An historic Essex attraction could be lost and left to ruin after the charity maintaining it folded, locals fear.
Coalhouse Fort was built in East Tilbury in the 1860s to help defend England from French invasion. Over the space of 70 years, the fort’s armament was revised and adapted to its defensive needs by the River Thames.
But after being used in both World Wars, it closed in 1956, following the abolition of the Coastal Defence.
Devastatingly, it fell into disrepair and became derelict before The Coalhouse Fort Project was created in the 1980s to maintain, restore and promote the historic fort.
But now, despite years of dedication and hard work, the charity announced at the beginning of this year that it would be disbanding.
Without the charity, there are currently no guided tours, open days or events that used to attract people from across the country.
Now, seven months on from that announcement, many of its ex-volunteers and fans fear that without the charity, Coalhouse Fort will return to a state of ruin and opportunities to educate and entertain thousands of visitors every year will be lost.
What did the charity say at the time?
In the charity’s statement announcing they were disbanding, they said: “The decision was not made lightly or without consideration for the fort, but rather we feel this marks the beginning of its next chapter.
“When the project began in the 1980s the fort was physically falling apart, having been derelict for most of the 30 years following the dissolution of Coastal Defence in 1956.
“But with energy, enthusiasm and hard work of countless volunteers across the years, thousands of members of the public have had the chance to explore the historical treasure.”
“It makes you fear for the future”
Coalhouse Fort has been recognised as an important historic site for some time and is on the Scheduled Ancient Monument list, as well as the Historic England At Risk Register.
But when the charity announced it would be disbanding, many feared that the Fort will be lost as an attraction.
One of the volunteers, Sue Yates, a local historian and volunteer, fears that without the charity maintaining the fort, it will revert back to the state of disrepair it once was.
When it was first built, Sue said it cost somewhere in the region of £130,000.
“The fort is very important, it’s one of three forts that make up the triangle on the river,” the 70-year-old explained.
“It’s essential that it is protected properly, the other two are on the Kentish side of the river and they all formed the triangle that blocks the river from the enemy invaders.
“If you saw the fort before the volunteers took over, it makes you fear for the future.
“It was so overgrown with weeds, you couldn’t see the openings where the guns were.
“Weeds were coming out of the top. It was absolutely derelict, the moat was full of rubbish.”
“It would be tragic if we lost it”
When the volunteers took over in the 1980s, they set to work on repairing and saving the historic fort.
But after the charity’s disbandment, Sue is concerned that the council will not give the fort the attention and promotion it deserves.
“There were various volunteers over the years who have come and gone and they all worked so hard down,” she said.
“If it hadn’t been for the volunteers, it wouldn’t be there today. No one is sure what the council will do about it.
“It seems crazy that they have got the money to build a coffee shop and toilet block for visitors but no volunteers.
“It would be tragic if we lost it. It has educated thousands of visitors – especially when they had days like the car shows and the military vehicles.
“People came from all around the country to see that, when I used to work on the door gate, there was one chap who had come all the way from Scotland.
“It’s an incredible piece of history and we are lucky to have it in Thurrock.”
Sue strongly believes that Coalhouse Fort could be an ideal tourist attraction as well as educational facility.
“Tourism is one of the biggest money makers there is,” she said.
“We have Coalhouse Fort, Tilbury Fort and Bata Factory and nobody cares. There are ships coming in all the time but the people think there is nothing to do here.”
Over the years, Sue recalls taking part in many exciting events for families and groups, including dressing up in armour and a tunic for enactments, as well as a VE day celebration a few years ago or some of the military memorabilia days.
With such a stunning view on offer across the Thames, green space, café and the fort, Sue said it would be “criminal” not to make use of it and celebrate its history.
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“We pretty much moved here because of the fort”
Samantha Braby lives just a few doors up from the fort in East Tilbury.
The 50-year-old has been visiting Coalhouse Fort for nearly 30 years. She’s taken her children and grandchildren there and is even hoping one day to have a bench there when she passes away.
It is incredibly close to her heart as well as her husband Peter, who also volunteered for the project for a few years.
She was deeply saddened to hear that the charity folded and like Sue fears it will only fall into disrepair.
But she recognised that the charity itself probably needed some fresh eyes and new help to give the fort the boost it needed.
“We always brought the children to the fort, we used to bring my daughter when she was a toddler and then we moved here pretty much because of the fort on your doorstep,” Samantha said.
“When I die, hopefully not for a long time, I want to have a bench at Coalhouse Fort. I have always had dogs or gone there when I’m sad, it’s my happy place.
“My husband volunteered a couple of years ago. The majority of volunteers were much older and he left because of frustration, he didn’t want to be drinking tea.
“They did a fantastic job, it did look awful before but it became even stale for them.”
“It’s an under-exposed place”
Sue said Peter used to make wrought iron bars around the fort, creating hanging baskets and brackets alongside their son-in-law.
Now, they fear that Thurrock Council won’t give it the time and attention it deserves.
“Thurrock Council will run it into the ground and then in five years they will declare it unsafe,” Samantha said.
“It could be a great source of income and I know Thurrock Council have had bigger fish to fry this year but it could be great, especially with social distancing.
“It’s an underexposed place just sitting there, a jewel in Essex’s crown.”
Samantha also said she fears that the café by Coalhouse Fort, which is independently run, will miss out on people visiting for open days now.
She already worries that many may not even know it exists.
“I work from home and I will have eight or ten clients a day coming here and people don’t know that Coalhouse Fort exists,” she said.
“I had one client come last week who has been coming for years and years and she went for the first time because she didn’t realise it was there and so close.
“I know it has been a victim of its own success sometimes like with Halloween it is so successful.
“Sometimes it would take 45 minutes to get onto our drive when it was only two cars down, but it just needed management.
“It’s the educational side of it too, the original fort was Elizabethan. Kids learn more when they are having fun at events and bringing it to life, they just absorb it.”
There is also a variety of wildlife around Coalhouse Fort, from a known barn owl nesting in the fort for years to water voles in the moat around it.
Samantha said she would like to see events like guided tours continue, as well as opening up the parade space inside the fort for displays and fairs to happen.
Mostly, she would like to continue to take her grandchildren there to learn about the fort and its history.
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“It would be a total shame”
Debbie Allan and her mother Elisabeth Allan have been visiting Coalhouse Fort since Debbie was a child.
Elisabeth, 86, lives in Stanford but continues to come to East Tilbury to walk around the fort and enjoy the views.
“It’s a lovely place here, and its been nice to come and visit,” 57-year-old Debbie said.
“I live in London now so I come down to see it with mum.
“It would be a total shame to lose the history. It’s such an important place in history.”
Debbie said she remembers always running around the fort as children.
“We used to break in there as kids and go into the tunnels, we always wanted to go in and look around.
“It would be such a shame if you couldn’t.”
“Thurrock Council is exploring options”
Councillor Mark Coxshall, cabinet member for regeneration, said: “Thurrock Council is exploring options for the future management and maintenance of the Fort to ensure that this important heritage site is maintained and remains available for residents and visitors to explore.
“We respect the decision of the Coalhouse Fort Project Management Committee to disband the charity, and are grateful for all the work that the Project has undertaken over the past 35 years. We recognise the time, effort and commitment that this group has dedicated to the site’s preservation and restoration.
“Some people who had private collections stored in the Fort have removed them, however council-owned artefacts will remain at the Fort while we continue to examine options for Coalhouse Fort’s future to ensure it can be enjoyed by many.”
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the council said that its environment team has been undertaking litter picking and grass cutting duties to prepare Coalhouse Fort’s park for residents and visitors.
The play areas have also been routinely sprayed with antiviral disinfectant and capital funding has also been utilised at the Fort to improve health and safety and increase accessibility.
Thurrock Council said it is proud to have many historical places that residents and visitors can explore.
Thurrock Museum and volunteers look after the museum collection, respond to enquiries, organise education sessions for young people and arrange exhibitions.