The Grand Shaft was proposed in 1804 and built between 1806 and 1809 as a quick means of communication and movement between the barracks on the Western Heights and the town of Dover below. It was designed by Brigadier-General William Twiss, Commanding Engineer of the Southern District. General Twiss was one of the outstanding designers of military defences at the time, and was also responsible for the Royal Military Canal running from Hythe to Rye, and the Martello Towers along the south and east coasts of England.
A letter in 1804, from Twiss to Lt. General Morse suggested ‘a shaft with triple staircase the chief object of which is the convenience and safety of the troops’. In addition, in the event of an attack by the French, he considered that it would be ‘the shortest and securest communication with the town’ and that it ‘may eventually be useful in sending reinforcements to Troops employed in the defence of the Beach and Town or in affording them a secure retreat’. Without the Shaft, troops would have had to use the badly-maintained roads and tracks leading down to Dover that, being based on chalk, became very slippery and dangerous in wet weather.
It is sometimes said that the three separate staircases were for ‘Officers and their Ladies’, ‘Sergeants and their Wives’, and ‘Soldiers and their Women’ but this is almost certainly apocryphal. The Grand Shaft is usually opened for visits once a month during the summer by the Western Heights Preservation Society.