In 1849, the British Government, through the Board of Ordnance (the body responsible for supplying munitions to the military), purchased land at Shoeburyness to test artillery. The negotiations were protracted and took the best part of five years to complete. At that time the nation’s principal gunnery range was on Plumstead Marshes, on the south bank of the River Thames near Woolwich, where test firings were arranged in such a way that the line of fire went over the river with shells landing harmlessly on the marshes in Barking or Dagenham.
However, by the 1840s the River Thames was an increasingly busy waterway. Nearly all the vessels serving the capital were powered by sail so passage up or down river was slow especially when against the tide. Accordingly, test firings from Plumstead were frequently interrupted or abandoned because of the danger to shipping.
In the views of both the military and shipping companies the situation was most unsatisfactory. A parliamentary select committee was empowered to examine the matter and after due deliberations instructions were given to the Board of Ordnance to look for a new site.
A location near Sandwich in Kent was short listed but the local landowner, Lord Guildford, rejected the proposal out of hand. He wrote to say, It would be a ruinous invasion on the most valuable part of my property. After a half-hearted legal challenge the Solicitor General advised the board to give up on Kent. The next choice was an area close to Landguard Fort in Suffolk, just across the Orwell estuary from Harwich.
This time the local landowner, the Duke of Hamilton, objected. He was planning to build a seaside resort known as ‘The Place’ and argued that an artillery range close by would devalue and destroy his project. Once again the Board of Ordnance withdrew. Over the course of time ‘The Place’ became the town of Felixstowe.
In contrast to these rebuffs the board received an offer of a site from the Parish of South Shoebury. An initial evaluation from inspectors produced a favourable report. There was a coast guard station at Shoeburyness but the main drawback was its remoteness. Roads were poor, access from the sea erratic because of the tides and the railway was yet to come.
Ministry inspectors and surveyors carried out more feasibility studies, talked to local landowners and heard objections. One of these, although it is not clear who raised it, was that the proposed artillery range and barracks would occupy a former Viking encampment.
Senior military officers were also very reluctant to commit to Shoeburyness. They considered the location far too inhospitable for them and their officials in the winter months.
Nevertheless the pressure to test weapons and ammunition was mounting. Despite ongoing negotiations, the army began preparing the site during the summer and autumn of 1849. During the following year what were known as Colchester born William Hales ‘stickless’ rockets were first tested.
However, work and testing stopped abruptly with the onset of winter and the troops returned to Woolwich. Over the next four years some firing platforms were installed, the ranges marked out, wooden accommodation huts were built and a makeshift hospital created. Yet the work parties only came in spring and then left in the autumn. It was known as ‘the season’. Apparently the Essex winters were proving a ‘little too hard’ for the soldiers and their officers
All this time the Board of Ordnance considered Shoeburyness as a stop gap. It held a tight grip on the purse strings, blocking finance to build proper accommodation or even secure storage for fuel (coal or wood was prone to pilfering). As a consequence, many of the men had to live in tents. The catering facilities were poor and sanitation appalling. Eventually, and grudgingly, it was agreed by the War Office that Shoeburyness should become a permanent station but it was not until 1854, when the British became engaged in the Crimean War, that development of the Shoebury ranges began in earnest.
The British Army had not fought a major war since the Battle of Waterloo 40 years earlier. Mobilization for Crimea found the military dysfunctional at all levels and the Shoebury development was given top priority.
What would later be known as the ‘Old Ranges’ at Shoeburyness underwent a major expansion. With the coming of new breech loading guns and ordnance, the first British School of Gunnery was established in 1859.
The process was accelerated by a disastrous explosion in Plumstead in October 1864 when two gunpowder magazines exploded. At least ten people were killed and several injured. Damage to property was recorded 25 miles away and the shock of the explosions was heard as far away as Newmarket and Cambridge on the one hand and Windsor and Guildford on the other.
Shoeburyness itself was not immune to the dangers of testing munitions which was a dangerous business. In February 1885 the detonation of a 6-inch shell resulted in seven deaths which included that of the Commandant. Four of the victims were buried in St. Andrews Church, Shoebury. A memorial stone is situated in the Garrison Estate just off Chapel Road.
Further expansion of the testing site followed in 1890 with the acquisition of the ‘New Ranges’ on Foulness Island. The establishment was at its peak during the First World War. In 1915 an anti-aircraft school of instruction was formed and in 1917 Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Richardson started the British War Dog School. During World War II an anti-tank training unit came into being. The site was also honoured in March 1941 with a visit from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill who test fired a sten-gun whilst there.
After the Second World War the ‘Old Ranges’ at Shoeburyness contracted rapidly. Specialist units were disbanded or moved to other parts of the country. The site could have closed completely in the early 1970s if the proposed Maplin airport and port development went ahead. Despite this project being cancelled the Garrison HQ closed in 1976. Today most of its brick built building have been preserved having been given listed status within a conservation area. Much of the site is now housing on the ‘Garrison’ estate.
Further north on Foulness the ‘New Ranges’ continued in various incarnations, although doing much the same as they had always done in terms of weapons and armaments testing and development.
In 1920, the site became known as the Experimental Establishment (XP) and in 1948 it was renamed the Proof and Experimental Establishment (P&EE). In 1952 Britain’s first atomic bomb was developed there before being sent to Australia for testing. Later the site became the Land and Maritime Ranges. This changed again in 2001 when all the military staff left and weapons’ testing was outsourced to a private defence contractor.
The site is now simply known as MOD Shoeburyness.
©Extracted from Battlefield Essex by Andrew Summers & John Debenham