Site Records

Site Name: Beacon Hill Fort (Harwich)

Barrack Lane
Harwich, Essex
OS Grid Ref: TM263326

Sub Brit site visit 5-1996, 9-1998 & 12-2003

[Source: Nick Catford]


Beacon Hill Fort is located on a natural south-east facing promontory on the south side of the Orwell Haven comprising the estuaries of both the River Orwell and the River Stour. The first attempts to fortify the estuary can be traced back to Roman times while in 885 King Alfred brought his fleet from Kent to the Haven where he defeated the Danish navy at 'Bloody Point' near Shotley. After 1320 Harwich was attacked on seven occasions in 50 years, mainly by the French and the Dutch.

During the reign of Henry VIII the town was chosen as the site of a new naval base. Two new forts were proposed, one at Beacon Hill, to the south of the estuary and one at Languard Point to the north. Neither of these forts was constructed at this time; instead three small blockhouses were built, one of which was at Beacon Hill because of its strategic location being a good vantage point out to sea and inland. Ten years later however, the blockhouse at Beacon Hill had been abandoned and the guns removed.

After the death of Henry VIII the guns from the blockhouse at Landguard Point were reinstalled at Harwich and the town itself was further fortified. With the threat of war with Spain a second blockhouse at Beacon Hill was proposed together with further strengthening of the fortifications around the town but these new fortifications quickly fell into decay and by 1625, Harwich was considered to be defenceless.

Photo:Battery Observation Post (left), 6-Inch Mk. VII emplacement (centre) & RDF Tower (right)
Photo by Nick Catford

New works were proposed during the Civil War but little was done at Beacon Hill until the second Dutch war in 1665 when a small battery was constructed on the headland and in 1708 plans were drawn up for a small fort on Beacon Hill but with the decline in importance of the naval yard these were not implemented with Landguard Fort considered sufficient to defend the estuary. In 1745 a small battery was built to supplement these defences on a site later occupied by the Harwich Redoubt.

In 1804 a masonry tower was built on Beacon Hill and six years later the Harwich Redoubt was built 100 metres to the north west of the fort. This was equipped with ten 24-pounder guns with a further three 24-pounders mounted in a small battery to the west of the town and a further five 24-pounders at Angel Gate Battery to defend the harbour. In 1812 a small battery with five 24-pounders was also built on Beacon Hill.

By 1822 the battery had been washed away by coastal erosion and although a replacement was planned in 1839 it wasn't built.

Following an inspection of fortifications in 1853, General Burgoyne considered the only useful defence to be the redoubt. He made numerous suggestions to improve the defences of Harwich and the estuary but a lack of money scuppered all these proposals until 1862 when the redoubt was rearmed with three 8-inch SB (smooth bore) guns and seven 68-pounders with three 68-pounders for Angel Gate Battery. The SB guns were obsolete by the time they were installed and were soon replaced with 9-inch RML's (rifled muzzle loaders) to compliment those that had been mounted at Shotley Battery (on the north side of the Orwell) and at Landguard Fort.

Plan of Beacon Hill Fort - click on a feature to see a picture
From Harwich Maritime Heritage Trail
By the 1880's the fortifications were once again considered obsolete and in 1887 The Stanhope Commission recommended the construction of a new fort at Beacon Hill, work started on 10th January 1889.

By this time improved artillery on battleships meant that forts like Languard with its outdated RML's could be easily attacked and destroyed so a new innovation in fort design was used incorporating the fortifications into the surrounding landscape making them almost invisible from the sea. This replaced the traditional and highly visible ditch and rampart defences as used at Landguard Fort on the north side of The Haven which was built ten years earlier. The new design also incorporated a low artificial hill behind the emplacements. This provided a natural backdrop that helped camouflage the guns and protected the gunners backs from an attack from the rear.

It also housed the engine room, magazines and a dugout for the defending infantry forces. To the rear of the fort the 'Twydall Profile' was adopted. This was developed a few years earlier at the Twydall Redoubt at Chatham and at Beacon Hill it consisted of a network of banks and ditches at the rear of the fort with a gently sloping glacis down to the bottom of a ditch containing a concealed unclimbable fence; this enabled infantry to defend the landward side.

6-inch BL gun similar to that at emplaced at Beacon Hill

The fort was designed to mount a single 10-inch breach loading gun on a hydro-pneumatic disappearing carriage and a 6-inch breach loading gun on a disappearing carriage.

The guns would rise up above the pits for twenty seconds to fire; the recoil would force them down again out of sight ready for reloading. There were also two 4.7 inch QF (quick firing) guns on barbette mountings within the fort which was fully armed and operational by 1892.

Within a few years two 3-pounders were added to provide flanking fire for the larger guns and a practice battery of four 5-inch Vavasseur guns was constructed to the west of the fort. By this time the Harwich Garrison, incorporating all the fortifications for the estuary, numbered five thousand men.

By the turn of the century, with the increased threat from the German navy, the fort was further extended with a new emplacement on the north side for a 6-inch BL (breech loading) gun and following the Owen Report in 1904 the 10-inch and 6- inch emplacements were rebuilt to take 6-inch Mark VII guns to supplement the existing 6-inch BL and 4.7 inch QF guns.

Photo:Southern 6-Inch Mark VII emplacement with WW2 casemate
Photo by Nick Catford

Harwich was in the front line defences during WW1 and Beacon Hill Fort was once again improved with the addition of two 1-pounder automatic guns for anti aircraft defence. During this period the town and surrounding area was designated a Class A fortress capable of withstanding a German attack; the attack however never came.

After the war the redoubt was disarmed and sold to the council and the 4.7-inch guns were removed from the fort.

With the further threat of war with Germany in the 1930's, plans were drawn up to reactivate and rearm the fort but it wasn't until 1940 that any new works were started with the construction of the Cornwallis Battery which consisted of a twin 6-pounder emplacement with a rangefinder and predictor tower at the rear.

Photo:Cornwallis Battery with Battery Observation Post behind
Photo by Nick Catford

With the depletion of the German navy a seaborne attack was eventually considered unlikely but with the increased threat of an air attack by the Luftwaffe the air defences at the fort were improved with flat-roofed concrete casemates constructed over the two 6-inch Mark VII guns, there was also a Bofors anti-aircraft gun added to the roof of the southern emplacement. A battery observation tower was constructed on top of the abandoned 4.7-inch emplacement, and a brick tower was constructed north of the fort for use in the early developments in radar at Bawdsey. The 6-inch Mark VII gun was moved from its original emplacement to the reconstructed 6-inch BL emplacement at the northern end of the Fort, with an anti-strafing cover.

In 1947 the 6-inch guns were removed from Beacon Hill but the twin 6-pounder was retained until 1956 when the fort was decommissioned and all the artillery was removed. Although there was an occasional military presence through the 1960's and 1970's the site deteriorated quickly with anything saleable being removed and sold for scrap.

Further information and pictures about this site continues here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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Last updated: Tuesday, 04-Jan-2011 14:55:33 GMT
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