Port Index

Dover Port


The Port of Dover as we know it is a very recent development in terms of the history of the short sea crossing; there has been a flourishing cross-Channel trade since at least the Bronze Age.  Being the nearest point to the mainland of Europe, with just 21 miles of sea separating the famous White Cliffs from Cap Gris Nez near Calais, Dover was the obvious choice for small ships to seek haven.  In those days, the River Dour was navigable for a short distance inland, and ships could moor at the quayside where the Market Square stands today.

When the Romans under Julius Caesar attempted to land at Dover in 55 BC, the Dour valley was the only place on the south east coast where the sea flowed in between the hills.  Whilst this made for a good haven for shipping, it was also very easy to defend.  Caesar described it in his "Commentaries" thus:

"He reached Britain with the first squadron of ships about the fourth hour of the day, and there saw the forces of the Britons drawn up in arms on all the hills.  The nature of the place was this: The sea was confined by mountains so close to it that a dart could be thrown from their summit upon the shore."

The haven, between the hills, in the estuary of the river, was probably navigable at low tide; it was probably possible to sail as far up river as Charlton at high water.

The Romans developed the inland harbour during the first century, building lighthouses (pharos) on the cliffs to the east and west of the town.  This harbour had silted up by the third century.

A new harbour was formed by the Normans in the Eastbrook after the river had been divided by silting into two separate streams.  Known as Warden Down, this became a busy, flourishing area of the town, supporting a community of seafarers, fishermen and shipbuilders, with two or three small shipyards building vessels for the cross channel trade.   Shipbuilding would continue here almost to the end of the 13th century.  Unfortunately, the river became blocked by a cliff fall and this harbour fell into disuse.

The first piers were built by Sir John Clark, a priest and master of the Maison Dieu, in 1495.  These were still intact when time Henry VIII sailed to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 but had effectively been destroyed by wind and tide by 1530.  A new, longer pier was built in 1533 and the harbour was dredged, but this in turn was unusable by 1556. 


"No promontory, town or haven, in Christendom, is so placed by nature and situation, both to gratify friends, and annoy enemies, as this town of Dover; no place is so settled to receive and deliver intelligence for all matters and actions in Europe, from time to time; no town is by nature so settled, either to allure intercourse by sea, or to train inhabitants by land, to make it great, fair, rich, and populous; nor is there in the whole circuit of this famous island any port, either in respect of security and defence, or of traffic or intercourse, more convenient, needful, or rather of necessity to be regarded, than this of Dover, situated on a promontory next fronting a puissant foreign king, and in the very streight, passage, and intercourse of almost all the shipping in Christendom.

"And if that our renowned King, (Henry 8th,) your Majesty's father, found how necessary it was to make a haven at Dover, (when Sandwich, Rye, Camber, and others, were good havens, and Calais also was then in his possession,) and yet spared not to bestow, of his treasure, so great a mass, in building that pier, which then secured a probable means to perform the same; how much more is the same now needful, or rather of necessity, (those good havens being extremely decayed,) no safe harbour being left in all the coast almost between Portsmouth and Yarmouth.  Seeing, then, it hath pleased God to give unto this realm such a situation for a port and town, as all Christendom hath not the like, and endowed the same with all commodities by land and sea, that can be wished, to make the harbour allure intercourse, and maintain inhabitants; and that the same once performed, must be advantageous to the revenue, and augment the welfare and riches of the realm in general; and both needful and necessary, as well for the succouring and protecting friends, as annoying and offending enemies, both in war and peace; methinks, there remaineth no other deliberation in this case, but how most sufficiently, and with greatest perfection possible, most speedily the same may be accomplished."

From "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour" by Lt. B Worthington, R.N.,
printed by W. Batcheller, King's Arms Library, Dover, 1838.

It was not until 1583 that work started on a new harbour with a wall nearly half a mile long and a cross-wall to form the Pent.  Work continued on this harbour until the 1590s.

On 6th October 1606, at the request of James I, the harbour was transferred by Royal Charter from the Corporation to a separate and permanent body which eventually became the Dover Harbour Board.  In the preamble to the Charter, the harbour is described as having been for many ages "noted and famous".  It is further stated that "at certain times it had fallen into such decay as any ship could scarcely enter into it", further adding that the Tudor monarchs had expended many thousands of pounds in maintaining and repairing the harbour.


"Whereas our Port of Dover, in our County of Kent, in the Eastern Division, and our Kingdom of England, in times past for many ages, hath been a most noted and famous Port and Harbour, as well for the safe and convenient riding of ships which have put in there, or been outward bound, as also for the most easy, speedy, and convenient passing into France and other foreign ports beyond the seas, not only upon the weighty and necessary affairs of the kingdoms of our ancestors, and our kingdom of England aforesaid, but also for the great benefit and advantage of merchants, and other subjects of the said kingdom: and whereas the said port in certain times passed, by the injury of those times, and also chiefly by the raging of the sea there in a wonderful manner, and by frequent and furious storms, is fallen into such decay as scarce any ship can put in or remain there, without damage or danger of being lost: and whereas, also the late most serene Wueens Elizabeth and Mary, late queens of England, and the most famous King Edward the Sixth, and Henry the Eighth, late Kings of England, our cousins and predecessors, and the most renowned and prudent King Henry the Seventh, late also King of England and our great grandfather (whose true and undoubted heir and successor to all his kingdoms without all controversy we are,) have laid out and expended many thousands of pounds of lawful, &c. for supporting and repairing the said port; and we also do lay out and be at charge in like manner, unless we would suffer the extreme and final ruin of the said port, which would be the greatest damage and loss to this our famous kingdom of England."

From "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour" by Lt. B Worthington, R.N.,
printed by W. Batcheller, King's Arms Library, Dover, 1838.

The Charter vested control in "eleven discreet men", called the Guardian, or Warden, and Assistants of the Harbour of Dover.  These were: the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports during the tenure of his office; the Lieutenant of Dover Castle and the Mayor of Dover, also during the tenure of their office; Sir Francis Fane; Sir George Fane; Sir Thomas Hartflete; Sir John Boys; Sir Edward Boys; Matthew Hadd; Henry Heyman; and William Monyng, Esquires, the last eight being appointed for life or during good behaviour, and their places, when vacated, to be filled by the votes of the majority of the other members of the Commission.

Nothing much was done to improve the harbour further until the Napoleonic Wars, when it became necessary for the harbour to be able to receive larger warships.  Shipbuilding was still an important activity in Dover, by now having been moved to the western end of the beach.


"Its general utility will appear from the following statements, prepared from authentic documents of the vessels which have entered Dover harbour during the last seven years."

1st Jan. 1800,
From 50 to
100 tons
100 to 200
200 to 300
300 to 400
400 to 500
1st Jan. 1801 366 66 2 0 0
1801 to 1802 419 64 12 5 0
1802 to 1803 543 43 5 1 0
1803 to 1804 523 62 13 2 0
1804 to 1805 488 52 7 1 0
1805 to 1806 383 62 30 2 1
1806 to 1807 470 112 29 4 2

"This statement does not include revenue, victualling, or ordnance vessels, H. M. cruisers, or any vessels belonging to Dover."

From "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour" by Lt. B Worthington, R.N.,
printed by W. Batcheller, King's Arms Library, Dover, 1838.

A Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1836 to enquire into the state of the harbour in support of the "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour."


Mr. Fector     Mr. Plumptre
Sir Edward Knatchbull   Mr. Ingham
Mr. Majoribanks   Sir John Rae Reid
Mr. Thomas Baring   Lord Viscount Mahon
Mr. Hume   Mr. Bernal
Sir Charles Adam   Mr. Elphinstone
Mr. Herries   Mr. Robinson
Mr. Robert Steuart    

From "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour" by Lt. B Worthington, R.N.,
printed by W. Batcheller, King's Arms Library, Dover, 1838.

Among others to be called to give evidence before the Committee was Mr. John Iron, the Harbour Master.

MR. JOHN IRON called in, and examined.

[Ques. 424. Chairman.] You are harbour-master of Dover? - I am.
[Ques. 436.] Do you keep a register of the depth of water in the bar daily? - Not at the bar; I keep a register of the depth of water that is in the turn-water.
[Ques. 437.] You mean the north pier? - Yes; I mean the index-board placed against the south pier.
[Ques. 438.] What is the average depth in ordinary neap tides? - About 13 feet; in spring tides about 17 feet 3 inches.
[Ques. 441. Mr. Hume.] Are we to understand that when the index shows 13 feet, a vessel of 13 feet of water can come in? - Not if the bar is across, but in the channel, whichever way the channel may be formed.
[Ques. 442.] Do not the banks of shingle often shift at the mouth? - Decidedly.
[Ques. 443.] In the ordinary state of the harbour, what is the breadth of the channel? - In the ordinary state of the harbour, I should say 100 feet.
[Ques. 444.] In answer to a question, "Can a vessel drawing 13 feet of water come into the harbour when the index in the turn-water shows 13 feet depth," you said, "No; but they could come into the channel."  What is the depth of this channel? - That depends upon circumstances, according to the quantity of beach that is washed round the pier.
[Ques. 445.] Mr. Dundas.] It is an unknown channel? - It changes according to the wind.
[Ques. 448.] Does the state of the wind, easterly or westerly, have any great effect? - The south-west wind makes the bar; the east wind has no effect on it.

From "Proposed Plan for Improving Dover Harbour" by Lt. B Worthington, R.N.,
printed by W. Batcheller, King's Arms Library, Dover, 1838.

It was not until 1841 that plans were produced by the Admiralty for a proposed new harbour with breakwaters enclosing the bay.  These plans were amended in 1844 and 1845 to provide a larger harbour than the previous plans and work began on the Admiralty Pier in 1847. 

HARBOURS OF REFUGE. Among the engineering works now in progress, in the southern half of our island, the formation of harbours of refuge is not the least important.  Numerous as are our ports, harbours, bays, and estuaries, fitted to receive and despatch merchant shipping, there is a deficiency of harbours into which fleets could go to find shelter during a storm, and which would serve as general places of rendezvous for shipping.

Dover is in many respects one of the most important harbours on the coast; chiefly from its proximity to the continent.  Yet it is only a tidal harbour, and has a shallow entrance even when the tide is in.  Many a merchantman would be glad to avoid the perils of the Goodwin Sands by a temporary anchorage in Dover Harbour, if it were better suited as a refuge.  In 1844 a Government Commission was appointed to consider this subject, in relation to the forming of harbours of refuge for merchant ships, and stations for war ships.  The commissioners recommended extensive works at Dover, Portland, Seaford, and Harwich, with this object in view; to be proceeded with in the order here specified if all could not be advanced simultaneously.  The recommendation was adopted, in its main features, by the Government.  The harbour of refuge at Dover is being constructed; there is to be a harbour of 520 acres up ro high water mark, or 380 acres at low water; there is to be an entrance 700 feet wide on the south side, and another 150 feet wide on the east.  The first work will be a pier, running out from the point called Cheeseman's Head into seven fathoms water; it will protect the existing harbour during south-west gales, and will form the first link in the great wall of masonry which will enclose the harbour.  The eastern boundary of the harbour will be far beyond the limits of the present inhabited town of Dover; the harbour will be a mile and a quarter from east to west, and three quarters of a mile from north to south.  The existing contract for a part of the works was taken in July 1847; the works were commenced in October of the same year; in 1848 the masonry was carried out 270 feet from the shore; in 1849 this length was increased to 460 feet; in 1850 the works were proceeding steadily, until a terrific storm on the night of the 7th of October, produced very disastrous results on the masonry and scaffolding.  Much of the subsequent labour has been in repair of this disaster.

From Knight's Cyclopaedia of the Industry of All Nations,
published by Charles Knight, Fleet Street, 1851

The building of the Eastern Arm of the harbour was not commenced until around 1900. 

The harbour as it is today was completed shortly before the Great War, but development continues on new ferry berths and port facilities. 

Unlike many small ports along the South Coast, the Port of Dover has resisted the encroachment of sand and shingle to become a very busy harbour catering for passengers, vehicles and freight as well as pleasure craft and, most recently, cruise liners.

In the past decades, a great deal of change has occurred in the harbour, with the vast expansion of the Eastern Docks, the closure of the Train Ferry Dock, the building of the International Hoverport (now also closed) and the creation of the Cruise Liner Terminal from the Marine Station and part of the Admiralty Pier.  There are proposals to make major changes to the Western Docks, filling in the old inner harbour to provide landward facilities for more new freight berths.  Plans have also been submitted to reclaim a further piece of land from the sea to form a new exit road from the Eastern Docks to improve traffic flow.

The Port has its own police force, with jurisdiction up to a mile from the dock gates (which covers a large part of the town), providing armed patrols in the Eastern Docks.  The influence of the Harbour Board spreads a long way from the Port, as large stretches of the M20 motorway are regularly closed to traffic due to Operation Stack; the coast-bound carriageway becomes a temporary lorry park whenever there are major hold-ups at the port, caused by strikes by French ferry workers or bad weather.  In order to avoid this in the future, the Board is seeking permission to turn a large area of open countryside outside Dover into a permanent lorry park.  There is a lot of opposition to this locally as it is in an area of natural beauty on the North Downs.

Future plans



Much of the information on this page was extracted from: The History of Dover Harbour, by Alec Hasenson,
published by Aurum Special Editions, London, 1980, ISBN 090605317X