection located on Beacon Hill, a promontory on the eastern side of the Harwich peninsula (1km SSE of the centre of the historic town) which overlooks the approaches to the harbour mouth. The site has recently been surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and the extensive structures and earthworks are described in great detail in the resulting report by Brown and Pattison published in 1998.
The fort is broadly triangular in shape, extending some 200m inland from the tip of the promontory (Beacon Cliff) and including a narrow extension which continues northward for approximately 180m along the coastline towards the Harwich Esplanade. Although a block house stood on Beacon Hill for a limited period around 1543, the earliest known battery on the promontory (equipped with five 24-pounder cannons) was constructed in 1812 as part of the system of harbour defences developed during the Napoleonic War. This system also included the 10-gun redoubt near the centre of the town, Landguard Fort on the north bank of the Orwell and further batteries on both sides of the Harwich peninsula. The redoubt and Landguard Fort are the subject of separate schedulings. By 1822 the original Beacon Hill battery had been lost to coastal erosion. A replacement planned in 1839 was not constrcted, however a five gun practice battery was sited near the tip of the promontory in 1871. This was later removed although traces of the gun mountings, the surrounding enclosure and the accompanying sheds for cartridges and tackle may survive as buried features.
By the late 1880s improvements in naval artillery had outstripped the existing defences at Harwich; effectively the town could now be bombarded by ships lying beyond the reach of the coastal guns. In 1889, following the recommendations of a secret defence committee, work began on Beacon Hill Fort – one of the first of a generation of inconspicuous emplacements entirely served by breech loading (BL) guns. The four gun emplacements on the eastern (seaward) face of the battery were concealed at the foot of an artificial mound which created a naturalistic profile when viewed from the sea. The main armament (one 10-inch and one 6-inch breech loading gun) were set 30m apart, mounted on disappearing carriages which were raised above recessed parapets for firing and then retracted into gun pits for reloading and re-sighting. Two 4.7 inch quick-firing (QF) guns were mounted at similar intervals to the north, set behind low apron-parapets which were also hardly visible at any distance. The artificial hill provided screening and protection for a range of ancillary buildings in the compound to the rear. These included brick built surface structures such as the surviving guard house at the main (northern) entrance and the gun sheds located slightly further south. The main features, however, were subterranean and constructed from a mixture of brick and concrete; these include the Main Magazine for the 10-inch, 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns (set immediately to the rear of the emplacements), the artillery store located in the southern quarter of the compound, and the engine room (originally steam powered) which provided the fort with electricity, housed in a bomb proof shelter beneath the rear bank. Although the original machinery and many of the fittings have been removed, most of these structures have survived with comparatively minor modifications arising from subsequent reuse.
The rear of the fort was secured by the newly devised `Twydall Profile’ – a broad ditch with a gentle slope (or glacis) isolating the tip of the promontory in a shallow arc and concealing an unclimbable Dacoit fence in the base. The inner bank was provided with an earthwork fighting platform, strengthened in places with a concrete parapet, which would allow the defenders to rake the fence line with rifle fire. The majority of the Twydall Profile survives unaltered and substantial lengths of the Dacoit fence (which continued around the seaward side of the fort) remain in place.
The fort was retained at peak efficiency throughout the 1890s with the addition of new guns (two 3-pounders) to provide flanking fire for the main armament and a purpose built underground magazine (the Kingsgate Magazine) located near the south west corner of the fort. The site of the earlier practice battery was reconstructed in 1894 to carry three guns (probably 64-pounders from the earlier battery converted to rifled muzzle loaders) on traversing carriages. This position remains visible as a concrete terrace protected on three sides by a low concrete wall with three open embrasures. Two of the embrasures retain surviving iron gun pivots, and concentric iron rails (or racers) embedded in the floor survive in all three. The southern embrasure was later enlarged to enable construction of a coastal artillery searchlight. The practice battery required its own subterranean shell and cartridge store (the South Magazine). This is located near the centre of the southern edge of the compound, immediately to the west of the artillery store. A second practice battery of four 5-inch Vavasseur guns was located a short distance to the south of the fort with a wider field of fire across Dovercourt Bay (away from the busy harbour mouth), necessitating a second access causeway across the Twydall defence (The King’s Gate). The three remaining mountings for the Vavasseur battery (iron pivots and racers) are included in the scheduling within a separate area of protection.
The increasing threat of German naval power around the beginning of the 20th century once again highlighted weaknesses in the fort’s armament and led to a number of modifications. The fort was extended northwards to accommodate a new emplacement for a 6-inch BL gun (on the line of the Twydall defence), and following the Owen Report on coastal defences in 1904, the original (and by now ineffective) 10-inch and 4.7-inch QF gun emplacements were remodelled to take 6-inch Mark VII guns on Mark II mountings. The principal magazines were modified to suit the new ordnance. Searchlight emplacements were added (served by the original generators which were now powered by oil fired engines) and brick built position finding cells (most of which survive) were constructed along the northern coastline. The first of two Depression Range Finding posts was constructed in 1898 on the mound to the rear of the central compound, and a telephone system was installed in the same year to co-ordinate the targeting and firing operations. The telephone room, a three-sided brick structure still stands, located above and to the east of the Kingsgate Magazine. During World War I Harwich served as a principal base for destroyer squadrons and was designated a Class A fortress. The peninsula was secured by a range of trenches and wired strongholds and the existing armament at Beacon Hill was augmented with two one-pounder automatics, the first anti-aircraft guns to be installed at the site.
The fort continued to be manned between the World Wars and although the 4.7-inch QF guns were removed the battery was kept operational. Plans were made for further upgrades in the 1930s, although these were not realised until the construction of the Cornwallis Battery, one of the most impressive concrete structures on the fort’s fighting front, in 1940. This battery stands near the tip of the promontory (to the rear of the 1894 practice battery) and includes a four storey Battery Observation Post (BOP), a subterranean magazine and a war shelter set to the rear of a twin 6-pounder gun emplacement within a partly covered casemate. As the threat of air attack increased two 6-inch Mark VII guns (superimposed on the original 10-inch and 6-inch gun positions) were fitted with flat roofed concrete casemates, that to the south also armed with a Bofors anti-aircraft gun on the roof. One of the 6-inch Mark VII guns was later moved to an upgraded 6-inch BL emplacement at the northern end of the original fort and fitted with an anti-strafing cover. The northern decommissioned 4.7-inch emplacement was superseded by the second tower on the front, a three storied concrete BOP which still retains vestiges of a painted door and windows (complete with curtains) which were intended to disguise the seaward elevations as a house. The third tower at the fort is constructed in unrendered brick and stands within the northern extension. This hexagonal tower (a type 287) was built in 1940-41 to house experimental radio direction finding (RDF) technology, and used in conjunction with the 6-inch guns, it was one of the first installations to provide gunners with radar bearings on targets and corresponding reports on the fall of shot. Some elements of the RDF array remain in situ on the upper floors. Coastal Artillery Searchlights (CASLs) were mounted along the shoreline to the south of the Cornwallis battery and a range of earlier Defence Electric Lights (DELs) dating from the turn of the century continued in use along the battery foreshore.
The fort was defended against ground assault by a combination of slit trenches, pillboxes at the three corners of the original triangular fort and four Blacker Bombard (Spigot mortar) emplacements located along the Twydall defence and towards the northern end of the northern fort extension. Limited anti-tank measures are suggested by a single block located on the largely buried access road along the rear of the northern extension. This area also contained workshops for a Royal Engineers depot. During World War II, and possibly beforehand, the tip of the promontory came under Naval command. A concrete bunker and observation room, the Extended Defence Officer (EXDO) post, was built over an earlier World War II pillbox and controlled the marine minefield across part of the harbour mouth and the southern end of the harbour boom which stretched to Landguard Fort. This was defended against ground assault by a hexagonal Type 22 pillbox (with an anti-aircraft gun pit on the roof) and a further semi-circular pillbox which faces into the fort as well as out to sea.
In World War II as before, the majority of the garrison was billeted outside the fort, mainly in barrack buildings covering the area immediately to the west (Barrack Field). Most of these buildings have long since been removed, although an indication of their presence is provided by a single World War II air raid shelter buried beneath a mound outside the outer scarp of the Twydall defence. Earlier buildings within the fort were altered to new uses in World War II as before; for example the 1890 guard house was converted to a Master Gunner’s house in the 1930s and later served as the officers’ mess for the stand-by shift. Artillery sheds, latrine blocks, fuel stores and general purpose shelters also remained in use and several new structures were built in the final phase of active use (1940-45) including additional gun stores and the large concrete engine room located on the western edge of the compound which was required to provide electricity for the new battery systems.
In the mid-1950s the War Office decided that coastal batteries had been rendered obsolete by developments in jet aircraft and missile technology. The fort was decommissioned and stripped of ordnance in 1956 and, following a period of minimal military presence, the site was sold to the local authorities and a private buyer in the 1970s.
All surviving fittings related to the fort, such as ammunition hoists, steel shutters, window frames and equipment mounting brackets, are included in the scheduling. Recent fencing, modern notice boards and the brasier beacon on the tip of the promontory are excluded, although the ground beneath and the features to which they are attached are included.
Books and journals
Brown, M, Pattison, P, Beacon Hill Fort, Essex. Requested Survey, (1997)
Smith, V. and Trollope, C., Beacon Hill Battery, Harwich. An invisible fort made visible, 1989, Draft held in Essex SMR
Tendring District Council, Beacon Hill Ancient Monument: Draft Management Plan, (1989)
National Grid Reference: TM 26052 31671, TM 26187 31759