Clifford’s Fort was built in 1672 to guard the entrance into the River Tyne. It remained in service until the construction of the great piers that enclosed the Tyne estuary in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Thereafter it became the headquarters of the Tyne Division of the Royal Engineers, a unit responsible for maintaining a submarine minefield across the river mouth.
During the latter half of the seventeenth century, three wars were fought between England and the Dutch Republic. The second war, fought between 1665 and 1667, had ended in the English suffering a humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Medway leaving Charles II thirsting for revenge. Concurrently the English King, whose finances were reliant on Parliament granting him funds, was engaged in secret negotiations with Louis XIV of France to secure an independent income. The subsequent Treaty of Dover (1670) committed England to supporting France in a punitive campaign against the Dutch Republic. Although the treaty and its provisions were secret, in anticipation of the new war, coastal defence arrangements were reviewed. The mouth of the River Tyne was highlighted as a strategically important location due to the importance of the coal trade between Newcastle and London. However, although Tynemouth Castle had artillery defences, these had proved insufficient during the Civil War and artillery forts had been erected at both North and South Shields to control the access into the River Tyne. These had been temporary structures built from gabions, sand filled baskets, and were destroyed during the conflict. Accordingly, with the third Anglo-Dutch war looming, Charles II commissioned a new fort at North Shields. Work started on Clifford's Fort in early 1672 and it was probably substantially complete by the time the hostilities commenced in April 1672.
Clifford's Fort was sited at the point where the 300 metre wide River Tyne opens into the Tyne estuary. It probably re-used the site of the Civil War fort (which had been built in 1642 and destroyed in 1644). The fort had a polygonal trace and was based on a design by Martin Beckman, a Swedish military architect. The site was enclosed by a low curtain wall constructed from sandstone ashlar with tapered embrasures to support the fort's artillery armament which, by 1677, consisted of thirty guns. The fort was surrounded by a dry ditch. The main entrance was on the north (landward) side and a small postern was located to the west. A three storey Keep occupied the centre of the fort and incorporated the fort's powder magazine. A variety of other buildings also occupied the interior of the fort including barracks, storerooms and a Master Gunner's House. The facilities were upgraded during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In 1854 construction started on the two great piers that now enclose the Tyne Estuary. Work progressed slowly and effectively had to restart in 1868 after a great storm destroyed the half built structures. However, by 1880 work was well underway and the changed seascape meant Clifford's Fort was now too far inshore. This, coupled with the installation of long range guns in other sites (including Tynemouth Castle), made the fort superfluous and in 1888 it was re-assigned as the Headquarters of the Tyne Division Royal Engineers (Volunteers). They were responsible for managing the submarine minefield that would have been laid across the River Tyne in times of war. Some upgrades were made to the site to support this new function including installation of cranes and searchlights plus construction of supporting storage buildings and a drill shed whilst the central Keep was demolished at this time. The fort was re-armed in 1895 with two 6-pounder Quick Firing guns installed to mitigate against the threat from Fast Motor Torpedo Boats. During the First World War these were upgraded to two 12-pounder Quick Firing guns. The fort was decommissioned in 1928 and thereafter was used as a depot and warehouse by local fishermen. It was reactivated during World War II, during which the two 12-pounder guns and searchlights were re-installed, but it was decommissioned again after the war and returned to the fishing industry, a role which part of the site still performs today.
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Clifford's Fort is a late-seventeenth century artillery fortification that was later extensively modified. A variety of buildings remain along with a substantial portion of the curtain wall. However, much of the site has either been demolished or damaged by coastal erosion.
Clifford's Fort. The fort took its name from Lord Thomas Clifford of Chudleigh who was a Privy Councillor and later Lord High Treasurer.
Curtain Wall. Much of the wall visible today dates from a substantial rebuilding of the site during the eighteenth century.
Armament. The fort's initial armament consisted of twenty 20-pounder and ten 10-pounder guns.
The Barracks. This building was constructed around 1893 as the site was modified to serve the needs of the Tyne Division Royal Engineers (Volunteers).
River Tyne. The fort and entrance to the River Tyne as viewed from Tynemouth. The two tall white structures are the leading lights to guide shipping into the river and superseded earlier lights on the adjacent buildings. One of these, the Old Low Light, is incorporated within Clifford's Fort and now serves as a visitor centre.