GREAT BRITAIN'S ONLY ROYAL HARBOUR
Take a walk through the history and picturesque splendour of Ramsgate's sands, harbour and pier.
During the Great War (WW1), Ramsgate had a very difficult time and was the most heavily bombed seaside town in the UK – this was in the National War Weekly, which featured reports on the nation’s Wartime Progress. There were some tunnels under the town which were made good use of.
In 1938, the Town Mayor, Councillor ABC Kempe, was aware of Ramsgate’s situation during the previous war and decided to build air raid shelters for the entire town’s population of up to 30,000 people. He drew up plans not to build many shelters, but one big shelter in the form of a three-and-a-half-mile tunnel to be accessible within a two minute walk from all parts of town. The main entrance to the Ramsgate Tunnels used to be the railway tunnel and terminus for the Ramsgate Harbour train station. Which had closed in 1926.
With the expert help of the Kentish Miners, the project was completed in nine months with a capacity to shelter 60,000 people for long periods of time. 12 entrances were built in public locations, such as council owned squares. Many of the bricked-up and covered entrances can still be seen today.
Many people thought this was a waste of money. Kempe was known as the ‘Mad Mayor’ due to his conviction that another war was coming and readying the town for it. This title did not last too long, as on 24th August 1940 Ramsgate received one of the world’s first blitz raids, when a squadron of enemy aircraft were flying towards Manston
Airport to bomb the Spitfires. The squadron leader was shot down as he approached the coast and his squadron dropped 500 bombs on the town in five minutes, making this one of Britain’s first blitz raids. Only 31 people were killed in this raid; without the Tunnels, it could have been hundreds of deaths. Suddenly, the ‘Mad Mayor’ was now a local hero.
The tunnels were used by the people of Ramsgate throughout the war, with many people taking up permanent residence underground. To keep up morale while in the tunnels, there were parties, games, shops, etc. Almost everything you would need to live could be found in the tunnels, even a hospital operating theatre!
Tour times are advertised on the notice boards outside. You can also find a tea room and a museum within the entrance of the Tunnels. Leaving here, keep the sea to your left until you’ve passed the sandy beach and you reach the Pavilion and Obelisk, both to the left.
ROYAL VICTORIA PAVILION
The long, large building on the left is the Royal Victoria Pavilion. Which has always attracted royalty throughout the years, especially during the 19th century when the Duchess of Kent and her daughter Princess Victoria (later to become Queen Victoria) holidayed in Ramsgate. When the Royal Victoria Pavilion opened in 1904 (after the original structure was destroyed in a storm the previous winter), Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, officially opened the building in the presence of a large crowd and a military escort. The Pavilion opened as a traditional seaside theatre with a different show every night. It would also become a cinema, a nightclub, and a casino over its lifetime. After being neglected for several years, in 2017, it became Europe’s largest Wetherspoon’s and the UK’s biggest pub. To the right is the Obelisk.
The clock on the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, the old harbour offices, proudly displays Ramsgate mean time which is 5 minutes and 41 seconds before Greenwich meantime.
Before Greenwich meantime was established as a reliable measure of time, a sailor on England’s south coast set their chronometer by the clock atop Ramsgate’s old clock house tower. Ramsgate mean time was a commonly used reference for south coast sailors prior to Greenwich becoming a new standard in the 1840s.
Though Ramsgate mean time is no longer observed, the clock still shows this ‘local’ time as a unique Ramsgate curiosity.
The clock house is now a maritime museum, bursting with memorabilia of Ramsgate’s seafaring heritage. Outside the museum, almost forgotten, is a moving memorial to the pilots who perished during Operation Fuller ‘The Channel Dash’, a vain attempt to stop German boats leaving Brest harbour during World War II. Opposite the Maritime Museum, berthed in the marina, is the Little Ship, Sundowner.
OBELISK (THE ROYAL TOOTHPICK)
Another, earlier, royal visitor was King George IV. On one of his journeys to Hanover in 1821, he arrived in Ramsgate Harbour on the 25th September and stayed with his good friend, Sir William Curtiss Bart ‘Billy Biscuit’ (whose factory supplied the Royal Navy with biscuits). The King returned to Ramsgate on the 8th November to another great welcome by the local people. This prompted His Majesty to name the harbour ‘Royal’. The Obelisk arrived the following year as a gift from another Royal Harbour in Ireland and took a year to erect in the small area next to the ship building yard on the site of the Pavilion today. In 2021 the Royal Harbour of Ramsgate will celebrate its 200th anniversary.
Standing 52 ½ feet high (16m), made of Dublin granite and weighing 100 tons, it is inscribed in English and Latin ‘To George the Fourth, King of Great Britain and Ireland. The inhabitants and visitors of Ramsgate and the Directors and Trustees of the Harbour have erected this obelisk as a grateful record of His Majesty’s gracious condescension in selecting this Port for his Embarkation on the 25th of September in progress to His Kingdom in Hanover and his Happy Return on 8th November 1821. If the weather is nice, a walk along the East Pier arm is worth a stroll. At the end is the Royal Harbour Brasserie, a restaurant built to look like a ship. Back on land, keep the sea to your left and you will see a carpark with a long building, very close to the marina. This is the Maritime Museum.
The Sundowner was built in 1912 as a steam pinnace by the admiralty. It was bought by Charles Lightoller and his wife, Sylvia, in 1929 and converted into a cruising yacht. It currently sits in the Royal Harbour and is owned by The Steam Museum Trust, who currently run the Maritime Museum.
The Sundowner has two claims to fame. The most notable is its use as a Little Ship during Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of Dunkirk). The admiralty requisitioned the Sundowner to go to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuations. Lightoller insisted that he would be the only person to take his ship to Dunkirk, which he did and managed to save 130 men in one trip. He was unable to make a return trip as the Sundowner could not reach 20 knots, the requirement for ships returning to Dunkirk.
Her second claim to fame is her link to the Titanic. Built in 1912, the year the Titanic sank and owned by Lightoller, the second officer on board when the Titanic sank and the most senior officer to survive the disaster. Lightoller was one of the very last people to leave the sinking ship, ensuring as many women and children were in lifeboats as he could. He managed to survive by climbing aboard Collapsible B and captaining the people within until the Carpathia came to pick up the survivors.
The Sundowner, named after an Australian word for ‘tramp’, served in both world wars. In WWI she was a Capital Ship’s steam pinnace and throughout WWII she was a coastal patrol vessel, assisting in numerous rescue operations. Lightoller and his wife also carried out reconnaissance missions for the admiralty prior to the outbreak of WWII.
Since the Second World War, the Sundowner has taken part in Dunkirk celebrations, the Queen’s diamond jubilee leading a flotilla of Little Ships, and is likely to take part in the 2020 Return to Dunkirk celebrations. There are currently three Little Ships in Ramsgate’s harbour: Sundowner; Lamouette; and, recently, Lazy Days. Lazy Days’ entry on the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships’ website calls the marina ‘The Harbour of Happiness’. The marina with the Little Ships is part of the Royal Harbour.
ROYAL HARBOUR AND LITTLE SHIPS
The Story of Ramsgate Harbour takes us back to Henry VIII when our harbour consisted of a single wooden pier capable of giving refuge to ships in trouble. This was followed by a stone pier similar to that at Broadstairs.
Around this time Sandwich was still a major port and mediaeval Cinque Port, Ramsgate was merely a limb. Sandwich, being the larger partner, was to be developed with a massive financial boost from the government, but because of a major storm in the channel and the fact that so many ships were saved in Ramsgate’s modest harbour, the Government decided use these funds to develop Ramsgate Harbour instead of Sandwich.
This totally transformed the harbour; the inner basin was to store the water so that the seven sluice gates on the cross could be opened and the flow of water took the sand and mud out to sea giving full access at all times.
In the years that followed, Ramsgate was vital to our efforts in the Napoleonic Wars as the main embarkation port for thousands of soldiers.
In 1821 HM King George IV made good use of the port on several occasions while staying in Ramsgate. He received such a great welcome that he named our harbour ‘Royal’, being the only one of its kind in Britain.
During Operation: Dynamo, Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour was on the front line and vital to the success in bringing back 338,226 soldiers, between 26th May – 4th June 1940 from the beaches of Dunkirk. Three ships involved in the evacuation are still in the harbour today – The Little Ships (Sundowner, Lamouette, and Lazy Days).
Recently Ramsgate has played host to many sea activities, including the World Class Power Boat Grand Prix, the European Water Ski Event, Round Britain Races and is acknowledged as the second-Best Sailing Regatta to Cowes in the Isle of White. Ramsgate also had the first International Hover Port and the world’s first ship with a screw propeller was tested off Ramsgate.
From here, walk along the harbour, keeping the marina to your left and the stretch of bars, restaurants and hotels to your right. Once you’ve passed the little roundabout, you’ll be on Military Road.
The original Military Road was built by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars to allow access around the inner basin of the harbour and to build workshops for boat building and repair work. In 1881, a new addition to this was the building of the Harbour Offices and the Sailors’ Church with the Smack Boys’ Home above. This part of the building is now home to the Ramsgate & Broadstairs Sea Cadet Corps and the 6th Ramsgate Sea Scout Group.
The access road to the cliff was a slope with steps half way up and is still there today. The steps made it impossible to take horse and carts up the cliff, so in the 1893 plans were drawn up to build a main road from the harbour to the West Cliff, this was contemporary with the building of Madeira Walk and improving access to the East Cliff.
This was a major project: the harbour basin had to be drained; the original Military Road had to be widened; and the new road was built on top of the, now old, Military Road. Construction was similar to building a viaduct and many arches were erected rising in height as they reached the top of the slope. The space under the arches was used for workshops for the ship/boat repair business. These arches are used today by small businesses and cafés. A great place to stop for lunch and look over the harbour. Walk to the end of Military Road, where you can turn left or go straight ahead. Immediately to your right are the Sailors’ Church/Smack Boys’ Home and Jacob’s Ladder.
At the end of Military Road, you can see the Sailors’ Church and Jacob’s Ladder to the right, with the harbour to your left. The church was built in 1881 with a home for smack boys above. More information can be found on the panel outside the church.
In the early days, the only access to the cliff top from the harbour was a wooden staircase built by Jacob Stead and named after him. In the years that followed, the wooden stairs were replaced by the stone stairs of today, keeping the name of Jacob’s Ladder.
To return to the West Cliff, either walk up Jacob’s Ladder and turn left, or walk back along Military Road and turn left, up the hill.
THE RAMSGATE SMACK BOYS’ HOME
By 1906, when fishing was the main industry at Ramsgate harbour, there were 168 fishing smacks registered here and a smack boy was an apprentice on one of these smacks. Indentured apprentices were bound to their Masters for five years and, as an indenture was a Board of Trade Certificate completed through the Custom House, it was unbreakable.
Fishing expeditions lasted between eight and ten days and enough food was carried to feed the four-man crew but once the boat had docked an apprentice had only the pay that the Master was required to give him. A cook received 1d per day which went up to 6d per day on promotion to deck boy. From this meagre amount boys, some as young as 12, had to feed and house themselves and it seems half ended up in prison during part of their apprenticeship.
The Vicar of Christ Church, Canon Brenan, urged the Board of Trade to provide a home for the 200 hundred or more smack boys of the fishing fleet, as he was concerned about the ‘degradation’ of the boys’ living conditions.
He sought permission to rent land under the cliff on Military Road to build a Home, where the boys could be housed, fed and kept under control. On the ground floor there was to be a mess room, offices, storerooms and lockers for clothing while on the upper level there was a washroom and individual bunks for 58 boys.
By 1880, a 60-year lease had been signed and the Marchioness of Conyngham laid the foundation stone. The Home was opened in November 1881 with Nathanial Taylor and his wife as the Master and Matron.
Ramsgate was the first, and possibly only, fishing port in Britain to provide such accommodation for smack boys.
Copyright Dr. Maria Brown