The modern story of Folkestone Harbour goes back some 200 years, with its origins in the fishing industry. Much of its development took place in the 19th and 20th centuries to enable its use as a ferry port.
Before this, since at least Roman times, trading ships had been landing on the shore at East Wear Bay in Folkestone, and from about ad 1100 fishermen are known to have pulled up their boats close to the mouth of the Pent Stream, which still flows into what is now the inner harbour. However, the constant movement of the shingle beach by winds and tides made it a dangerous place to land, and boats were often damaged by storms.
In 1804 Lord Radnor petitioned Parliament for permission to build a stone harbour, and an Act of Parliament was granted in 1807, partly to provide potential anchorages for warships during the Napoleonic Wars.
Plans drawn up at this time were considered too expensive to implement in full, but civil engineer William Jessop and a team that included Thomas Telford designed and built a western pier that was completed in 1810, followed by another, running north-east at right angles, completed in 1820. Together these drystone walls, which can still be seen today, provided some shelter from the prevailing winds.
The original Folkestone Harbour Company had insufficient funds to deliver the full scheme and was declared bankrupt in 1842. The harbour was by then somewhat derelict, but the South Eastern Railway Company purchased it with the intention of developing Folkestone as a rival to Dover for steam packets to France. Their new railway line reached Folkestone in 1843 and the harbour branch line was constructed soon afterwards.
The arrival of the railway meant that over the next 50 years the new resort of Folkestone grew rapidly and by Edwardian times it had established itself as one of England’s most fashionable coastal towns.
In 1918 the mayor of folkestone reported that over 8.6 million passengers had passed through the port between 1914 – 18, this figure including troops en route to France or returning on leave and Red Cross workers. According to John Charles Carlyle in his book, Folkestone During The War 1914 – 1919, the number of British and Allied troops had risen to over 9.7 million by 1919, as well as nearly 850,000 Red Cross and other workers.
Folkestone played a key role throughout the war. For example, approximately 120,000 refugees landed from Europe. Folkestone Harbour was the preferred route through which post was sent to and from the Western Front. About 10,500 ship and 7,000 train movements took place for the military, in addition to which the South Eastern Railway handled movements by about 8,000 commercial ships and 8,500 trains.
In December 1915 the spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle ( ‘Mata Hari’ ) was stopped from boarding a ship from Folkestone Harbour to France by Captain S. Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service.
In April 1918 the ss Onward, which was berthed in the harbour, caught fire ( as a result of an incendiary bomb hidden among the lifeboats ) and was then scuttled to prevent the fire spreading to the station area. Five railway locomotives were used to pull the vessel upright prior to refloating.
In summer 1915 a free buffet ( the ‘Mole Café’ ) was set up on Folkestone Harbour Arm, which provided tea and refreshments to soldiers and sailors, together with members of the Red Cross. This canteen was staffed by local volunteers, and among the most devoted were the Misses Margaret Ann and Florence Augusta Jeffery. The Jeffery sisters were awarded the Order of the British Empire, the Queen Elisabeth Medal ( Belgium ) and the Medal of Gratitude ( France ). Visitors books were signed by over 43,500 people between 1915 and 1919, and were subsequently bound into eight volumes with a total of 3,518 pages. Two of these volumes can be viewed in Folkestone Library, with the remainder kept in archive in Maidstone. All of the content of the Harbour Canteen Visitors Books can be accessed in digital form on the website of the charity Step Short: www.stepshort.co.uk.