photo credit: Folkestone Library
photo credit: Folkestone Library

A brief history of Folkestone Harbour for teachers

Folkestone has a long history as a fishing village supplying an important food source. During the reign to KingStephen (1135 -1154) Folkestone was granted exemption from customs and other dues. This was a symbol of the town’s growing importance in trade. A further indicator of growth was the granting of a market day to the town. In 1205 market began and was held each Thursday (this continues to the present day).

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.
1800 – 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.

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 accumulation 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.
The 20th Century brought great change to Folkestone and its harbour, which included a time of great prosperity for Folkestone in general as a tourist hotspot in the Edwardian Era.
However, the area around the harbour itself had always been a very working class area. Those living in its vicinity had always lived through much economic hardship. Many living by the harbour had loved ones who perished whilst fishing at sea. Poverty was endemic and mortality in general was high due to very poor living conditions and the hard, dangerous, all weather work that was required by the harbour or port. That many families were living in the most appalling slum conditions in the old fish market area was a major factor that influenced the Council to undertake a housing redevelopment scheme in this area during the 1930’s.
The harbour changed beyond recognition from the 1950’s onwards as fishing went into sharp decline, the old fishing families slowly left their house on the harbour and the eventual closing of the port.
This change brings great opportunities for a project involving the arts as the focus can be on the past, change and renewal.

Folkestone Harbour – The Grand Burstin & The Royal Pavilion Hotel.

Royal Pavilion Hotel postcard
Royal Pavilion Hotel postcard
Royal Pavilion Hotel
Royal Pavilion Hotel
Burstin Hotel Folkestone
Burstin Hotel Folkestone












The Royal Pavilion Hotel was once a place of opulence and splendour for Victorian & Edwardian travellers. After catching the train to Folkestone Harbour Station, they would often stay here awaiting their connecting boat to the continent. In the 70’s/80’s the first stage of the Burstin Hotel was built on the front lawn before planning permission allowed it’s extension knocking down much of the original building allowing it to take on a container ship style design.

Learning Opportunities:

  • Debates/speeches/ letters to the council over the future of the building, should it be saved or scrapped?
  • Design a new harbour hotel

Postcards home from soldiers who were temporarily housed there in WW1.

Folkestone Harbour – The Sea, Smuggling & Fishing

Folkestone Harbour and Coast to Dover. JMW Turner. Circa 1829

Learning Opportunities:

  • Smuggling Stories – Smuggling was rife in the 18th Century all along the Kentish coast right out into the marsh. Old Smuggling tunnels run under the East Cliff. Children (Upper KS2) could read the story of Doctor Syn and write their own smuggling adventures that a young fisherboy or girl may have got themselves caught up in.
  • Designing their own hiding place for smuggled booty.
  • Paintings / sketches of the sea / harbour in changing weathers. Using Shane Record (a key local artist) as inspiration children can visit the harbour and take pictures of things they like and take them back and sketch or paint them. This could be pictures of the harbour / fish market itself or scene of everyday life people visiting restaurants or walking on the promenade and beach.
  • Look at the sea/fishing paintings by J.M.W Turner and use this as inspiration to create their own artwork.
  • St Peter’s Church. St Peter’s was founded in 1860 as the Fisherman’s Church, St. Peter being a fisherman himself. Pupils could research its history and design a new stained glass window that captures life at the harbour today.
  • Diary Writing – Children could imagine that they were from a fishing family and write a diary about having to wait for their loved ones to return. This would be particularly appropriate during times with storms. St. Peters church also has a statue of ‘Our Lady, Star of the Sea’ looking out to watch over fisherman as they work.(Link to Harbour)
  • Although not local the story of Grace Darling is relevant and pupils could find out about the history of the RNLI and link that into a safety campaign with regards to the dangers of the harbour and the sea.

The Folkestone Mermaid - Cornelia Parker, Folkestone Triennial 2011 – A Million Miles from Home

Parker has created a Folkestone version of one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, Copenhagen’s ‘Little Mermaid’. All women of Folkestone were offered the opportunity to model for the mermaid. Through a process of open submission, Parker chose Georgina Baker, mother of two and Folkestone born and bred. Unlike the idealised Copenhagen version, ‘The Folkestone Mermaid’ is a life-size, life-cast sculpture, celebrating the local and the everyday. Parker’s mermaid, a more confident and knowing lady of the sea than Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale one, is a permanent work for Folkestone. Inspired by the story of The Sea Lady by HG Wells (a long-time resident of Folkestone) and the famous fairy-tale of Hans Christian Anderson (who visited Folkestone in 1857). The Mermaid’s watchful gaze over the horizon is also an allusion to the threat of rising sea levels and endangered populations living by the sea. It also tells of the women waiting for their men, who are fishermen, to come home and the dangers that the sea possesses, many men all over the world die at sea but it also provides an income for their family and is very beautiful. Cornelia Parker is a British sculptor and installation artist.

folkestone mermaid
Cornelia Parker. The Folkestone Mermaid, 2011 © Cornelia Parker

Learning Opportunities: 

  • Literacy – links to Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid, H G Wells’ The Sea Lady.
  • Do a study on the differences between the mermaid in Copenhagen and the mermaid in Folkestone.
  • Diary Writing – Children could imagine that they were from a fishing family and write a diary about having to wait for their loved ones to return. This would be particularly appropriate during times with storms. Often families would look out to sea awaiting for family to return. St. Peters church also has a statue of ‘Our Lady, Star of the Sea’ looking out to watch over fisherman as they work.(Link to Harbour)
  • Icons – What do YOU think represents Folkestone? This has become a symbol of Folkestone for some people.
  • A new sculpture, children could think of their own symbol to represent the life on the harbour today and model it out of clay.