For the past ten years Canterbury Archaeological Trust has been assisting the Land Trust with its stabilisation and restoration of Fort Burgoyne, near Dover Castle.
This artillery fort was built during the 1860s to defend the high ground over-looking the Castle and appears to have been partially erected across the site of an earlier earthwork, ‘Oliver’s Mount’, perhaps of medieval date and related to the French siege of the castle in 1216–17. A full, detailed history of the Victorian fort has yet to be prepared, although Peter Seary prepared a detailed description of the surviving structure in 2016.
Originally known as Castle Hill Fort, Fort Burgoyne is of polygonal design, surrounded by a 10 metre (36 feet) wide ditch and flanked by two redoubts, the East Wing and West Wing Batteries, which were connected to the main fort by ditches. Construction work started in June 1861 and was mostly finished by 1868 but the fort was not finally completed until December 1873.
The well-preserved fort is now a Scheduled Monument. At the centre of the fort complex is a parade ground surrounded on three sides by casemented barracks protected by a covering of earth. The main gun positions, mostly facing inland, were set on a terreplein above the casemates. The bomb-proof casemates under the main ramparts originally provided accommodation for seven officers and 270 men.
One of the more unusual features of Fort Burgoyne’s layout are two contemporary, but detached, wing batteries positioned beyond the main work and connected to the central fort by spur ditches (East Wing Battery and West Wing Battery). Each battery was provided with its own emplacements for four and five field guns. The armament of the fort was updated throughout the nineteenth century but by 1906 all the large guns had been removed and replaced by machine guns.
During the twentieth century, Fort Burgoyne saw continued service in both World Wars. With the threat of imminent German invasion in 1940, Dover Castle together with nearby Fort Burgoyne and its two outworks, were hastily fortified to create one end the South-East Command (XII Corps) fortified ‘Stop-line’ (East Kent). This extended some 34km between Dover and Whitstable and was intended to hold up enemy invaders landing in the north-eastern part of the county (especially along the open beaches between Ramsgate and Deal) and delay them moving inland across Kent towards London.
New works added to the fort then included pillboxes, slit trenches, weapon pits, and spigot mortar emplacements. These were located in and around the main fort and at the West Wing battery. Two batteries of 25 pounder field guns, unusually set within eight large new concrete emplacements, were also built within the main fort. These were begun in December 1940 and became fully operational in early 1941.
The importance of Fort Burgoyne is two-fold. Firstly, it constitutes an important and well-preserved representative of a later nineteenth century polygonal fortification in Britain, containing a number of unusual features. Secondly, it forms an essential part in the sequence of Dover’s surviving artillery defences. It was particularly relevant to the Castle’s fortifications in making good a long-perceived weakness in the event of enemy occupation of the hilltop to the north. The fort was also intended to cover the northern front of the major Western Heights fortifications on the opposite side of the valley.
At the centre of the main fort, the parade ground is roughly D-shaped in plan with maximum dimensions of 134m (E–W) by 62m (N–S). In February 2023, Keith Parfitt from CAT’s Dover office returned to the fort, where another watching brief was required. A one hundred metres long service trench was being cut across the width of the fort parade ground. Inspection of this revealed several phases of earlier pebble metalling, under the present tarmac surface, and partially resting on natural clay and chalk.
The length of the trench was sufficient to show that prior to the construction of the fort the ground here had fallen gently down to the south. Accordingly, the ground inside the fort had seen a certain amount of soil dumping, in order to raise the height of the ground to a constant level. At the north-western end of the trench inspection showed that the top of the natural geology lay directly below the parade ground surface and may have perhaps been slightly truncated during the original construction of the fort. At the south-eastern end of the trench, however, the top of the natural geology lay buried at a depth of almost 1m, sealed below extensive dumps of rubble, chalk and clay.
No significant dating evidence was recovered from any of the exposed deposits and there was no clear evidence for any pre-fort activity on this part of the site.
Other restoration work is planned at the fort in the future, and this should allow us to continue our research at this fascinating site.