I mentioned in my last post about my feeble attempt to photograph the bricked up sally port and tunnel connected to Fort Clarence. What I didn’t describe was the park from which I tried to gain access. It is called Willis Gardens – a plot split in two by the Fort’s trench.
It is an unlovely place with a melancholy air – perhaps less because it has been neglected but more because it has been forgotten. It is tended in as much as the grass is cut, but otherwise it is a drab little experience. What makes this a little tragedy is that it was donated to Rochester by a philanthropic cove by the name of Charles Willis (died 1943). Mayor, alderman and Freeman of the City, Willis gave boots to poor children and coal to the citizens of Rochester during the depression and on his death his house was bequeathed as a refuge for fallen women.
His gift of this park to Rochester was as a memorial to the death of his son, 2nd Lieutenant George White Willis, RAF,
shot down killed on active service in a flying accident while carrying out an engine test in France on the 4th January 1919 when the engine of the Sopwith Camel he was flying stalled at 200 feet. His distraught mother is said to have slept with the propellor of the doomed plane in her bedroom so crushed was she by grief.
The connection with this place, Charles Willis and aeroplanes runs a little deeper. Willis was instrumental in negotiations that led the Short Brothers to transfer from the Isle of Sheppey to Rochester in 1913 and he sold them the 8 acres of land on which they built their Seaplane Works. During the 2nd World War Shorts built a massive underground aircraft factory under Fort Clarence. The tunnel complex is now sealed off and under the stewardship of English Heritage, but developers of the site claimed that the tunnels still contain componentsof wartime aircraft.