© www.dover-kent.co.uk 2000 - 2016 
Home History Defence Transport Leisure Places People Words Information Contact
Dover: Lock and Key of the Kingdom

Dover Harbour - A Brief History

The discovery of the Bronze Age Boat shows that Dover has been  involved in cross-channel traffic for at least 3,500 years. These early  seafarers would not have had a harbour as we know it, instead they  would have taken advantage of the mouth of the river Dour, running  between its protective cliffs, pulling their boats up onto the muddy  banks.  Dover's sheltered position, and the fact that it is the closest land in  Britain to continental Europe, was not lost on the Romans who built a  harbour in the area of what is now the Market Square. On the cliffs  either side of the town they built massive lighthouses to guide ships  into the port at night. The Roman fleet in Britain, the Classis  Britannica, used Dover as its base. By the time of the Norman conquest the mouth of the Dour had  changed and the old Roman harbour silted up. A delta of mud had  divided the mouth of the river in to two streams, the Westbrook,  flowing into the western side of the bay, and the Eastbrook, emptying  into the sea by the cliff on which the Castle stands. The mouth of the  Eastbrook became the harbour proper, called Warden Down, it was a  flourishing community of seafarers, fishermen and shipbuilders. The  little port was in constant danger of silting up and its life was finally  ended when a fall of chalk from the cliffs blocked the river in the late  thirteenth century. Lack of a safe anchorage was particularly serious as Sandwich,  formerly the port for the Royal Fleet, was silting up too. For the first  time people began to apply themselves seriously to the task of making  Dover more than just a minor shelter for shipping. Dover also had its  position as a Cinque Port to consider and all the privileges that went  with it. Efforts now concentrated on the sheltered indentation made by Archcliffe to the west of the town. At the foot of Archcliffe, a stretch of mud and shingle had formed over  the years forming a pool open to the sea which was deep enough to  shelter ships. In 1495 Sir John Clark, a priest and Master of the Maison  Dieu, built the first of the piers at Dover in an effort to provide better  shelter to ships. The haven was a blessing to the community,  especially in stormy weather, and hence was called Paradise. For a while all was well but soon shingle began to build up against the  western side of the pier and eventually to creep around the end,  threatening to block the harbour. Henry VIII funded further work on  the harbour to keep it open to shipping but by 1556 Paradise was all  but filled up and useless to shipping. In 1575 the town petitioned  Queen Elizabeth I and a commission was set up to consider the best  way to restore the harbour. William Borough, Comptroller of the Navy  and chairman of the commission, recommended the building of a  completely new harbour guarded at its mouth by two jetties. Bearing  in mind the fate of Paradise he also advised the provision of a large  pool of pent-up water, which could be released using sluices to flush  out any obstructing shingle from the entrance. Under the direction of  William Digges the works that were to form the nucleus of the present  Dover Harbour were undertaken.   In 1606 a Royal Charter was granted creating the Dover Harbour Board  to administer the harbour. Now any revenue earned by the port could  be ploughed back into its maintenance and development. By the terms  of the Charter, not only were the harbour and pent made over to the  Board but also reclaimed land up to the cliffs below Snargate and  along the shore as far as the Castle should belong to it. The more land  that was reclaimed, the more houses there would be, and so more  rents to swell the Board's income. Through the 17th and 18th centuries a constant battle against the  blocking of the harbour by shingle was fought, with numerous pleas to  Parliament for funds to help pay for the work. What was really need  was a jetty to the west of the harbour entrance that reached out into  deep water to stop the shingle piling up against it and creeping around  the end to block the harbour. The massive outer harbour we can see  today owes its origin to a recommendation made in 1845 to construct  a harbour of refuge capable of handling up to 20 large naval vessels. A start was made in enclosing the bay, beginning with the south  western quarter because of its vulnerability to storms. The Admiralty  Pier was begun in 1847 and by 1850 had reached 650ft from the  shore, ending the menace of drifting shingle. Extension work continued  until 1875 when the Admiralty, put off by the cost, lost interest in the  harbour of refuge. Dover Harbour Board then decided to complete the  inner harbour itself and began the Prince of Wales Pier in 1892, only  for the government to decide to complete the outer harbour, which it  did in 1909.  It is within this square mile of enclosed water that subsequent  development has taken place. In the Western Docks the "railway age"  harbour developed with the new Marine Station opening in 1920 and  the Train Ferry Dock in 1936. In the 1950s the Eastern Docks started  to be developed for the growing roll-on roll-off car ferry services. In  the late 1960s a regular hovercraft service was started from a purpose  built Hoverport.   As the car ferry services increased the Eastern Docks continued to  expand. In the 1970s the Hoverport moved to the Western Docks  increasing available space for ferry berths. As the numbers of train  passengers declined the Marine Station closed and was redeveloped in  1994/5 as a cruise liner terminal. This terminal was so successful that  in 2000 a second cruise terminal opened.   In the inner harbour too, as traditional commercial shipping use  declined, the Harbour Board has encouraged new uses with the Marina  in the Granville and Wellington Docks and the retail development at De  Bradelei Wharf.   The latest plans for the redevelopment of the Western Docks were  unveiled in early 2014.  These plans will involve changes to the  location of the Marina and new berths on the site of the old Hoverport.
Port Statistics 2014 Passengers   13,295,492 Tourist Cars     2,456,817 Coaches  96,576 Road Haulage Vehicles     2,421,537 Source: DHB Website
Back to Harbour Index Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover 1520.  Henry and his retinue setting off to meet Francis I of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Dover Harbour c.1543.  Dover harbour 1738. Dover from the sea c.1660.  A not very accurate of Dover dating from the mid 17th century. Dover Harbour c.1840.  Viewed from the Western Heights, there is no sign of the construction of the Admiratly pier which commenced in 1847. Hamburg America Line liner SS Amerika at the Prince of Wales Pier c.1905.  For a brief period (1903-1906) Dover was a port of call for German liners on their way to New York.  In 1912, the SS Amerika was the first ship to warn Titanic of icebergs. A view over the habour and Eastern Docks in 2008.