Tilbury Fort lies about half-a-mile south-east of Tilbury docks. The present fort is of the late 17th century and replaced a smaller fortification built during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47); the stronghold was recommissioned under orders of Elizabeth I, during the dangerous days of the Spanish Armada around 1588.
In 1670 work began on a new fort designed with the sole purpose of guarding the Thames against attacks from enemy shipping. Most of the building complex was complete by 1676, but the huge defensive gates and massive ramparts were still not in place, leaving the fort, and ultimately London, vulnerable. This was the period of the Restoration, a time of uncertainty, and Charles II (1660-85) gave urgent orders to complete work on the fort; by 1683 the water and landport gates were effectively sealing off access to intruders.
Two years after George I (1714-27) came to the throne of England, Tilbury Fort had armed itself with a mighty array of cannon fire; 161 guns in total could be brought to bear on any enemy ships foolhardy enough to venture up the Thames estuary. In 1724, the writer Daniel Defoe witnessed this heavy concentration of military hardware, exclaiming that "they must be bold fellows who will venture in the biggest ships the world has heard of to pass such a battery". No threat materialised, the hardware was not maintained and by the late 18th century 92 of these cannon were declared unserviceable.
By the early 19th century, Tilbury Fort had long ceased to be on military standby. Rather it was primarily employed to barrack army recruits and act as a powder magazine and depot; in addition, some invalid gunners were given light duties to maintain what working ordinance remained. The sheer size and strength of the fortification ensured that it was never challenged, but the armoury was updated as a precaution. During the early 20th century the fort's guns were at last fired in anger and scored their one great success; in the First World War, the antiaircraft gunners, firing from the parade ground, shot down an enemy zeppelin. Throughout the Second World War the fort provided a depot for the Home Guard, after which it was demilitarised in 1950. Now in the care of English Heritage, Tilbury Fort is preserved as a national monument, welcoming visitors and offering a fine view of Thames shipping.
Interestingly, shots had been fired in anger before the First World War, in 1876, and all over a cricket match. A Kent team, having rowed across the Thames, objected to a certain man being included in the Essex eleven. Anger boiled over and some Kent players wrenched a gun from one of the invalid soldiers and shot dead an Essex player. Mayhem ensued, both teams overcame the few soldiers at the guardhouse and took more guns. One sick old soldier was bayoneted to death and the sargeant-at -arms was also mortally wounded. Shocked into their senses and appalled by what they had done, the two teams fled from the scene of the tragedy and melted into the dark night.