Feb 14

A Short History of Herne Bay

A Short History of Herne Bay

Until the end of the 18th Century, Herne Bay was no more than a scattering of cottages and inns, and the only people living here were fisherman, smugglers and a few agricultural labourers. There wasn’t even a proper road to the coast from Herne or Canterbury until it came under the control of the Turnpike Trust at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The first substantial houses in town were built about 1820 and still stand at the Kings Hall end of Marine Terrace.  The increasing popularity of sea bathing at nearby resorts like Margate soon spread to Herne Bay and it began to grow.   This is how Pigot’s Directory of 1826 described the town: It has latterly obtained some notice as a place of resort for bathing; the water is clear, and the sea view extremely pleasing; the buildings are good, and increasing in number, while the air of tranquility that pervades this spot, makes it preferred by many, to the gay and more tumultuous watering places

From 1825-29 only nine new buildings were erected in Herne Bay, but there were 85 in the next four years, including the town’s two Regency style seafront terraces, the Dolphin Hotel and Christ Church.  This rapid development was due to the construction of Herne Bay’s first pier, which changed the town’s fortune and was the inspiration of London entrepreneur George Burge.  Burge had recently worked with the great engineer Thomas Telford on the construction of St Katherine’s Dock and persuaded him to design a pier at Herne Bay.  Telford was President of the Institute of Civil Engineers and a well known figure.  But he was now 72 years old.  Although his name has forever been associated with Herne Bay, it is almost certain that the town’s first pier was actually designed by his chief assistant, Thomas Rhodes.   Whereas Telford always worked in iron, Rhodes was a carpenter and he made the fatal decision to build the Herne Bay pier from wood


Burge had no difficulty in raising the £50,000 for the pier’s construction. The first pile was driven on 4 July 1831 and, less than a year later, on 12 May 1832, the first passenger steamer, The Venus, docked at the pier head..  At the same time Burge began buying land and, with local landowner Sir Henry Oxenden, he became involved in planning the town’s development.  Ambitious designs were drawn for the new town by local builder Samuel Hacker, including a series of elegant squares and a wide Promenade running parallel to the sea which for many years would be viewed as one of Herne Bay’s major attractions. In 1837, Mrs Ann Thwaytes, a wealthy Londoner, donated £4,000 to build a 75 foot tall clock tower on Herne Bay’s seafront, designed by Edwin Dangerfield.  It is claimed this was the first freestanding, purpose built, clock tower in the world.

The pier brought passengers and prosperity to the town and it grew rapidly in size and population.  But the decision to build in wood not iron was already proving to be a mistake. After only seven years the whole structure was in danger and urgent repairs were needed. The pier had become a victim of the devastating effects of the Teredo Navalis worm eating through the wood, which had never been properly protected. The solution was costly and time consuming and involved driving nails into every one of the inner and outer piles. But the greatest threat to the pier’s future came from a different direction. In 1861 the railway arrived in Herne Bay and the steamers bringing travellers from London to the end of the pier emptied. In 1862 steamer services from London stopped entirely and the Pier closed. It was finally demolished in 1870 and the useful remains sold for scrap.  There were mixed feelings in the town about a replacement, but eventually a very modest structure with built with a small bandstand at the end.   In 1883 an Act of Parliament established Herne and Herne Bay as separate towns and in 1884 a new theatre opened at the pier approach and three years later the formal gardens were laid out to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

The end of Queen Victoria’s reign saw the town still prospering as a holiday resort and between 1881 and 1901 the population almost doubled, from 4400 to 8400. At the turn of the century the popular nickname for the town was ‘Baby Bay’ because so many nursemaids and children spent time here, enjoying the warm weather and healthy climate for which the town was famous.  Until the data collection system was changed in the mid 2000s, Herne Bay frequently recorded the most sunshine in the UK.  But throughout these years discussions continued about building a new long pier. In 1892 visits by shallow draft steamers began as an experiment to see how popular a new service would be and by 1895 ambitious plans were underway for a new deep-water pier capable of handling regular steamers. Work on the new structure (this time made of iron) began in 1896.  When it was finished this would be the second longest pier in the country, running 3,787 feet (1147m) out to sea and requiring a small railway to carry the passengers and their luggage to shore.


In 1910 a pavilion was constructed on the landward end of the pier, and became the home of Herne Bay’s internationally renowned roller hockey teams. The first cinema was opened in the High Street in 1912 (now Briggsy’s Antique Emporium) and the Edwardian style King’s Hall, was opened in 1913 to host concerts and dances.  The First World War saw the temporary suspension of steamer services, entertainments and the tramcars being used as shelters. The wooden theatre at the entrance to the Pier was destroyed by fire in 1928 and not rebuilt.  During World War II the pier pavilion was used as a factory producing camouflage nets and as a precaution against the German invasion, two sections of the pier were removed completely in 1940.  The famous bouncing bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis, were tested off the coast of Herne Bay in 1942 and a statue to his memory now stands on the downs.

The post war years saw a change in Herne Bay’s fortunes.  In 1953, along with most of the east coast of Britain, the town took a terrible battering and all the seafront properties were flooded.  Ten years later, in the winter of 1963, the sea froze.  Regular steamer services stopped later that year and the pier was declared unsafe and closed in 1968.  Two years later, the Grand Pavilion was destroyed by fire and was replaced by a new sport and leisure centre, opened by Sir Edward Heath in 1976.  This building was demolished in 2011 and the pier platform is presently being used for community events.

The past six years have seen a revival of the British seaside holiday and Herne Bay is starting to prosper again.  The Herne Bay Cultural Trail was created in 2008 with a grant from the National Lottery and three new art galleries have opened in town in the past 18 months, proof of the thriving community of artists now living and working in the Bay.  Unlike many other coastal towns, Herne Bay’s economy continues to grow, and the town is particularly proud of the number of independent retailers and craftsmen and women who have recently set up business here.