It all started with volunteers more than 150 years ago and today Shoreham Fort is still powered by volunteers, although not the same ones. This slice of Victorian maritime history is slowly and painstakingly being brought back to life.
The fort is testament to Britain’s changing fortunes on land and sea, a reminder that throughout history the waters surrounding this island have been a vital part of our defence.
The fort, also known as the Shoreham or Kingston Redoubt, was built on the orders of Lord Palmerston in 1857 to counteract the threat of invasion by Napoleon III’s French forces. The design was experimental, using a fortification known as a Carnot Wall, which gave the pounding cannon greater range and made use of what was at the time the latest in military tech – rifled barrels.
Significant, yet small with just one Master Gunner, two officers, and 35 NCOs and privates living in the barracks. The men of the 1st Sussex Volunteer Artillery were responsible for the safety and security of the newly stabilised Shoreham harbour entrance.
Today, Friends of Shoreham Fort, led by the enthusiastic Gary Baines, can be found almost every weekend painting, digging, shoring up crumbling walls and generally defending the defences.
For Gary it’s a lifelong commitment. “I could only have been about four when I first found the Fort. I was walking with my grandfather along Shoreham beach and we came across the ruins. I spent a happy time running around the grassy slopes using his walking stick as an imaginary gun.”
Fast forward several years and Gary is a leading light in the Royal Sussex Living History Group and one of the main forces behind the camp’s renovation.
If you like peace and quiet you can drop by any day from dawn to dusk and use your own imagination, as Gary did all those years ago. But being at one of their regular events opens up a whole new view of life on the front line from the Napoleonic Wars through the Great War to World War II.
The Military History Weekend, held every June, attracts enthusiasts from across the country to show off their costumes , weapons and vehicles and to demonstrate the speed and accuracy of everything from an ancient musket to a huge replica cannon.
Civilians get a look-in too with Ada the cleaner keeping everyone in line and you may even be lucky enough to be greeted by Queen Victoria herself or at least fall into conversation with one of her ladies-in-waiting.
On these days the site is a blaze of colour, the air full of noise and the sharp smell of gunpowder. Bugle calls, the crack of rifles and the deafening boom of cannon punctuate the day.
Entrance is free because Gary wants to give everyone the freedom to explore the fort for themselves. “Obviously we have to have safety rules but I want everyone to get as hands-on as possible. We do ask for donations if people can afford it and of course we sell delicious cakes, ice-creams and treats which help us make a profit.”
Other events at the fort include regular Find Out More Sundays where volunteers are on hand to explain and expand on what remains of the old defences. And they take part every September in the National Heritage Open Day with guided tours and demonstrations of what life was like in the fort’s Victorian heyday.
All the money raised is ploughed back into their ambitious plans for a full restoration, including the reinstatement of the Barrack Block for use as a multi purpose community facility.
And the discoveries keep on coming. The Nissen Hut recently rescued from imminent destruction dates from WW1 and is probably the oldest in the country and people who come along bring their own stories of friends and family during times of conflict, which Gary and the rest of the volunteers are delighted to hear.
Much to my surprise the roll of volunteers listed for the fort shows the names of two of my ancestors from a part of the family I know very little about, so that’s set me wondering if a bit of digging around the old Family Tree might prove fruitful.
And it’s not all about battles, the fort also had brief but important role in the early British film industry with some of the the first ever silent movies using it as a dramatic backdrop. There’s much more information on the beginnings of Hollywood-by-the-Sea in our piece about Shoreham plus intriguing displays in both the Marlipins and Hove Museums nearby.
So next time you’re taking a stroll along the Sussex coast just west of Brighton, seek out one of the last remaining bastions of Britain’s old sea defences.
More information about Friends of Shoreham Fort, their events and the ongoing restoration work can be found on their website.
The site is owned by Shoreham Port Authority and the car park and toilets are owned and managed by Adur District Council. The restoration of the fort is part of the wider Shoreham Harbour Regeneration Project