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.
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.