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.
The first ferry boat service between Folkestone and Boulogne began in 1843, with local transport being offered between the mainline station and the harbour. Channel steamers operated to a number of continental destinations, including Boulogne and Calais, although by the mid-1890s the route from Dover to Calais was more popular.
The branch line from the mainline down to the harbour was one of the steepest railway lines in the country, descending 111 feet in less than a mile. By 1847 a viaduct and swing bridge were constructed to provide access to a level area of land that had been recovered from the sea, and these also divided the inner and outer harbour areas. A large warehouse was built, together with the first section of the harbour station and the foundations of a new south-east-facing pier.
This new pier — the Harbour Arm — was built in stages over several decades, and was completed in 1904. It was mainly constructed from poured concrete, then faced with granite.
On 1 January 1849 an integrated rail / sea / rail service commenced between London – Paris via Folkestone – Boulogne, and later that month the first telegraphed conversation took place, between Charles Walker, on board a boat in the Channel, and the Chairman of the South Eastern Railway at their headquarters in London.
On 15 May 1855 the Great Gold Robbery took place on the London – Folkestone boat train. It was discovered only when the bullion boxes were weighed in Paris and found to contain lead shot.
“This new pier — the Harbour Arm — was built in stages over several decades, and was completed in 1904.”
Folkestone played a key role throughout the war. From troops passing through the port & post being sent to and from the Western Front to refugees landing from Europe.
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.
“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.”
In may 1930 the former wood and metal swing bridge was demolished and the present replacement was rolled into place, in order to allow heavier trains to use the station.
In 1931 Mohandas Gandhi was invited to attend a Round Table Conference in London as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. He arrived in Folkestone on the ss Biarritz on 12 September. His visit to Britain, during the fight for India’s independence, marked the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, in which the British Government agreed to free all political prisoners in return for the suspension of the civil disobedience campaign.
During the Dunkerque evacuation, in May–June 1940, every boat in Folkestone took part, bringing troops back to trains that were waiting at the harbour station. Over a nine-day period an estimated 35,000 troops and 9,000 refugees were landed, and 64 trains left the station.
During the course of WWII over 2,000 long-range shells fell on Folkestone. The Admiralty used part of the harbour for loading landing ships and as a result, part of the structure was demolished and the materials used to form a landing stage. It was repaired with concrete after the war ended.
Cross-channel passenger traffic resumed in 1946, with services to Boulogne and Calais, but traffic gradually declined over the next 50 years. The introduction of larger vessels on the cross-channel routes over the years exposed the limitations imposed by the restricted water depth at Folkestone, and there was little investment by the owners. With developments elsewhere in roll-on roll-off ferries, Folkestone Harbour did not acquire its own link-span bridge until 1972: the remains of the concrete ‘Dolphins’ that carried the ramp are still visible, the ramp and mechanism having long been dismantled.
Folkestone Harbour was sold in the 1980s, together with the ferry company Sealink, as part of the Government’s privatisation programme. Sea Containers purchased the port together with the ferry operation. The ferries were subsequently sold to Stena Line, which then concentrated its operations at Dover. Although catamarans ( SeaCats ) were introduced on the Folkestone–Boulogne route, these were finally withdrawn in 2000, following the abolition of duty free shopping and a consequent drop in passenger numbers, and heavy competition from other ferry routes and the Channel Tunnel.
Since 2014 Folkestone Harbour Arm has been re-imagined and repurposed as a place where people come to promenade, enjoying magnificent views, a wide choice of good food and drink, live music, arts events and other entertainment.
The work has been carried out using an approach that puts right the damage caused by many decades of neglect and persistent battering from storms whilst using materials that respect and interpret the history of Folkestone Harbour.
Photography courtesy of Richard Taylor and Alan F. Taylor, Folkestone & District Local History Society.