History of shoeburyness

History of Shoeburyness

Shoeburyness – or simply Shoebury – is a coastal town with a population of approximately 23,000 located in Essex at the strategically important mouth of the Thames Estuary. Its history dates back to Roman times and its growth was propelled by the development of a military base during the 19th century. Between 1894 and 1933 it was an Urban District of Essex before being incorporated into the Borough and, since 2022, City of Southend-on-Sea.                                                                             

Early History

There is evidence of human settlement in the Shoeburyness area since mesolithic times. The Romans built a fortified base known as Essobira which was attacked by Boadicea’s rebels. 

In the 6th century, Saxon invaders re-established a settlement at Shoebury called Scoebyrig.  It later became a base – as Scabivig – for Danes who sought to overrun the Saxons but were defeated by King Alfred at the Battle of Benfleet in 894. Ramparts from this time remain close to the Cart and Wagon Shed and are a designated ancient monument.

The Domesday Book records Shoebury as part of the Rochford Hundred and having a population of just 33. During the Middle Ages, the area remained rural and relatively isolated, its marshly lands peopled by scattered farmers and fishermen.

Danish Camp ramparts at Shoeburyness
The Danish Camp (Dudley Miles, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Painting of Shoeburyness Fishermen Hailing a Whitstable Hoy, c1809, JMW Turner
Shoeburyness Fishermen Hailing a Whitstable Hoy, c1809, JMW Turner

Nineteenth Century

By 1851, the population of South Shoebury had grown to 151. Ten years later it was 1,502 and this growth continued through the rest of the nineteenth century.

The main causes of this expansion were the establishment of brickmaking and the development of the Shoebury Garrison.  Brickmaking at one time employed over 400 men with barges transporting large volumes of bricks to London.

In 1884, the extension of the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway from Southend-on-Sea was completed and Shoeburyness railway station opened. This provided a direct rail link to London, providing another spur to the development of the town, including as a seaside holiday destination.

Military presence and the Shoebury Garrison

A signal station was built at Shoeburyness at the start of the Napoleonic wars and this was replaced by a coastguard station.

As the firing range and power of artillery pieces increased, it became increasingly difficult to test and practice with weapons at the artillery ranges in Plumstead near London. The Board of Ordnance decided to open a new testing and practice station at Shoeburyness with land first being purchased for this purpose in 1849.

The station initially operated only during the spring, summer and autumn months with soldiers living in tents along what is now known as Campfield Road. However, the testing and practice station expanded, absorbing the coastguard station, with new brick buildings being constructed from 1851 onwards.

The Garrison grew to include a hospital, a chapel, a clock tower, a crescent of barracks, quarters for officers and NCOs, a drill shed and powder magazines as well as battery emplacements and pits. In 1859, a new Royal Artillery School of Gunnery was established.

Shoebury Garrison parade ground entrance
1700pr 80-ton rifled muzzle loading gun, 1883
Light Quick Firing Battery on the former Gantry Pier, c1904
Light Quick Firing Battery on the former Gantry Pier, c1904

The Garrison had a major role in artillery research and development, including innovations such as rifled barrels, breach loading, rockets, quick-firing weapons and the use of cordite. 

As the power of weapons continued to increase, further land from the north of East Beach and through Pig’s Bay up to Foulness Island – known as the New Ranges – was purchased for testing weapons with the existing Old Ranges continuing to be used for training. 

During the First World War, the Garrison hosted a School of Anti-Aircaft Instruction and a War Dog School. The Garrison remained active through the Second World War. Defence booms were built across the Thames Estuary starting at Shoeburyness in 1939 and 1950-53; a two-kilometre stretch of the latter remains and is a scheduled monument.

Heavy Quick Firing Battery at Shoeburyness
Heavy Quick Firing Battery

Residential artillery units continued to be housed at the Garrison until 1976 when its headquarters were shut. The Old Ranges were eventually closed in 1998 and the area has been converted to civilian use. The New Ranges continue to be used for experimental defence work as MoD Shoeburyness and are now managed by a private contractor, QinetiQ.

Artilley on sands off Shoeburyness
QinetiQ activity on the sands off Shoeburyness
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