Port of Tilbury & Military Links – A Time Line – Prepared by Jonathan Catton

Port of Tilbury & Military Links – A Time Line – Prepared by Jonathan Catton

The Port of Tilbury has developed with influences of the final Thames Defence lines at Tilbury Fort / New Tavern Fort, Thames Ferry Crossing and the later railway networking. The ferry, landing stage and port have all been used for military transports through out its history and had important roles in both the 1st and 2nd WW.

1304 – Earliest archive reference to a Tilbury – Gravesend Ferry.

1539 – Military Blockhouse constructed at West Tilbury part of national defence system.

1588 Queen Elizabeth I delivers her ‘golden’ speech at West Tilbury having viewed ‘West Tilbury Bulwark (Tilbury Fort) to assembled troops on the threat of the Spanish Armada attack on the Thames and London.

1670 – After the Dutch raids of 1667 in the Thames, a new fortress was designed and became known as Tilbury Fort. It continued in use for another 300 years.

1701 – Tuesday, May 23rd – Captain Kydd executed at Execution Dock, Wapping, his body then brought down to Tilburyness, for gibbeting!

1780 – August 3, a grand review of troops took place on Dartford Heath, after which the troops were marched to Gravesend and were taken over in barges to make a sham attack on Tilbury Fort, it is thought some 500 troops were involved. This was undertaking using hawsers anchored on each shore and stretched across the river and the barges were ‘warped’ by the soldiers.

1798 – A plan was proposed to build a tunnel by engineer, Mr. Dodd, under the bed of the Thames, between Gravesend and Tilbury, sufficiently capacious for all the purposes of land-commerce and military. This scheme was to be paid for through share subscription and the work was commenced on the Gravesend side, under a strong impression that it would be successfully completed. The water, however, soon impeded the progress of the workmen and flooded the shafts. The whole concern was abandoned and much money lost!

1838 – The first recorded military interest in diving came in 1838 when Colonel Pasley, Royal Engineers, of the School of Military Engineering at Chatham undertook to demolish the wreck of a collier blocking the fairway of the Thames at Tilbury. After unsuccessful attempts to position the charges using the diving bell from the Naval Dockyard Pasley trained a number of his soldiers in the use of Mr Kemp’s diving equipment, having first tested the concept himself and thus become the first Service diver on 28 April that year.

1853 – LTSR Extension Act gave power to run a ferry at Tilbury to Gravesend and pay compensation to the Corporation of Gravesend.

1854 – London Tilbury Southend Railway. The station at Tilbury Riverside, first called Tilbury Fort station was opened on 13 April 1854 and was in between Grays and Stanford-Le-Hope stations. This station had a landing stage so took advantage of the increasing steamboat traffic and ferry to Gravesend.

1879 – Reinforcements for Zulu War, the 60th Rifles embark from Tilbury landing stage.


3rd July 1882 – The East and West India Dock Company’s Bill, sanctioning the construction of their great new downstream dock at Tilbury, received the Royal Assent.

17th April 1886 – East and West India Docks at Tilbury opened including Tilbury Hotel designed by E.A. Gruning. The opening of Tilbury Deep Water Dock was started with the inaugural entrance through the lock of the vessel ‘Glenfruin’. Ferry Tilbury and Sir Walter Rayleigh takes guests around the docks.

1886 – Progress of Submarine invention with Campbell and Ash’s ‘Nautilus’ and her diving trial at Tilbury Docks. Nautilus submarine was driven by battery-powered electric motors and was propelled at a surface speed of 6 knots by two 50-horsepower electric motors operated from a 100-cell storage battery. However, this craft suffered one major handicap; its batteries had to be recharged after 4 hours, its effective range never exceeded 80 miles. The trials were observed by the Admiralty who did not take up the idea!


18th March 1900 – Private Herbert Thomas Beard – 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment Leaving Aldershot on Sunday, March 18th we took train for Tilbury Docks where we embarked on the steamship Braemar Castle at 2 oclock in the afternoon leaving the docks at about 3.30 pm midst amidst great cheering from some of the friends of the men and of the Regiment who had flocked down to give us a hearty send off which was much appreciated by the men, there were a lot of us who remained up that night to see the last bit of England for some perhaps the last time.

s.s Braemar Castle at Tilbury Docks (March 1900)

s.s Braemar Castle at Tilbury Docks (March 1900)

Monday 25th January 1897
Mr Cecil Rhodes arrive at Tilbury Docks on board “Dunvagan Castle” from South Africa to give evidence before a Royal Commission on late affairs in South Africa, the Jameson Raid etc.

1897 19th April, Battle Ship Fuji in Tilbury Dock for final fitting out and vitualling before sailing to Japan to join the Japanese Fleet.(check month of arrival)


Sep 8, 1902 – A special train conveyed the New Zealanders from Aldershot to Tilbury docks. They were accorded an enthusiastic send-of at Aldershot, Major-General Douglas and the officers of the garrison attending.

1906 – The Tilbury branch of the Seaman Institute and hostel, sited opposite the dock gates. Cost £4,000.

Saturday, May 13, 1911 – For northern passengers the Albion Steamship Company will despatch the Midnight Sun from New-castle on Tuesday, June 20. Arriving at Tilbury the next day passengers can see the Coronation Procession in London on June 22, and embark for Spithead on the 23rd. On the return journey the vessel will land London passengers at Tilbury on Monday, June 26, and will be back in the Tyne the next day.

1912 – Dock strike, armed soldiers present at dock.

August 1914 – Tilbury Docks secured with military guards.

August 1914 – Colonel Ulps a German actor, arrested on arrival at Tilbury from Australia. He was a midget who performed on stage with a troop called ‘Tiny World’ for obvious reasons.

1914 – SS Persia embarks for Bombay on board are two Sopwith planes for military action in East Africa

5th Dec, 1914 – The Star says that the Tilbury Docks are full, and steamers are lying in the river waiting for berths. Owing to the war numbers of vessels were held up for various reasons and arrived together. The Union Castle Company has removed its boats from Southampton to Tilbury.

March 1915 – HMS OPHIR – converted at Tilbury in to Armed Merchant Cruiser armed with 6” guns, the work was completed between 2-21st March and then she embarks from Tilbury to Tagus.

4/5th June 1915 German aerial bombing occurred over Tilbury.

12th June 1915, the eccentric Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson – wearing his uniform with a skirt as its centrepiece – set off to requisition two gunboats, named Mimi and Toutou, from Twickenham to Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. After hauling their 16-tonne vehicles from Tilbury Docks via Marseille by rail and ship, the crew arrived in Cape Town two months later, moving on to Northern Rhodesia and Belgian Katanga before using traction engines and oxen to travel 150 miles across wild bush country and mountains. The gunboats seized the lake from the German navy, capturing an enemy gunboat and sinking another in December 1915. But the lesser-known tales of the triumph revolve around Commander Spicer-Simson’s unusual charisma, tattooing his arm with curling snakes and choosing a pet chimp, Josephine, to accompany him.

The two motorboats, which Spicer-Simson named Mimi and Toutou, were loaded aboard the SS Llanstephen Castle on 15 June along with the expedition′s equipment and supplies at Tilbury Docks. Two special trailers and cradles were also brought along to allow them to be transported by rail or overland. The first leg of Mimi and Toutou′s 10,000 mi (16,000 km) journey was completed after 17 days at sea and their arrival at the Cape of Good Hope.


HMS Mimi

July 1915 – German POW escapes via Tilbury / Gravesend. On 13th July, 1915, only nine days after climbing the barbed wire fence that surrounded Donington Hall, Gunther Pluschow arrived by train in Germany. His remarkable escape from England had already come to the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the flamboyant ruler of Germany. Wilhelm loved a brave deed above everything else, and he was very impressed. The reward he gave Pluschow for his escape was the Iron Cross, First Class, the most coveted award for valour and enterprise his country could offer.

1916 – Complete Ambulance train at Tilbury docks, loaded for delivery in France.

26th Feb.1916 – MALOJA embarks from Tilbury with 121 passengers, from 9th Feb.1912 she was placed on the London – Colombo – Melbourne – Sydney service. She struck a mine off Dover the following day. The engines were put astern, but could not then be stopped and she sank while still moving astern with the loss of 122 passengers and crew.

August 1918 – 1923 – Tilbury Hotel taken over to accommodate cadets from the Training Ship Warspite which had suffered a severe fire.

Feb 1919 – USS Invincible in Tilbury docks – Originally begun as the British steamer War Rock, she was taken over by the U.S. Emergency Fleet Corporation freighter prior to completion and renamed. The new ship was transferred to the Navy in October 1918 and placed in commission at that time as USS Invincible. December Invincible carried supplies to England, returning to the U.S. at the beginning of February 1919.

1919 – WD Concrete barge contract completed – Cretcole, Cretecoke, Cretefuel, Cretacite, Cretell. Launched same day as opening of concrete dock gates.

1st May 1919 – Construction of the concrete gates to Dry Dock by Christian and Nielsen Civil Engineers. (see medallion)

1919 – HMS Tilbury in docks on public show. After three and a half years in the East returns to her home port. The people of Tilbury presented her with a silken ensign.

1 May 1919: South African soldiers, commonly known as Springboks, on board a ship leaving Tilbury Docks for South Africa.

June 1919: The ex-Kaiser’s yacht Meteor at Tilbury Docks.

11-03-1920 Tilbury, Essex “SURPLUS WOMEN? First batch of discharged W.A.A.C.s and Land Girls leave for their new home in New South Wales”. After the First World War, the female population is far greater than the male so many women were encouraged to emigrate. Scenes of crowded decks with men, women and children. Some girls in Land Army uniforms.

17-03-1921 Tilbury. New Viceroy off to India. Lord Inchcape shows Lord Reading over P&O Liner “Kaiser-i-Hind” on which Viceroy travels. On board were also Lord Reading (Sir Gerald Rufus Isaacs) and Lord Inchcape.

1922 Imperial immigration Act – Australia,

1922 PLA get Assent for a Passenger Landing Stage, work starts in1924. Design by Sir Edwin Cooper. After the First World the number of passengers coming through Tilbury docks was increasing, and it was realised that no central facilities existed for passengers, and as large liners could navigate and berth in the river at Tilbury, it was decided that Tilbury would become the centre of passenger operations for London. With this in mind the Port of London Authority (PLA) and the Midland Railway Company promoted a Bill in parliament to build a passenger landing stage at Tilbury. The Bill was passed in 1922 and construction work began two years later, but by this time, the Midland Railway had been absorbed into the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company.

9 Jan 1922 – 1,500 Unemployed Ex – Service Men and their families leave to seek better future in Australia, in Maiden trip of P & O Liner ‘Ballarat’.”


September 1922 – Coldstream Guards embark from Tilbury Docks.

1926 – The General Strike “The Royal Navy had taken over the Gravesend-Tilbury ferry from the LMS and there was considerable resultant damage to wharves and piers, for they were unused to the tricky local current.”

January 1929 – David Niven “The Moons a ballon” Chapter 5 extract – Nessie took me in uniform to a photographer in Piccadilly called `Cannons of Hollywood’ and had me preserved for posterity. She also insisted on coming to see me off at Tilbury Docks on a bleak, January [1929] morning when I embarked in the Kaisar-i-Hind for Malta, two months before my nineteenth birthday. At the last moment, my mother, who had been suffering one of her increasingly frequent bouts of what the family called `Mum’s pain’, decided to get out of bed and come too.

16th May 1930 – Prime Minister J. Ramsay MacDonald opens landing stage – mentions “the Thames is Liquid History”. A large new passenger landing stage was constructed in the Thames jointly by the PLA and the London Midland and Scottish Railway, with rail connections. Structure 1,142 feet long

27/10/1934 Lord and Lady Baden Powell sail from Tilbury Docks to Australia on the Orama passenger liner. The Chief Scout, Lord Baden-Powell, leaving Tilbury to go on world tour which will include his stay in Melbourne, Australia, where the scout jamboree is to take place the next year.

20-05-1935 – Tilbury Docks & Southend: Fleet searchlight display at Southend, Essex. Sir Stephen Killik Lord Mayor of London and his aldermen in ceremonial uniform board the destroyer “Sturdy” at Tilbury to view the event from the river.

1936 – Station at Tilbury ferry re-named Tilbury Riverside.

10/3/1937 – Gravesend Council recommend a bridge between town and Tilbury to ease traffic congestion.

19-04-1937 – Tilbury, Essex. Liner ‘Malaya’ arriving to Tilbury bringing Lord and Lady Baden-Powell home from their trip to India. Scouts lined up to welcome the Chief Scout, Lord Baden-Powell. He addresses them (natural sound). He thanks them for great welcome, and they give him three cheers. Pathe news

Aug 10, 1937 – Tilbury docks and oil depots along the Thames were heavily “bombed” by “hostile” aircraft early today as Great Britain tested London’s vulnerability to attack from the skies. The chief object’ of the manoeuvres was to test the system of air defence.

28th July 1937: 300 men, 245 horses and 44 vehicles of the 22nd Field Brigade Royal Artillery are ferried across the River Thames at Tilbury on their way from Colchester to Shorncliffe. The brigade is to be mechanised in two months, when the men and horses will part company.

Apr 10, 1938 – Leaving Tilbury! The Wilhelm Gustloff having dropped anchor off Tilbury docks and collected its German residents it will now move over three miles offshore to remain in international waters. With the question of Austria’s annexation into the Third Reich, the ship acted as a floating voting station. On April 10, 1938, the Wilhelm Gustloff dropped anchor near the Tilbury docks east of London, staying over three miles offshore to remain in international waters. With the question of Austria’s annexation into the Third Reich, the ship acted as a floating polling station for German and Austrian citizens living in England . Eligible voters were ferried between the Tilbury docks and the Gustloff.Passengers on board the Wilhelm Gustloff gave the Nazi salute shortly before leaving Tilbury Docks. The Austrians on board will be able to participate in the March 18 referendum organized by Chancellor HITLER who sought approval on the unification of Austria and Germany

17-10-1938 London. – Legionaries get onto a train at London on the first stage of their journey to Czechoslovakia. They board a troopship at Tilbury in Essex.


Sep 1939 – Just before the Second World War Thurrock was designated as a danger area and so an evacuation plan was formulated to evacuate all Thurrock school children, on the 2nd September 1939, young children from Tilbury were escorted to Tilbury Landing Stage and boarded the Paddle Steamers “Crested Eagle” and ” Golden Eagle” which was to take them to Suffolk. The other children travelled on the next day. In late 1944 a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on sidings near to Tilbury Riverside destroying 4 freight wagons and 140 passenger coaches, including some reserved as Ambulance trains. At the same time the station was blasted and the goods yard almost destroyed as well as two ferries being damaged. Evacuees from the area around Tilbury Docks use the landing stage to board the paddle steamer ‘Crested Eagle’ from to go to Suffolk.

1940 – De-gaussing monitoring station at Coalhouse Fort sweeps all vessels for magnetic reading – de-gaussing carried out in docks and at the Tilbury Riverside Station. HMS St Clement (Combined Operations base, Tilbury, Essex

1940 Tilbury Docks becomes a holding area for small ships ready to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk.

1941 Basin Tavern in docks hit by bomb!

14-15th March 1941 – Tilbury landing stage hit by bomb – not fully repaired until after the war.

1943 – 4 Phoenix Units for Mulberry harbour & PLUTO Line set up in Tilbury Docks.


PLUTO (Pipeline Under the Ocean) was invented to create a secure way of transporting fuel from the UK to Normandy. The original plan was to lay PLUTO 18 days after D-Day (24 June), but it was delayed until 22 September. Eventually four pipelines were laid between the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg in France, and from 27 October onwards 17 pipelines from Dungeness in Kent to Boulgone. The longest pipeline was 500 miles, from Normandy to Germany. For a while, PLUTO pumped 1 million gallons per day (equivalent to 250,000 jerry cans). But only 10% of fuel used from D-Day to end of war went by PLUTO – the rest went across mainly by tanker ships. So although it was a good idea, it didn’t really reach its full potential, and came into use too late to effect the Battle of Normandy (June to August 1944).

1943- The dwellings – East Block at Tilbury docks demolished, due to war damage.

4th February 1944 – Tilbury Hotel destroyed by enemy incendiaries. Lodged in the ceiling of the saloon bar frantic efforts to loge the fire bomb were made but the wooden building aided the flames to spread. One man died in the fire.

May 1944 – Secret plans for D-day movements in to Purfleet and Tilbury Docks.


June 1944 – build up of shipping in docks ready for D-Day and streets full of military vehicles and personnel in Grays / Tilbury / Purfleet. Tilbury docks had three ‘hards’ available for Landing craft to run up the concrete ramps for loading of vehicles and troops…

During the D-Day landings, from June 6th through to early August 1944, Don Hunter recalls he made nearly 40 runs between London Docks, Tilbury, and Juno Beach, braving the German guns through the Strait of Dover, which pounded the convoys to ‘smithereens’. Hunter was an 18-year-old radio officer (‘and gunnery officer and fire control officer’) on the Empire Pickwick, an LSI (landing ship, infantry) that ferried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches.

July 1944 – Hospital ship “DUKE OF ARGYLL” in her guise of the Hospital Ship No.65. “D of Argyll 9 Berth Tilbury Dock 1944 : July 1944 – August 1945. In 1939 she became H.M. Hospital Ship No.65 with capacity for 416 patients and 60 medical staff. June 1940 assisted in the evacuations from France. 1942 converted to Infantry Landing Ship and her lifeboats replace by landing craft.

9-10 Feb 1945 – Dutch children arrive to be sent to Coventry where camps are provided.

31 December 1945 – Poles leave from Tilbury docks – from Tilbury passenger landing stage – SS Banfora. 2000 soldiers and officers on first ship out! Grenadier guards played them out!

1945 – No.3 commando arrive at Tilbury landing stage on LST. Stan Scott No.3 Cdo recalls they made the journey from Bremerhaven, Germany, on a Landing Ship Tank (LST). Photo courtesy of Michael Hampson, son of James Derrick ‘Lofty’ Hampson of 4 troop.


12th June 1945 – German ex-prisoners of war boarding a ship, under armed guard, at Tilbury from where they will start their journey home. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

1946 – Boats in docks Jan ; Strathnaver, Mecklenburg, Fort Grant, Creso, Empire Stuart, Oranto. Strathmore troopship

July 1946 – Tilbury ‘zoo’ SS City of lille with animals for London zoo, includes elephants, monkey, bear, mongoose, galago, squirrels, lemurs, birds, leopards and a box of tortoises. Rommel’s charger –injured on right shoulder -question asked in Houses of parliament!

Sep 11, 1946 – A new bridge was built and accommodation was provided for 50 lorry drivers and 12 passengers. The renamed Empire Baltic made the first voyage of the new company, sailing from Tilbury Docks to Rotterdam on 11 September 1946. The journey took 24 hours . (ex-naval LST used for first roll on roll off ferry service)[4] She was converted to civilian use by Harland & Wolf Ltd, Tilbury. A new bridge was built and accommodation was provided for 50 lorry drivers and 12 passengers. [3] The renamed Empire Baltic made the first voyage of the new company, sailing from Tilbury Docks to Rotterdam on 11 September 1946. The journey took 24 hours [5] The ship spent the next decade conveying army vehicles and personnel across the English Channel.

1947 – SS Mooltan – first £10 POMS to Australia

Feb 1947 – Tilbury Dock, London. The 2nd Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal Regiment (the West Surreys) arrives at Tilbury on board the “Highland Princess” after nearly 9 1/2 years overseas.


24-4-1947 “People In Camera”. Tilbury Docks, near London. First Displaced Persons arrive. 100,000 displaced persons are to arrive from the British Zone in Germany. They are coming to Britain to work as cooks, canteen hands and waitresses for one year. ‘Empire Halladale’, passenger liner, carrying a group of immigrants as it docks at Tilbury. Girls and women on deck waving.

16-06-1947 – German brides of British servicemen arrive at Tilbury, London. Brides leaning over the rail of the ship in Tilbury harbour and brides with their husbands.

Jun 19, 1948 – Companies from Guards regiments would be sent to the docks. The strike started Monday when a few hundred longshoremen walked out in sympathy with eleven workers who had been penalized for violating the union agreement. The strike spread tonight to the Tilbury docks..

21st June 1948 SS Empire Windrush arrives with first wave of Caribbean migrants to work in UK. – The multi-racial society began with a trickle, when 492 West Indians arrived at Tilbury docks in June 1948. However, the new arrivals concentrated in largely working-class areas of London where they began to cause concern among trade unionists and natural Labour supporters. – One of the early, famous examples of immigration was the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad and México at Tilbury Docks on the 21 June 1948. The ship carried 492 Jamaican passengers most had served in the armed forces.

03-09-1948 – Belgian grapes for St. Duntans’ Hospital, Brighton, Sussex arrive at Tilbury, Essex. The ship “Topaze” which brought the grapes over.had a reception committee on jetty from St. Dunstan’s’ at Brighton. (Charity for blind service personnel)

1950 – Tilbury Fort transfer from WD to Ministry of Works.

May 1954 – Britannia and Queen welcomed as she passes Tilbury docks.

17th February 1956 – British statesman Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) and his wife Lady Clementine Churchill (1885 – 1977) leaving their home in Hyde Park Gate for Tilbury, where Mrs Churchill is to take a boat to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for a convalescent holiday, 17th February 1956. Winston Churchill bids farewell to his wife Clementine at Tilbury, Lady Churchill is leaving aboard the SS Himalaya for a cruise to Colombo.

comprehensive 1951-57 survey of the island resulted in the classical 1:200000 topographic map of South Georgia, occasionally updated but never superseded since its first publication by the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys in 1958.

Dec. 12, 1956 – Russian tank Equipment captured by British troops in Port Said Arrives at Tilbury.

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