In 1667 the Dutch raided the River Medway and attacked Chatham’s Royal Dockyard. During the devastating attack, thirteen ships were destroyed and two were taken including the flagship of the fleet, the ‘Royal Charles’. At that point in time there were no defences protecting the Dockyard against a land based attack, and the raid by the Dutch led to a review of the defences protecting this important site. As well as improved defence of the River Medway the review included proposals to protect the landward side of the Dockyard which would also serve to disrupt an invasion party heading towards London. This is where the story of Fort Amherst and Chatham Lines begins.
In 1708 plans were beginning to be drawn up to construct a fortification to protect the Royal Dockyard from a land based attack. In 1714 land was bought for the construction of the fortifications but work did not start until 1755. The fortifications were to be built on the ditch and rampart principle; this was a common method of fortification construction during this period.
Part of the site chosen included a chalk pit with a number of caves. These caves were extended between 1776 and 1805 to provide an underground labyrinth of tunnels, protected underground gun positions and protection in the event of a siege. The tunnels contain many interesting and important features including a well, privies, loopholed defences, cannon positions and defendable gateways.
To ensure the protection of the Dockyard, three defendable gateways were constructed to control and defend access into the area protected by the Chatham Lines. One of these gateways, the Upper Barrier Guardhouse, can be found within the lower portion of Fort Amherst. The guardhouse housed a small garrison to defend the route from Chatham town by the use of a drawbridge, loopholed walls and a set of three heavy gates. The barrack rooms within this building have been restored for your enjoyment.
Although Fort Amherst and the Chatham Lines were never put to the test, we can see from its design it would have made a formidable defence against any invasion force. In 1820 the defences were declared obsolete due to better artillery equipment with a greater firing range. The whole of the fortifications were used as a training ground during the Victorian period, the practice sieges were so popular that thousands of people came to Chatham to watch them. VIPs were given seating areas upon the Casemated Barracks that once stood in the Lower Lines and also upon Prince William’s Barracks within Fort Amherst. One of these sieges is described by Charles Dickens in his book ‘Pickwick Papers’.