Fort Clarence, guardian of the River Medway

They are probably the most interesting homes in the Medway Towns.

Fort Clarence, built as part of the defences against an expected Napoleonic invasion, was converted into apartments in the mid 2000s.

The fort, which overlooks the Medway from St Margaret’s Street, has seen much of the towns’ recent military and naval history — but little active service. Work on the fort started in 1808 and was completed in 1812.

It was positioned to repel any attack from the river and stop invaders from going up either St Margaret’s Street or the Rochester-Maidstone Road. This magnificent picture shows the archway that once spanned St Margaret’s Street, near the Willis memorial gardens. Its demolition in 1924 removed an expression from the local lexicon. “Going up the arches”, in the argot of those who lived in Bishop’s Square and below meant going towards Borstal.

All that remains is the red brick keep, similar to a smoothed-down model of a medieval castle, which was a gun tower and observation post. Through the arch, just out of sight in this view, was a drawbridge that joined the huge ditch still runs down nearly to the river.

From the tower ran a series of tunnels to outlying guardhouses. I explored one as a youngster and admitted as much to my father only recently. He then admitted that he had done the same thing at the same age.

Cruel army prison, asylum and post office depot

Napoleon, of course, never invaded, so new uses had to be found for Clarence after Bonaparte met his Waterloo.

Initially, it was used as a military prison and lunatic asylum. Fort Pitt was then converted to a military hospital, so the patients were moved there and Clarence was used solely as a jail. The fort was used as a recruiting centre in the First World War and a TAVR (Territorial Army) centre was built nearby soon afterwards. (In the late 1960s, I recall a VI Doodlebug was on show outside the centre. Does anyone know what happened to it?)

The Home Guard used Fort Clarence as headquarters in the Second World War (does anyone have pictures of them that I could borrow?) and Short Brothers built an underground aircraft factory nearby — although I’m not sure exactly where.

Fort Clarence became derelict after the war and GPO telephone used the site, demolishing the barracks on the Maidstone Road side. There was also a Maidstone Road guardhouse — where my father emerged after his childhood exploring — that was demolished in the 1960s. It was opposite the old girls’ grammar school.

Rochester & Strood
Medway villages
Medway at war
Crimes that Shocked the Medway Towns

8 thoughts on “Fort Clarence, guardian of the River Medway”

  1. Hi, just an update… the Short Brothers underground aircraft factory was down Shorts Way. It later became CAV (corner of Shorts Way and Esplanade).

    On Maidstone Road, Rochester the guardhouse was just past the Watts Almshouses. The alleyway which connected both guardhouse is still there.

    1. As boy with friends we used the alleyway to get into the grounds and into the fort through we which we called the oven, as it was small and it seemed half way up the outside hall. We even went down the well as we called it in gardens opposite.

  2. CAV was at the other end of the industrial buildings, not at the Shorts Way end. The underground work shops ran along the back of CAV and all the way to Shorts Way behind the other companies including Blaw-Knox, which was next to Shorts Way. I used to enter the tunnels by climbing down the air shafts.

    This was about 1955 but at that time the tunnels were blocked off presumably so that each of the post-Shorts factories had part of the tunnels that they could use. I know that CAV used their part for storage.

    Regarding Shorts Way, this is a “modern” addition built when all the housing was added, I think this was some time around 1960.

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