A Brief History of Folkestone

Folkestone by T. Boys

The history of Folkestone begins well before written records. Ruins which were excavated in 1924 revealed buildings which date back prior to the Roman conquest of 43 AD. Also excavated were the ruins of a Roman villa dating from c100AD. In his book Folkestone: The Story of A Town C H Bishop surmises that the Roman villa was most likely to have been a military post built to house those involved in coastal defense. Folkestone, unlike her neighbours Dover and Lympne, was not blessed with a river or deep harbour waters suitable for anchorage of large ships and was therefore not suitable as a major port. Instead the Romans viewed Folkestone as a strategic lookout point and signalling post. Consequently they built a minor base in the area known as East Wear Bay. It is believed that Romans remained in the area, living alongside native Britons until the Roman withdrawal c368 AD. At this time invasions by the Picts Scots and Saxons began. It is thought that with the departure of the Roman's many coastal dwellers withdrew inland to relative safety from coastal invaders and that the Folkestone area was in the main uninhabited for many years.

Following the Roman departure Britain was the site of many battles and struggles for supremacy between the Celts Britons Picts Scots and Saxons. By 500 AD Kent was an established Saxon Kingdom in which Christianity was spreading rapidly as a way of life. In 630 AD Folkestone again comes firmly onto the map of history. Eadbald was then king of Kent. He was the son of Ethelbert, the first Saxon king of Kent to convert to Christianity. Eadbald chose Folkestone as the site for the church and nunnery dedicated to St. Peter & St. Paul, which he founded for his daughter Eanswythe. Eadbald also built a castle for the protection of the nunnery. Although the original church has many centuries since fallen into the sea and the castle is no longer in existence it was under the protection of the castle that the fishing village of Folkestone had its true origins.

Over the next four hundred years the church and nunnery underwent many changes. They moved from their original locations, were attacked by Danes and then restored in 927 AD by King Athelstan. In 1052 AD the church and the nunnery still remained the hub of village life. This changed suddenly. Earl Godwin, in dispute with King Edward the Confessor over Edward's pro Norman attitude and use of Norman advisors, began a campaign of assaults on coastal Britain. One such attack involved a raid on the town of Folkestone and the destruction of her church and nunnery.

By 1066, at the time of the next great invasion, Folkestone was a mere hamlet occupied by fishermen and farm workers who cultivated the arable lands that had been cleared in the heavily wooded countryside. At this time the manor of Folkestone was in the ownership of the church at Canterbury. After William became king he took the barony and made a gift of it to his half brother Bishop Odo. By 1086, the year of Doomsday the barony was held by William D'Arcy. It was given a value of 100 and consisted of approximately 6240 acres, 5 churches, approximately 600 people of whom 209 were villeins and 83 bondsmen. Sub-tenants of the Barony included Hugh Fitzwilliam, Walter de Appeville, Bernard de St. Owens, Walter FitzEnglebert, Eudo, Baldric, Richard, Alured, Wesman and Alured Dapifer. In 1095 the lord of the manor was Nigel de Muneville. Nigel de Muneville built the town a new church to replace that which was destroyed by Earl Godwin. He did not rebuild the nunnery but built the Folkestone Priory for Benedictine Monks instead. In 1138 a new church and priory were again built, this time by William D'Averanches and dedicated to St. Mary & St. Eanswythe.

Folkestone continued to prosper as a fishing village supplying an important food source. During the reign to King Stephen (1135 -1154) Folkestone was granted exemption from customs and other dues. This is a symbol of the town's growing importance in trade. A further indicator of growth is the granting of a market day to the town. In 1205 market began and was held each Thursday. This arrangement was confirmed by charter in 1215. In 1213 Folkestone became the headquarters for King John as he prepared for an invasion by the King of France Philip Augustus. Philip Augustus had been ordered by the Pope to invade England after John refused to accept the Pope's nominee for Archbishop of Canterbury. John eventually submitted to the Pope's directions but this did not stop Philip attacking the Kent coast in 1216. Once again the town and church were destroyed. They were rebuilt in 1220.

By end of the thirteenth century Folkestone was considered a limb of the Cinque ports and was required to contribute supplies for the King's fleet for travel, transport or military expeditions. In 1299 the town was expected to provide seven boats, each crewed by twenty men and one boy to the King's navy. It is doubtful that more than one boat was ever supplied at a time.

In 1313 Folkestone was given its Charter of Corporation. In 1349 Folkestone was granted another weekly market on a Tuesday. Following this in 1390 Wednesday also became a market day and there was a yearly fair on St. Giles's day the 1st September. During this period Folkestone fishermen became renowned for attacking foreign trading ships and purloining the goods onboard. Such actions resulted in revenge attacks. Attacks on the town and fishermen by the French were recorded in 1378 and much later in 1552.

In 1535 during the Reformation, Henry VIII ordered the suppression of the Folkestone Priory. The King's Commissioners convinced the Prior of Folkestone, Thomas Bassett, to resign his position on 15th November for a pension of 10 a year. In 1538 the Priory was dismantled and the stone from the building was used to build Sandgate Castle. The castle was built as part of the effort to strengthen coastal fortifications for fear of a French invasion after the King's break with the Church of Rome. Part of defensive preparations included plans for a port at Folkestone. Henry visited the town from the 2nd until the 6th May 1542 to inspect first hand the proposed site. Nothing ever came of the proposal. How different might the history of Folkestone been if it had gone ahead. Nonetheless when, on 4th August 1543 the English declared war on the French Folkestone supported the war effort with the provision of men and boats.

Queen Elizabeth I also came to Folkestone. In 1573 she met with the Mayor and Jurats of the town on the Downs on her way to Dover. She came again in 1587, like her father before her inspecting coastal defenses under the threat of war - this time with Spain. During the period of threat from the Spanish Folkestone was subject to special taxes to contribute to the war effort in addition to sending men and boats.

In 1674 Folkestone's first school was established. This was the Free School which was situated on Rendezvous Street and catered for twenty boys who were taught to read and write English and Latin. Sir Eliab Harvey established the school through a bequest of his Uncle Dr. William Harvey. Dr. Harvey, famous for his discovery about the circulation of blood, was a native of Folkestone. The Free school later became known as the Harvey Grammar School and continues as an educational facility in the town today.

In 1697 the Barony of Folkestone was purchased by Jacob des Bouverie. The 1700's saw the town visited by smallpox twice. In 1720 a smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of 145 victims. In 1765 the disease returned and a further 158 townspeople perished. This century also saw the growth of the non-conformist movement in the town. This corresponded with a decline in relations between the townsfolk and the parish church. Many people resented the payment of church-rates. Some dropped away from the church altogether. Others turned to burgeoning new churches. Records note Quaker meetings from as early as 1671 and Baptists from 1698. In 1797 Congregationalists formed a church in the town. Later, in 1824, came the Wesleyan Methodists.

Fishing continued to be the main industry of the town at this time but this was also the beginning of an era when smuggling became almost a way of life for many of the towns people. Smuggling initially involved the illicit export of wool. Added to this was the import of contraband goods such as spirits, tea, tobacco, silk and lace. Smuggling grew to dominate local economy through the 1700's and well into the 1800's.

Two such smuggling incidents are worth particular note. The first occurred on the 26th May 1820 when eleven Folkestone men were captured in the act of smuggling. The men were Richard HART, Stephen WARMAN, John STUBBLES, John MARSHALL, William WEST, Richard Grayland, Amos CULLEN, William FOX, James MINTER, Francis ROBERTS and Thomas MINTER. They were placed in custody in Dover gaol but were the same night rescued never to be recaptured when the townsfolk of Folkestone broke into the gaol and released them. The second incident occurred in 1823 and involved the capture of the crew of the Four Brothers following a chase and gun battle with a revenue cutter. The crew were tried and acquitted of firing on a King's ship on the grounds that the ship was Dutch and more than half the crew claimed Dutch nationality.

During the 1800's major changes occurred to Folkestone as the seafront underwent major developments to enable her to become a viable harbour. Over the previous centuries the seafront had been subject to frequent serious storm damage and sea encroachment. Jetties were destroyed and the cumulation of shingle made it difficult to beach fishing boats. In 1807 an Act of Parliament was passed to enable the construction of a pier and harbour at Folkestone. By 1820 a harbour area of 14 acres had been enclosed. At this time trade and consequently population of Folkestone grew slightly.

This initial harbour development was not very successful. Sand and silt continued to be deposited in the harbour by high tides and the effect was to choke the harbour. The Folkestone Harbour Company, which had been established to develop the harbour, invested heavily in removing the silt but with little success. In 1842 the company went bankrupt and the Government put the harbour up for sale. It was bought by the South Eastern Railway Company, which was then building the London to Dover railway line. With the railway came the collier boats bringing coal from the north. Also with the railway came the beginning of the cross channel steamship service. Folkestone entered a boom time of development and prosperity. Over the next twenty years between 1848 and 1868 Guildhall and Tontine Street and six new churches (Christ Church, Tontine Congregational Church, St. Peter's, St. Michael's, Holy Trinity and the Wesleyan Chapel) were built. A new Town Hall was opened, the Promenade Pier was commenced and building took place on Marine Terrace, Bouverie Square, Holmesdale Terrace and The Leas

As Folkestone grew so did her reputation as a seaside resort. Although it is recorded that sea bathing machines were present in Folkestone as early as 1788 it was not until the mid 1800's, with the building of new town facilities and accommodation made possible by the coming of the railway that seabathing became a major part of the town's culture and economy. Alongside the growth of tourism came the development of entertainment facilities such as the exhibition centre known as Pleasure Garden's Theatre, the Leas Pavilion, Switchback Railway, and Radnor Park.

World War I saw major changes in the town yet again. After the summer of 1914 holiday makers disappeared, to be replaced by boatloads of refugees fleeing the conflict on the Continent. Soldiers increased in number, many stationed at Shorncliffe Camp while others were housed in requisitioned boarding houses and hotels. Folkestone became the centre for the transport of troops across the Channel to France. The men previously engaged in cross-channel ferry services had important new roles as illustrated in the story of The Queen. Folkestone was also subjected to air-raids. The worst of these occurred on May 25th 1917 when 71 civilians died and a further 94 were injured when bombs were dropped on Tontine Street during the busy shopping hour.

After World War I Folkestone returned to its role as a holiday resort. This time however it was not as the resort of the gentry but as a holiday destination for families. Many large homes were turned into flats or private hotels. Housing developments took place in the town as a part of the effort to meet housing shortages, amusement centres were established along the seafront and the zigzag path on the West Cliff was built.

Only twenty years after the town was transformed by the First World War Folkestone found herself again the focus of enemy activity with the loss of buildings and many civilian casualties during World War II. At the end of the war the town had suffered great damage and was to be changed forever. The rebuilding of Folkestone after the war was the birth of the modern town.

Main source: Folkestone:The Story of a Town
                     C.H. Bishop   Invicta Press 1973