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Newhaven Fort Story

Cloaked in mystery and protected by impressive ramparts, Newhaven Fort has been keeping its secrets safely hidden for almost 150 years.

Newhaven Fort is the last of a long series of defences built on the cliffs overlooking Seaford Bay, dating back to the Iron Age. Back then, the River Ouse flowed into the sea at Seaford, but over the years the river silted up and in 1539 a new cut was made for the river to come out at the fishing village of Meeching. This became known as the ‘New Haven’. The first gun was sent to Newhaven in 1548 following a raid on Seaford by the French. Over the next three hundred years the gun defences were updated, especially at times of crisis such as the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars. All too often, however, the defences fell into disrepair. There were times when the gunners were not paid and took to fishing and farming to earn a living.

In 1759 the first permanent gun battery was built. And in 1855, following a visit from the Duke of Wellington, more guns were installed and a new battery was built. This was at a time when the harbour was being extended, the railway had arrived, there was a new steamer service to France and the town and harbour were taking on greater national significance. Newhaven was on the up!

By the late 1850s Napoleon the Third, nephew of Bonaparte, was building up his navy and strengthening his coastal defences, causing the British government, under Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, to perceive a threat invasion by the French. In response, a massive programme of defence was started. Newhaven Fort was one of seventy-two coastal forts to be built, at a total cost of twelve million pounds.

Designed by twenty two year old Lieutenant John Charles Ardagh of the Royal Engineers, construction of Newhaven Fort was started in 1862 and took ten years and six million bricks to complete. There were several novel design features; the first mass use of concrete in a military fortification, a new type of drawbridge and the fact that it was built into the contours of the land, rather than being built above ground like a traditional fort or castle.

At the end of the 19th Century the Fort needed updating and was practically rebuilt. New modern guns were installed and amongst other things, baths were installed for the soldiers. No more excuses! When the First World War broke out the harbour assumed even greater importance, shipping six million tons of supplies to France and the Fort became part of a larger network of defences that included gunboats, thousands of soldiers and a seaplane base in Seaford Bay.

When war broke out again in 1939, Newhaven Fort was a vital element in the defence against the very real threat of German invasion. A coastal radar site was built just outside of the Fort, linked to a large underground naval communication centre nearby. In the harbour were gunboats, minesweepers, and boats of the RAF Air Sea Rescue. It was the latter who used part of the Fort as a rest area and painted murals on the walls of the Counterscarp galleries to remind them of warmer climes. Thousands of soldiers were stationed in the area, including many Canadians who took part in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid from Newhaven.  Troops also set out here for the Normandy landings of 1944.
A new gun battery was built on Castle Hill in 1943 and these guns replaced those in the Fort. Post war, the last unit to be stationed here were the Ukrainians of a Battle Area Clearance Unit, tasked with the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance from beaches and the surrounding areas. When Coastal Artillery was disbanded in 1956 all the guns at Newhaven were taken away and scrapped.

In 1962, the Fort was sold to the local council. Houses were built on the Eastern Gun Battery and a leisure centre was planned. This work all but destroyed much of the Fort and when the project fell through the fort became derelict. Fortunately, in 1979 it was declared an ancient monument and a private developer took the Fort on, restored it, and for four years ran it as a tourist attraction before going out of business.

In 1988 Lewes District Council took opened Newhaven Fort as a military tourist attraction and in May 2015 management of the Fort was taken on by Wave Leisure Trust Ltd. So now you know the Fort’s story up to the present day – come and visit and be part of our exciting future!