A small fishing town famous for its oysters, with a beach that boats could be landed on – so why a harbour?
The answer is not to be found here, but a few miles south in the cathedral city of Canterbury.
All historic cities were established alongside, or straddling, rivers as these were important trade routes. Canterbury’s trade traveled along the River Stour, it’s estuary meeting the sea at Sandwich, enabling a connection with seaports here and in Europe.
For centuries, waterways were becoming increasingly silted. Whitstable became part of the solution to this, which is why the harbour exists today.
1811 – Canals were well established as a reliable method of transporting goods around the country where coastal routes were not available. The St. Nicholas and Canterbury Canal Company was formed, and ordered a survey for a canal from Ashford to Canterbury and on to St. Nicholas Bay. No interest was found.
1823 – William James called upon ‘an inhabitant of Canterbury to consult on the subject of a Railway.’
1824 – Another plan surfaced, this time to widen and make the River Stour navigable from the sea to Fordwich, just outside Canterbury. This plan lasted longer, but when it went before Parliament the Commissioners of Sewers opposed it. The plan was redrawn and gained Royal Assent in 1825. Tenders were put out, but all of them exceeded the money available.
1824 – The first meeting of the Canterbury Rail Road Company. The prospectus and Bill were laid before Parliament.
1825 – The Bill for the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway gets its first reading in Parliament. The estimated cost was between £25,000 and £31,000. In June, the Bill receives the Royal Warrant. In August, George Stephenson visits Canterbury, then sends his assistant, Joseph Locke, to layout the line. John Dixon begins work on the line in October of the same year.
1826 – The plan for widening the Stour was withdrawn. In November, parliamentary powers sought to increase the capital for the railway line by £19,000.
1827 – A breakthrough – communication between the north and south sides of the railway tunnel took place. Work was temporarily suspended in November for want of more capital. In May 1828, work resumed.
1830 – Invicta, the twentieth locomotive built by Stephenson, arrived at Whitstable by sea. A gala opening day was held on May 3rd for the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, later to be known locally as the ‘Crab and Winkle Line’. Goods and passenger services began the next day.
Although the railway had been built, work took another 22 months to complete. To gain income, the railway carried passengers to and from Canterbury. When tickets were issued for this, the line became the world’s first regular passenger railway.
1832 – The first covered carriage was introduced, after complaints from passengers. Whitstable Harbour opened formally opened for trade on March 19th, with 10,000 people present. In doing so, it became the world’s first railway connected port.
1834 –On March 19th of this year, the world’s first Season Ticket and Family Tickets were issued.
During the ensuing years, the importance of the railway reduced, partly because of the shortcomings of the under-powered Invicta but mainly because regular passenger services had spread across the country and onto the rest of the world. By the 1870s the mainline from London was in place.
The line continued to be busy with freight, but passenger use fell with the use of the motor car and bus and road improvements. Nevertheless, Whitstable Harbour remained busy as the main port in East Kent.
By the 1930s, passenger trade had ended. The line eventually closed to freight on 29th November 1952. When the last train arrived at Whitstable Harbour, the station was decorated with flags designed by the local Boy Scouts, and crowds of Whitstable people came to say goodbye.
The Invicta locomotive survives in Canterbury Museum, having been restored by volunteers at York Railway Museum. It’s hoped that one day it will be sited in Whitstable, where it first arrived all those years ago.
The line itself is still accessible for the best part as the Crab and Winkle walking and cycling route.
The harbour remained in the ownership of the railway company and gradually went into decline. In 1958, Whitstable Urban District Council purchased the Harbour from British Rail. After local government reorganisation, this became part of Canterbury City Council.
Today, the harbour is managed by the Whitstable Harbour Board committee, consisting mainly of Whitstable councillors, working together with skilled independent members and the Harbour Master.
Published: Thursday 10 August
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