In 1859 Lord Palmerston instigated the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom to review the nation’s defences. At the time there was a strong possibility of a French attack and the country’s existing defences were deemed obsolete. The report was published the following year with the recommendation of the construction of a series of forts to strengthen the defences around the country against landward attack. Over 80 forts were built with five being constructed in Medway to protect the Royal Dockyard, Royal Arsenal and the approach to London. Fort Luton was the smallest in the “Chatham Concrete Ring”. The five forts were Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewoods, Fort Horsted, Fort Luton and Fort Darland.
The design and placement of the forts were based on the needs and armament available in 1860, artillery range was three miles and with the site of the forts you could hold the enemy around five miles from the Dockyard at Chatham, an important feature of approach to London was the A2 which Rochester Bridge is part of and this had to be protected, if the enemy could use it they would have a direct route into London and if they destroyed the bridge they could delay our troops from hampering their invasion plans and forcing them to travel miles to cross the River Medway. Construction started on the Medway forts in the mid-1870s however funds became short and work stopped for some years, by the time work began again armament had so improved as to make the forts useless for the defence of the Royal Dockyard and Rochester Bridge, artillery fire was now travelling up to twelve miles. The design of the forts were changed many times reflecting on the improving armament, changing needs for defence and the new suggestion that fixed artillery forts were an unnecessary cost which field works could replace. Due to the constant improvements during this short period many features of Fort Luton were removed from plans including a main magazine, counterscarp galleries and a caponier. The size of Fort Luton was also reduced and a casemate was converted into the use of a magazine. None of the forts received their fixed gun emplacements but instead they were provided with secure bases around the ramparts, this allowed field guns to be wheeled into position when under attack but also removed if there was heavy bombardment. To protect the guns Fort Luton was provided with four gun shelters in which the artillery men could also retreat when in danger.
At the beginning of the First World War there was a desperate need for barrack accommodation and also storage, many army camps were set up all over Kent using Nissan Huts to house soldiers undergoing training. With the Royal School of Military Engineering being in the same town it is no surprise to find that Fort Luton was used for this purpose. The fort is also reported to have been used as a transit barracks to those heading to Europe and for storage in later the years. An early plan drawn in 1879 whilst the fort was being built highlighted weak areas of defence on either side of the fort, this was still an issue in WWI and fire and communication trenches were constructed to increase the area of defence and also to provide an anti-tank defence on the approaches into Chatham and Rochester.
In 1938 the Fort was converted into the Gun Operations Room (GOR) for the 27th Anti-Aircraft Brigade (Thames and Medway South) Gun Defended Area. The fort was almost fully utilised and some further protection, such as blast walls, were constructed. Plans of the fort at this time show that the Magazine was converted into an Engine Room, this is likely due to the front of this casemate being totally enclosed with no window openings. The next casemate was the Signals Room and the next was the Operations Room where all the plotting and decision making was carried out. The following casemate was the Signals Dining and Rest Room and then followed the Commanding Officers Dining Room and the Men’s Dining Room. The remaining two casemates were the Kitchen and Store. A building was added on the parade ground which was used as the Officer’s Rest Room and the Reservoir access tunnel is marked as the Ablutions. The water in the reservoir was likely to still be provided by the large water tanks at Fort Horsted. The original Latrines were fitted out with toilets for the Auxiliary Territorial Service staff and a new toilet block was added for the use of the Men. A hutted camp was also constructed at the rear of the fort by the entrance which included a garage, N.A.A.F.I, and Offices. The GOR remained at Fort Luton until 1945 when it was then used by the Army Cadet Force and Territorial Army. As a result of the fort being put back into use blast walls were added to the tunnel entrances, a hutted camp was set up at the entrance for accommodation for those based there, drainage was installed t enable flushing toilets to be used and to take away other waste water.
The fort stayed in the Ministry of Defence’s hands and reports suggest that the site was used as a summer camp for the Territorial Units and Army Cadet Force Units but in the late 1950s the land around the fort and the fort itself was sold to Kent County Council for £1 to enable a new secondary school to be built. This was built on land immediately to the North of the fort. The school did not find a permanent use for the fort and it remained derelict whilst under its ownership. In March 1988 Kent County Council sold the Fort at auction, the guide price was £10,000 but the fort and a small parcel of land sold for £145,000. The new owner had hoped to develop the site but due to the fort having listed status the planning permission was rejected and the fort was sold again in auction in 1990, at a much lower cost. The new owner converted the fort into a tourist attraction and model museum; the museums attractions included a model railway, a model workshop, dolls and dollhouse exhibition, model village and fairground, bygone tools, Victorian themes areas, as well as an adventure playground, tea rooms, a petting area with goats, chipmunks, a duck pond and shop.
Fort Luton has been under new ownership since 2012, whilst being shown around the new owner was disappointed to learn that the Fort had fallen out of use and was no longer open to view by anyone, with this in mind he offered to buy the Fort so that he could find a way to put it back into use. Various options were considered and after 3 years it was decided that it should become a Community Interest Company with long term hirings of the casemates and some land to provide long term revenue for the Forts upkeep, with short term hirings to allow the local community to access new and interesting events and learning opportunities and to also access and enjoy the Fort. A small group of volunteers offered their help in 2013 and have helped to restore parts of the Fort and to get it ready for future use, this has allowed the volunteers to join a community and to also develop their skills and more volunteers are offering their time and skills to push towards our goal of giving Fort Luton a new lease of life.
Why Build Fort Luton?
During the mid 1800’s there was a growing public concern in Great Britain over the military and naval powers of Emperor Napoleon III of France, and the ever growing power of Imperial Germany.
This was enough that a Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was set up in 1859 to review Britain’s defences against such threats and its report was submitted to parliament in 1860.
One of its recommendations was the construction of five forts that would provide defence to Chatham’s Eastern flank, in case of an inland invasion and to protect Chatham dockyard, where the new iron-clad warships for the navy were being built.
This resulted in the construction of Fort Bridgewood, Fort Darland, Fort Horsted, Fort Luton and Twydall Redoubt. As an afterthought from the 1859 Royal commission, it was decided that Fort Borstal was to be built to protect the high ground south west of Rochester.
Parliament decided against building Fort Luton in an attempt to save money and divert funds to build the land and sea forts in Portsmouth and Plymouth and the surrounding areas. In the 1869 Report on the Construction, Condition and Costs of Fortifications, they criticised the lack of landward protection for Chatham. The Treasury relented and purchased the land in 1872.
Military opinion at this time on the usefulness of these fixed fortifications was divided, which maybe why after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when it became clear the French threat of invasion was gone, they became known “Palmerston’s follies” after the Prime Minister of the time Lord Palmerston.
Work started on Fort Luton, the smallest of the five in 1876, on a site called Epps Farm which overlooks the valley. The land was surveyed with an instrument similar to the one on display here, and then the area “pegged out” and construction started on the building the following year 1877.
It was built using a convict labour force from the newly constructed Borstal Prison and supervised by the Royal Engineers.