This history forms part of a larger RARDE history written by the late Peter Baigent around 1991. Peter had a long and distinguished career in weapons design at Fort Halstead. We are very grateful to his family for giving permission to publish Peter’s research.
Fort Halstead originates from a scheme drawn up in 1888 by a Committee under the Assistant Adjutant General for the defences of London and not in Napoleonic times as has been suggested by some sources.
In the 1880’s General Sir Edward Hamley, Conservative M.P. for Birkenhead and a leading writer on military strategy, conducted a vigorous campaign in and out of Parliament for the adoption of measures to prevent the invasion of Britain from the Continent. At the time extensive French and Russian naval building programmes had undermined confidence in the ability of the Navy to safeguard the country. Hamley was an enthusiastic supporter of the Volunteers, a movement which was essentially of the rapidly increasing Victorian and professional middle classes and as such was disliked by the regular officers from the landed gentry families. In the event of an invasion, Hamley believed the Volunteers could play a particularly valuable part in the defence of London. In his book issued in 1889, Sir Edward outlined a scheme for the establishment of a series of lightly fortified assembly points around London to serve as mobilization stations for specially trained metropolitan Volunteer units and also as focal points for the organisation of defence.
His views were accepted in 1888 by the Government of the day and a confidential memorandum prepared by the War Office in July recommended that sites should be acquired for the erection of elementary works. A defence line was mapped out running from Guildford along the North Downs to Halstead and Knockholt, then up the west side of the Darenth Valley to Dartford and north of the Thames from Vange by Brentwood to North Weald. It was proposed to build a number of storehouses which would form points of support for a series of entrenched positions to be constructed all along the line if the need arose. It seems quite clear that there was no intention of mounting guns in the Forts, although some of the works e.g. Pewley Hill, Reigate and Halstead were well sited to command the country to the front and cooperate in the defence of the main positions.
Mr E. Stanhope, Secretary of State for War, in his Estimate Speech of 1889 gave an outline of the steps the Government were taking to implement Hamley’s proposals but asked members in the national interest not to press for details. Approval was obtained for acquisition of the sites and a further committee appointed to prepare a detailed scheme This Committee produced a report in 1892, the year Hamley retired from Parliament; he died the following year and without his advocacy interest for the scheme flagged considerably.
Construction work on the defence line continued for some years, but no attempt was made to relate the training of the London Volunteers to the new defence arrangements. This situation was highlighted in a book published in 1896 by Spencer Wilkinson, a leading authority on the Volunteer movement. In response to a request by Mr Dalziel, Radical M.P. for Kirkcaldy, for an opportunity to consider the policy of the fortification of London, the Government said the scheme and the work in progress was in accordance with that approved by Parliament. When the Bill came up for discussion in February 1897, Dalziel limited his remarks but a strong attack was made on the scheme by Mr Lough, the member for Islington.
Land records show that 3 acres of land were purchased for Fort Halstead in 1890 and a further 6¾ acres in 1891. Although the precise date for the building of Fort Halstead cannot be fixed, it can be safely put between 1895 at the earliest to 1897 at the latest. Some of the contractors’ drawings dated 11 October 1894 with working notes added in pencil show the earthworks to contain a layer of hand-picked flints some way below the surface, presumably to form a bursting layer.
During this period confidence was returning in the ability of the Navy to defend the country against invasion. With the ‘Blue Water School’ in the ascendancy, Hamley’s scheme passed into oblivion. By 1903 the whole subject of the London Defence Positions was again under review and a Handbook was issued by the War Office to bring into force a provisional scheme based, with some modifications, on that of 1892 which could be brought quickly into action if required. It describes the defence line with its base depots and lines of communications, the units of infantry and artillery, both Volunteers and Regulars, allotted to the various positions and the construction of the earthworks that was to be done by civilian contractors in eight days.
When Haldane became Secretary of State for War in 1905 in a new government, he began to eliminate those Army features which did not accord with the ‘Blue Water School’. In his first Estimates speech on 8 March 1906, he describes stumbling upon one of these curious structures containing large amounts of ammunition and stores in the neighbourhood of Dorking and he was advised units had not been to the site and the guns were at Woolwich. He told Parliament the sites were going to disappear root and branch as fast as possible. The Member for Reigate tried to secure the retention of the sites as a national property, but he was unsuccessful and the decision to sell was announced on 25 February 1907.
Whatever the fate of the other sites Fort Halstead remained War Office property and was evidently concerned with the storage of ammunition during the 1914-18 war. A laboratory was built inside the Old Fort in 1915 and a storehouse outside in 1920. Both buildings exist today as do a number of cottages, one with double doors originally in the front wall which might have housed field guns. Fort Halstead was by far the most expensive of all the forts constructed with the site costing £2,939 and the works £22,354.
Eventually the Disposals Board advertised the sale of Fort Halstead by auction on Tuesday 8 November 1921 at the London Auction Mart in Queen Victoria Street, London. It was bought by a retired Army Colonel who then lived in the laboratory and let the cottages. He used the site as a camp for Territorials, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and as a home for destitute refugees. For the next sixteen years it remained in private hands until Brigadier Macnair on his inspection of the forts found it so eminently suitable for rocket work. When the Colonel learned the purpose for which the War Office required the site, he proposed to give it to the Crown gratis. However, his lawyers persuaded him this was needlessly altruistic and the property was repurchased by the War Office in November 1937 for about £9000.
The Old Fort of today is still very much the original 100 year old structure and a valuable part of our fascinating heritage. Although some of the moat has been filled in, the majority remains, the steep slopes of the ramparts leading to the moat still retain their 19th century charm and the bottom of the moat is still a formidable obstacle. On the inner side of the ramparts there is still evidence of the raised levels for observers or riflemen offering a commanding view of Sevenoaks and the Weald.