A raid on Chatham Dockyard by the Dutch in 1667 led to a review of the defences of the Royal Dockyard. Among the recommendations eventually implemented in the 1750s was the building of defensive fortifications around the area known as the ‘Great Lines’. Amherst Redoubt (later Fort Amherst) was built in 1758 as the strongpoint of these defences. The lines were primarily designed to protect the dockyard from a landward attack.
What is of special interest to us at Fort Amherst is its extensive underground tunnel system, built between 1776 and 1805. This provided protected firing positions, provided a protected ammunition supply route and aided communications within the rest of the fort. It is believed that existing ‘caves’ were used as the basis for the tunnels. Legend has it that the tunnels were constructed by French Prisoners of War, but this is unlikely. The current thinking is that Cornish tin miners and Board of Ordnance Engineers did the work. It is just possible that the Cornish language was mistaken for French!
At its peak, Fort Amherst had 125 guns (mainly 24 pounders) but its defences were never tested. Unlike many other forts of the period, Fort Amherst was not modified in the Victorian era and is an outstanding example of Georgian military architecture. It has been described by English Heritage as the most complete Napoleonic fortification in Britain. During World War I, the fort became the site for some of the earliest anti-aircraft guns in the World. In World War II, the tunnel system was used as the local ARP and Civil Defence headquarters, who finally vacated the site in 1956. The site today includes a small museum of Civil Defence.
Twenty acres of the site are now owned by the Fort Amherst Heritage Trust, who purchased the site from the MoD in 1980. The Trust regularly opens the Fort, which is a scheduled monument, and is working hard to preserve its features. A submission was made in 2012 to make the Chatham Dockyard and its defences a World Heritage site. Fort Amherst and the Heritage Trust are integral parts of this bid.