The History of Deal, Kent

The history of Deal is unique in that the town was once a port without a harbour.  Central to Deal’s history is the sheltered anchorage, known as The Downs, which lies between the Deal shoreline and the notorious ‘ship swallower’ the Goodwin Sands, which acts as a breakwater for ships in the channel.  Hundreds of ships could be anchored in The Downs at once, sometimes remaining for weeks at a time. Whilst at anchor, the ships required provisions that were supplied from Deal and the town became a thriving port.

Three Castles and a Duke

By the time of Henry VIII the importance of the Downs made the coastline worthy of protection. There is a Tudor artillery fortress at Deal (constructed 1539–40). Another is close by at Walmer. This evolved into a stately home where the Duke of Wellington stayed in his role as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports until his death at the age of 83 in 1852. The Duke, then Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Wellesley, also lived in Wellesley House in Walmer just before the Peninsula War of 1807. A third castle at nearby Sandown was lost to the sea.

Farrier Street in the Historic Town of Deal
Farrier Street, Deal

A Major Port

Deal gained special status in the 12th century when it was granted a Royal Charter as part of the confederation of five ports (The Cinque Ports). The confederation provided the crown with ships as required in return for exemption from tax and tolls.

Unlike nearby Sandwich, which lost its status due to changes in the coastline, Deal retained its strategic importance. In the eighteenth century the town was still one of the four great ports of England, along with Portsmouth, Rochester and Plymouth.

Smuggling, Hovelling and Heroism

Amongst this maritime activity was extensive smuggling.  Deal’s smuggling activities were so notorious that Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had the town’s Luggers burned on the beach. Smuggling soon resumed however, with the support of at least some of the community. In 1801 smugglers were aided by a local mob who attacked the revenue men when they forced a lugger onto Deal beach.

The author of a Lloyd’s report in 1869 observed: “Deal might have been built for smuggling … The streets run parallel to the beach, and close to it, and are connected by numerous narrow alleys, out of which open doors leading into yards and sheds. The beach extends some miles, and at various parts of it, on the shingle itself, stand roomy wooden sheds, belonging to the boatmen. The cargoes of a whole fleet of ships, once landed on the beach, might be so effectually disposed of in these yards and sheds, in a few hours, that not a trace of them would remain.

The Deal Lugger

The Luggers, which weighed up to 30 tons, were two masted and could be launched from Deal’s steep shingle banks. They were designed and built by skilled craftsmen for speed, strength and seaworthiness, and were the fore runners of the lifeboats.

Operating Luggers was hazardous. In The Last of Our Luggers and the Men who Sailed in Them (1929), E.C. Pain describes the loss of the Deal Lugger Fawn, run down by a steamer in 1864; Topsy, sunk by a French vessel in 1868, Reform, dashed against the pier in 1871, Walmer Castle, which foundered off Ventnor in 1892, and the Earl of Zetland which had the same fate in 1860. Pubs in Deal and Kingsdown respectively were named after the last two boats. Luggers fell out of use with the disappearance of sailing ships from the Downs at the end of the nineteenth century, the last, according to Pain, being the Cosmopolite which finished as a relic on Walmer beach.

There is still an example of a later, smaller, design based on the Lugger on the beach at Deal. The Lady Irene was built in 1906 as a trip boat to take holiday-makers on short trips out to sea.  

Painting boat, Lady Irene historic town of Deal Beach Kent
Lady Irene undergoing maintenance on Deal beach in 2017

Deal’s boatmen used their Luggers for salvage and to rescue shipwreck victims as well as for smuggling, and were known for their fearless seamanship. Accordingly, the boatmen, whose work was known as ‘hovelling’ developed a reputation for both villainy and heroism simultaneously.

In 1858 the Collector of Customs at Deal asserted that ‘this place has long been notorious for the lawless character of persons who flock by hundreds to disasters merely for the sake of plunder.’ However the author of Our Sea Coast Heroes, published in the 1880s, had an entirely different perspective: ‘The race of boatmen now existing at Deal has never been surpassed for those generous qualities which have rendered their forefathers famous…. There is no danger to themselves which they do not habitually incur in their endeavours to save life or property. They are indeed a race of heroes who go forth on their mission of mercy with their lives in their hands.’

You can find a list of Deal Lugger Rescues on the Skardon’s World website.

The Lifeboat Station

Because of the difficulties in reaching ships wrecked on the Goodwin Sands there were several lifeboats stationed along the coast. The Walmer station was established in 1856, followed by North Deal, which closed in the 1930s when Walmer received a motor boat, and Kingsdown. Only Walmer is still operational.

The Walmer lifeboat Charles Dibdin (ON 762) was one of 19 lifeboats which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. She was manned by a naval crew, and no details are known about the trip, but she came back decorated with holes in both sides. Since 1856 Walmer crews have received 28 awards for gallantry.

The Naval Yard and Timeball Tower

Time ball Tower historic town Deal Kent
The Timeball Tower

A naval yard was built in Deal in 1672. This provided for the ships anchored in the Downs. Over time, this grew to several acres in size. It was not a dockyard as Deal offered no dock, so small supply boats were kept at the yard, which remained an important part of the town until it closed in 1864.

Deal has one of only seven surviving timeballs in the UK. The Timeball Tower is four-storeys high and stood at the entrance of the Naval Yard. The ball fell at precisely 1 PM each day, triggered by an electrical signal from the Royal Observatory. This allowed the ships’ marine chronometers to be checked or reset, which was vital for accurate navigation. The tower stands on the site of an earlier Shutter Telegraph and Semaphore station, used for the suppression of Smuggling.

In 1805 news of victory at Trafalgar, where the Royal Navy annihilated the greatest threat to British security for 200 years, and the death of Britain’s greatest war hero, arrived in Deal by schooner. It was subsequently transmitted to the Admiralty in London from the Deal telegraph station.

Nelson visited Deal whilst his fleet was at anchor in the Downs. Nelson Street (in which I rented a cottage in the summer for many years) was named after the Admiral, as were two Lord Nelson pubs (one in Deal and one in Walmer) and two Deal Luggers – the Brave Nelson and the Nelson.

A High Density of Pubs

The history of Deal actually started a mile or so inland from the coast, in an area now known as Upper Deal, where the ancient Parish church of St. Leonard’s stands with its distinctive cupola, once a landmark to shipping. In the seventeenth century development shifted closer to the beach in Lower Deal along the three streets that run parallel to the shore – Beach, Middle Street and Lower Street (now the High Street). There are numerous narrow streets and alleys that cross these three main streets, such as Farrier street in the shot above. These were ideal for taking smuggled goods quickly from boats on the beach down into the town.

At one time these narrow streets also contained a very large number of pubs. At its peak in 1871 the town had 79 Public Houses and 16 Beer Houses for a population of around 8,000 people. The Victorians recorded ‘density indicators’ based on the size of the population and the number of licensed houses. In 1899 Deal’s was 1,057, far higher than nearby Dover (646), Ramsgate (615) or Folkestone (556). See the post The Pubs of Old Deal for more on this subject.

Deal – Garrison Town

Deal was a garrison town for over two hundred years. A cavalry barracks for the 15th Light Dragoons built in 1793 was expanded to accommodate infantry before becoming home to the Royal Marines in 1869 where they remained until 1996. The last unit to leave, preceded by 41 Commando, was the Royal Marines School of Music, which had moved to Deal in 1930. The school relocated to Portsmouth, where it remains today.

In 1989 part of the Royal Marines School of Music was bombed by the IRA resulting in the deaths of 11 musicians, and 22 injuries. There is a memorial bandstand on Walmer Green where concerts are still regularly played in the summer months.

Deal – Mining Town

Coal was first discovered in Kent as part of excavations to build a Channel tunnel in the late 19th century, though the first commercial coal was not mined until 1912. Numerous bore holes were drilled resulting in collieries at Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone. In the late 1920s farmland on the outskirts of Deal at Mill Hill was acquired to build housing for the miners. Mill Hill remained a vibrant mining community until the pits were closed. Betteshanger, where my stepfather worked for 23 years, was the last colliery in Kent to close in 1989, just a year short of the centenary of the discovery of coal in the area.

Boom and Bust

Deal has enjoyed and endured periods of boom and bust over the centuries. It was booming during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars but declined as a port afterwards, leading to William Cobbet’s harsh commentary on the ‘villainous place’ in 1823. The town started to attract more visitors after 1847 when the railway arrived. Charles Dickens attended the celebrations that accompanied the opening of the South East Railway line, of which Deal was the terminus. The town also benefited from the late Victorian growth in seaside holidays, particularly after the 1871 Bank Holiday Act which was accompanied by a rise in disposable income for much of the population.

Boats and Angling

Morning Haze historic town of Deal
Morning Haze on Deal Beach

Deal ceased to be classified as a port in 1881, but became popular for angling. In October 1957, 11,000 anglers attended the first National Angling Festival for 18 years. Events like these continued to be popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the town had several tackle shops for the anglers. There were also had many fishing boats on the beach, some of which were available for charter to fisherman or divers who wanted to explore the wrecks on the Goodwin Sands.

These boats started to disappear as government requirements for licensing and equipment became more stringent and there are few working boats on the beach today. I’ve been photographing boats like FE 371 ‘Denise’, DR 28 ‘Morning Haze’, DR 110 ‘Moss Rose’, DR 181 ‘Fair Port’ and the old Deal Trip boat ‘Lady Irene’ for many years. The letters identify the port of origin and are typically DR for Dover, FE for Folkestone or R for Ramsgate. Some of these (like Denise for example) are potters and and are surrounded by lobster pots. You can find photographs of them in the Deal Gallery

Seaside Town

Today it is a highly rated seaside resort with many boutiques, bars and restaurants. The seafront and the conservation area, centred on Middle Street, are both particularly attractive. See my post on The Many Pleasures of Deal for ideas.

Deal Pier

One of Deal’s most notable seaside attractions is the pier. The first was of wooden construction. This was never completed and was destroyed in a gale in 1857. It it was replaced by an iron pier in 1864 which was severely damaged by a drifting ship which had been hit by a mine in 1940 and demolished in 1943.

The current pier, the last intact leisure pier in Kent, was opened in 1957 and is made of reinforced concrete. It was opened by Prince Philip, who remarked that he had a link with the town due to his involvement in the rescue the pier master. The Pier Master, Captain Arthur Vyvyan Harris, had been in a tanker blown up by a mine in 1943 and the-then Lieutenant Philip had helped him up the scramble nets.

The pier provides an excellent view of Deal seafront, as well as the coast from Thanet in the North to St Margaret’s bay in the South. The pier is internationally recognised as an angling venue and features a glass-walled café-bar at the end of the pier.

More on the History of Deal

If you would like to read more about the history of Deal check out the articles on Deal’s famous residents and visitors, or The Pubs of Old Deal There is also a some historical interest in the article The Other Towns Called Deal.

Beyond the History of Deal – Attractions and Photographs

If you are thinking of visiting, take a look at my post on the top ten attractions the town has to offer – or check out the three black and white photography galleries on this site: Deal Gallery, Deal Gallery 2 and Boats of Deal (film). If you are photographer, Deal Kent Photography Opportunities might give you some ideas.


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2 thoughts on “The History of Deal, Kent

  1. A really very informative read of Deal. As a boy, grew up mainly in Griffin Street, and you could relate to the “smuggling” aspect of the town,again,thankyou for writings

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