IT’S been around for a long time but it still has an air of mystery about it.

Ask someone about “MoD Shoeburyness” and you’ll probably get an answer like “isn’t that where the do some sort of top secret .. something?”

Yes, they do. The area has been a weapons-testing site for more than 150 years. It is uniquely placed because shells can be fired out for miles into the Thames Estuary for testing. 

It also plays a vital role in the country's defence. For example, a section of Downing Street wall was resilience tested at the site in the wake of the 1991 mortar bomb attack in Whitehall.

A visit to the base ten years ago revealed the wrecks of old aircraft which were tested to see if they could withstand blasts. 

If you think about the sheer scale of all the weapons, ammunition and explosives used by the UK Armed Forces– you can understand how all of these things need to be tested before they are fit for use on the battlefield. This is one of the places in the UK where that testing happens.

But how big really is the site and what exactly goes on there?

You’ve probably ventured up to the beach at Shoebury at one time or another and seen the Ministry of Defence signs warning you not to go any further.

But in reality the site than encompasses what we know as ‘MOD Shoeburyness’ is a whole lot bigger. ‘MOD Shoeburyness’ is the area of Shoeburyness and Foulness Island first used by the military in 1848 when the British School of Gunnery was opened following the Crimean War.

Until that time, Plumstead Common and Woolwich Common had been used to test out weapons, but these places were no longer viable due to the increasing power and range of the weapons. Somewhere with a much bigger range was needed.

The location near Southend was chosen because of its closeness to London and its direct access to major shipping routes.

The Royal Artillery School of Gunnery was established at Shoeburyness for the ‘individual improvement’ of soldiers as well as for the advancement of artillery science in general.

The area's geographical features such as its flat tidal sands make it perfect for the Ministry of Defence’s test and evaluation requirements- especially when it comes to the need to test out long range weapons. MOD Shoeburyness is one of only a few places in the world that can allow experts to undertake weapons and equipment tests in such ideal conditions.

  • So, what goes on there today (in a nutshell)?

The expansive site is managed by QinetiQ – one of the world’s leading defence technology and security companies on behalf of the Ministry of Defence -and is a place where weapon systems used by the Army, Navy and RAF are thoroughly tested through firing, shaking, rattling, rolling, dropping, heating and freezing equipment and munitions.

It’s also where expired ammunition is disposed of safely and where bomb disposal or Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) training techniques are taught during military training courses which recreate realistic scenarios involving live ammunition.

  • How large is the area?

The vast site stretches from Shoebury for more than 11 miles up to Foulness Island. The site covers over 9,300 acres with another 35,000 acres when the tide goes out (that’s a lot bigger than all the combined resorts of Disneyland in Florida). There is over 60km of road and another 60km of tracks and 21km of railway track. It is home to over 200 private residents living in around 100 homes. The site brings around 300 jobs to the local economy.

  • What kind of ranges and weapons are tested there?

The site consists of 21 operational firing ranges for ammunitions testing. This is where small, medium and large calibre tube-launched ammunition systems are tested- amongst many other things. There are also climatic test chamber and shock machines. Quite recently

depleted uranium weapons were tested on Foulness Island. Back in history a number of weapons have been tested and refined at MOD Shoeburyness- including Howitzers in the Great War which were used on the Western Front and a number of guns which went onto be pivotal during the Second World War.

  • What about Foulness Island?

For years, the Atomic Weapons Establishment was based on Foulness Island, which is part of MOD Shoeburyness. Throughout the time it was in operation this was always the most secret part of the whole establishment.

It was set up as an adjunct to the main nuclear weapons establishment at Aldermaston at the beginning of the Cold War and dealt with some of the most sensitive parts of Britain’s nuclear and atomic defences. It was the existence of the highly sensitive military establishments at Foulness which was to a large extent responsible for the abandonment of plans for a new airport on the Maplin Sands.

This would have meant the military having to leave the area and was fiercely opposed by the Ministry of Defence.

The AWE shut up its work some time ago. Foulness Island is now a site of supreme scientific and natural importance and MOD Shoeburyness has spent a lot of money on improving and maintaining the area. It features inter-tidal mud and sand flats, saltmarsh, beaches, shingle/shell banks, grazing marshes, rough grass and scrubland which make it homes to a number of important bird species. In 2002 the Foulness Conservation & Archaeological Society (FCAS) converted the former Foulness Primary School into the Foulness Heritage Centre.

The visitor attraction holds some of the artefacts relating to rural life on Foulness and has received a constant stream of visitors from both the UK and abroad ever since. It’s currently closed due to Covid-19 but should be open again soon.

  • Do people living near the ammunition testing ranges get bothered by noise and vibrations?

The MOD says that from time to time, members of the public express concern that vibration resulting from activity at the site is causing damage to their property and so they conduct regular, independent surveys to assess vibration effects and their potential to damage buildings. This doesn’t appear to be a huge problem for locals.

  • Why can’t the public go to parts of the MOD Shoeburyness site?

You can go to some parts and the MOD does open the doors to the media and the public from time to time to demonstrate what is going on at its testing centres, but some parts of the site are very dangerous as they are where live weapons drills are taking place. The nature of the work carried out on the site means that access has to be strictly controlled.

  • Have there been accidents at the site?

The area is extremely secure now and safety measures are stringent but in the past, of course, there were tragic accidents. In February 1885 there was a terrible explosion at the Shoeburyness range. It happened while an experiment was being carried out on a shell. Colonel Walter Fox Strangeways died after having to have both if his legs amputated above the knee following the explosion. Colonel Lyon had exactly the same operation and also succumbed to his injuries. Gunner Allen had his right arm blown off and died of brutal injuries. All 17 of the officers on the ground at the time of the experiment were blown off their feet and many suffered ‘the most frightful injuries’ according to reports.

In April 1890 a 15 -year- old boy named Alexander Smith was literally blown to pieces after a tragic accident playing on the Shoebury marshes with his brothers. The teenager, from Regents Park in London, was staying with family in Shoebury when he and his siblings went to the marshes to play. They found the drowned shell, which had been used in a past range test, and thought it was safe. His brothers urged him to stop handling the shell but it was too late. His injures were beyond description. An inquest found it was a tragic accident but that more care would be taken to keep such shells, which had been sent from Woolwich for testing, under lock and key.