Field of Fire 9536

Gillingham, England

Brief Description

The Field of Fire, comprising c70 hectares, extends across an escarpment approximately 56m (185ft) above sea level overlooking the River Medway to the west and north. It is roughly triangular in shape and c1.68km in length. Chatham Naval Memorial (listed grade II) commemorating the sailors of the two World Wars stands at the southern end of the Field of Fire overlooking Chatham town. The First World War obelisk memorial, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer with sculptures by Henry Poole (and completed in 1922), features steps up to a plinth with inscription plaques.

History

The area of the Great Lines fortifications, of which the Field of Fire forms part, was the site of the medieval town of Chatham. The need for some kind of linear bastioned artillery fortifications was realised after the Dutch Raid of 1667. An Act of Parliament passed in 1708/09 recognised this fact and led to the compulsory purchase of the necessary land to provide defences. The Field of Fire is so named for its role or providing a clear view of (and opportunity for shooting) potential enemy approaching from the river Medway and landward side of the fortifications.

Detailed Description

STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE

The Field of Fire is an integral part of the Great Lines fortifications, a locally-designated Heritage Park and potential World Heritage site. Its vast expanse of open ground is unique of its kind. It demonstrates an aspect of defensive warfare in Britain from the C17 to the mid C19, which is comprehensively recorded in both national archives and the local Royal Engineers Museum. It is valued as an open space with public access and its use for sports activities represents a continuum of historic association with that use by the military and civilians from the late C18. It has architectural interest as the site of a nationally important maritime war memorial (listed grade II) and historical association with four significant British architects and sculptors. It is a focus for both local and national commemorative occasions. The wide views it offers over Fort Amherst, Chatham town and the River Medway are of great landmark and scenic value.

SITE DESCRIPTION - Field of Fire

LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING

The Field of Fire, comprising c70 hectares, extends across an escarpment approximately 56m (185ft) above sea level overlooking the River Medway to the west and north. It is roughly triangular in shape and c1.68km in length. It lies between Brompton Road in the north and a ridge overlooking Chatham Town in the south. The western boundary follows the revetments of the Brompton Lines (part of the defensive earthworks and a scheduled ancient monument) and the eastern boundary abuts the residential edge of Gillingham. The ground rises gradually from the northern end until it falls away into the river valley below to the southwest from where it overlooks the town of Chatham along the banks of the Medway river.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES

There is open access around most of the perimeter apart from fenced boundaries where residential housing at Sally Port Gardens and Brompton West Primary School encroach into the centre of the Field of Fire, south of Sally Port Gardens Road, there is open access around most of the perimeter. Numerous wide, tarmac paths radiate from a central north to south axial path.

PRINCIPAL BUILDING

Chatham Naval Memorial (listed grade II) commemorating the sailors of the two World Wars stands at the southern end of the Field of Fire overlooking Chatham town. The First World War obelisk memorial, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer with sculptures by Henry Poole (and completed in 1922), has steps up to a plinth with inscription plaques, and projecting corners with reclining lions, beneath a stepped base to the obelisk, which has a stepped top to an elaborate finial with corner ships prows and bronze supports to a ball. It is enclosed on three sides by curved Portland stone walls displaying memorial plaques commemorating the fallen seamen of the Second World War. This extension to the memorial is by the architect Sir Edward Maufe with the additional sculpture by Charles Wheeler and William McMillan. On the south side is a paved terrace, which overlooks Chatham town.

PARK

The Field of Fire is predominantly open, mown grassland creating open vistas. There are occasional lines of mixed native, predominantly deciduous trees, largely dating from the late C20 and trees acting as buffers at boundaries with roads. There are also occasional short lengths of hedging. The division of the area from its original open character and function as a Field of Fire dates from its use for sporting activities, which began in the late C18 and C19 with cricket and horse-riding. At the north end are football pitches, some hard-surfaced in tarmac with floodlighting. At the south end, surrounding the Naval Memorial is a managed wildlife grassland area. This part of the park has been designated a Site of Nature Conservation Interest, for its chalk grassland flora and it has also been designated as a Local Wildlife Site.

References

2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map c1885

The Great Lines Heritage Park Draft Management and Maintenance Plan 2012-2016

Medway Council‘The Historical Landscape - Great Lines City Park' report prepared by EDA on behalf of Medway Council and Chatham World Heritage steering group, 2008

Kendall, Peter, The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012, English Heritage, 2012

Lane, Anthony, Kent Ports and Harbours, The History Press, 2010

Explanatory Boards at the Park

Detailed description contributed by Kent Gardens Trust 26/11/2015

Research and Description by Jane Davidson

Edited by Virginia Hinze

Authorities

Electoral Ward

  • Gillingham North
History

Detailed History

CHRONOLOGY OF THE HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

The area of the Great Lines fortifications, of which the Field of Fire forms part, was the site of the medieval town of Chatham. Together with surrounding farmland and common grazing, it was destroyed when displaced by the defence fortifications. Opposition by local people to the loss of ancient rights of way and cricket pitches were ineffective as the town became dominated by the military.

The need for some kind of linear bastioned artillery fortifications was realised after the Dutch Raid of 1667 when the Dutch navy was able to sail unimpeded up the River Medway into the heart of our naval anchorage. This resulted in heavy fortifications being installed along and at the mouth of the river. However, the landward approach to the dockyard had been left entirely unprotected. An Act of Parliament passed in 1708/09 recognised this fact and led to the compulsory purchase of the necessary land to provide defences. The Field of Fire is so named for its role or providing a clear view of (and opportunity for shooting) potential enemy approaching from the river Medway and landward side of the fortifications.

A map by Royal Engineer Talbot Edwards from 1708 entitled ‘A Plan for Fortifying Chatham Docks and Storehouses from any Suddaine Attempt by Land without Great Artillery but not against a seige' illustrates the first proposal for land defences but shows the Field of Fire as open fields. (Kendall, p.13, The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012). A plan of Chatham drawn up in 1719 for the Ordnance Board by Clement Lempriere shows the Field of Fire again still as fields with the area to the west, soon to be developed as a system of ramparts, ditches and bastions, as covered by a substantial area of woodland and a planted orchard. Two roads lead from the dockyard inland. (Kendall, p.15, The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012)

Construction work for what became the Great Lines fortifications started in 1755 when there was a threat of French invasion during the Seven Years War. Temporary fortifications designed by Colonel Hugh Debbeig enclosed the dockyard and Ordnance Wharf taking advantage of the high ground above Chatham. The construction consisted of unrevetted dry ditches and earthen ramparts, supported and protected by wooden palisades. Encampments of troops were placed behind the lines to defend and counter invasion force.

The extent of the Chatham Lines and Field of Fire is shown on a survey from 1756 conducted by engineer Hugh Debbeig called ‘Plan of the Intrenchment (Kendall, p.23, The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012). At this time the boundary of the open Field of Fire area was the road between Gillingham and Chatham with farmland beyond to the east.

A period of expansion involving rebuilding and extending the Lines started in 1779 under the threat of invasion during the America War of Independence followed by the Napoleonic Wars from about 1803. The ground originally established to provide accommodation for encampments of troops where they could live and have room to parade and practice manoeuvres had been neglected and damaged by grazing animals. In 1804 the last tranche of land was obtained by the military to extend the fortifications to the north to create The Lower Lines (q.v.) and consolidate the Field of Fire. Until 1815 when the wars against the French came to an end there was almost continuous improvement of the defences.

The 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map dated about 1885 shows the extent of the Field of Fire, which is largely unchanged today (2014). The whole system of defences became known as The Great Lines. They are recognised as being the best-preserved defences for an C18 dockyard in Britain, providing an almost complete series of linear bastioned artillery fortifications including a field of fire.

In 1922 Chatham Naval Memorial, commemorating the sailors of the two World Wars, was unveiled by the future King Edward VIII, the First World War section designed by Sir Robert Lorimer with sculptures by Henry Poole (The historical landscape - Great Lines City Park' report, p 29 and photograph c.1960 Medway Archives). An extension commemorating sailors of the Second World War, designed by Sir Edward Maufe and with sculptures by Sir Charles Wheeler, was unveiled in 1952 by The Duke of Edinburgh.

Use as a public amenity space has continued since it ceased to be an open military area with football pitches created at the north end. However, since WWII part of the land has been built on by army housing at Sally Port and a school at King's Bastion. A training College at the eastern boundary has also been constructed.

The Chatham dockyards closed in 1984 and in 1989 were acquired by the former Gillingham Borough Council. The combined elements, including the Field of Fire, were developed into a park in March 2011 with the aid of Government and EU funding. Known (2014) as the Great Lines Heritage Park it is currently owned by Medway Council and managed through a comprehensive management and maintenance plan drawn up in 2012. The Park is likely to play a major part in Chatham's bid for World Heritage Status for the historic dockyard and its associated defences.

Detailed history contributed by Kent Gardens Trust 26/11/2015

References

Contributors

  • Jane Davidson