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History of The White Cliffs of Dover

View from the sea of a stretch of The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent, beneath a blue sky
A stretch of The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent | © National Trust Images/John Miller

From housing prisoners in the 19th century to playing a vital role in protecting the country during the Second World War, the history of The White Cliffs is peppered with fascinating stories. Remnants of old industry have also left their mark, with an abandoned tramway and former aerial ropeway living on in the landscape.

The White Cliffs: in the beginning

The chalk cliffs at Dover have one of the most accessible and complete records of the story of chalk formation. The cliffs are made from layers of soft, white, finely grained limestone, which have built up over millions of years.

How are the chalk cliffs formed?

They're formed from tiny planktonic green algae that lived in the ocean. When the algae died, their remains sank to the bottom of the ocean where it combined with the remains of other creatures. Over millions of years, the seabed became exposed and is now above sea level, forming The White Cliffs of Dover you see today.

How do they stay white?

The cliffs only stay white because they're allowed to erode naturally. Where the cliffs are protected from erosion by man-made structures, like in the Port of Dover, plants take over the cliff-face making it appear green when viewed from the sea.

An aerial view of a long stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent with the white cliffs emerging from the sea and topped with green fields
The White Cliffs of Dover | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Langdon convict prison

When the transportation of prisoners to the colonies ended, the employment of convicts became a problem. At the same time, Britain needed a harbour to house its fleet on the south-east coast. In 1883 a Parliamentary Committee recommended that a 520-acre harbour should be built at Dover using convict labour, thus solving both problems. In 1896, after just 11 years, the prison closed its gates - a situation that didn’t please Parliament.

Building begins

Construction progressed quickly, with the site terraced into four levels and bricks brought by horse tramway from the main road. The first parts were completed by April 1885, and the first prisoners arrived in August. Eventually the prison contained a laundry, bath house, bakehouse, infirmary, staff quarters and an exercise area. As it turned out, the convicts never did work on the construction of the harbour, but spent their sentences sewing mailbags.

The prison site today

The Visitor Centre now stands on part of the prison site, where two blocks of cells stood originally - traces of footings are still visible on the seaward side of the site. Just outside the perimeter wall was the governor’s house, where the coach park now is.

Not much remains above ground, but there are some traces to be found towards the back of the parking area. The levelled grass area, reached by going up the steps at the back, may have been a tennis court or croquet lawn.

An unfinished tramway

Earthworks to create a new section of tramway were carried out in 1911-12, designed to extend the existing Dover line to St Margaret’s and Martin Hill. The route was created as a wide, gentle slope to raise the trams from the promenade to the cliff top above. The project was never completed and today the remains of the tramway cutting provides a striking feature halfway between sea-level and the visitor centre.

The aerial ropeway

The aerial ropeway at The White Cliffs of Dover was designed to deliver coal to the nearby port. At the time, railway transport was too slow and too expensive, so an aerial ropeway was built to take coal from Tilmanstone mine to Dover Harbour’s eastern arm. The first part of the ropeway was in use by October 1929 and it continued to be used until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Concrete and brick interior, with a window space, of the Second World War gunnery buildings, near South Foreland Lighthouse, at The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent
Inside the Second World War gunnery buildings, near South Foreland Lighthouse, at The White Cliffs of Dover, Kent | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Fan Bay sound mirrors

Sound mirrors were one of the first early warning detection systems invented to give advanced notice of approaching enemy aircraft. These large, upright concrete dishes worked by focusing the sound from the plane’s engine so it could be heard before it was visible.

There are two mirrors at Fan Bay. The first was constructed in 1917 and is believed to be one of the oldest surviving examples in the country. The second is larger and was built at some point in the 1920s. They were covered up during the 1970s but work to remove the soil and debris, to fully reveal the structures, was completed by a team of staff and volunteers in 2014.

The White Cliffs of Dover at war

During the Second World War, The White Cliffs of Dover were Britain’s frontline. From 1941, large gun batteries were constructed along the coast to attack German ships and enemy forces across the Channel. The three gun batteries of South Foreland, Wanstone and Fan Bay were quickly built and became known collectively as a fortress, with headquarters near the edge of the lighthouse grounds.

Disguise and deceit

In order for the defences to be built, existing houses were demolished and gun pits built in the old gardens bordered with hedges, ponds and fences. Camouflage netting hid the top of the artillery, magazines were disguised as grassy banks and soldiers sprayed creosote during building work to limit aerial visibility.

End of an era

After the D-day landings in 1944, coastal batteries became redundant and once the war ended, most of them were removed. By the end of the war the guns on the White Cliffs had sunk or seriously damaged 29 enemy vessels.

Dereliction and rediscovery

The gun sites were eventually handed back to their owners, mostly either farmers or the local council. In some cases the buildings were simply left for nature to reclaim. Others were partly demolished and the sites backfilled and levelled in an attempt to erase the raw memories of war.

In 2012 the National Trust acquired the land on the cliff tops that included the site of the Fan Bay Deep Shelter tunnels and in 2015 after a huge volunteer and staff effort, the tunnels opened to the public.

The land behind the cliffs, which held the sites of the Fan Bay, D2 Heavy Anti-aircraft and Wanstone Farm batteries was acquired by the Trust in 2017. We're now caring for these places and in July 2022, with the aid of a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant and the generosity of local donors and partners, we started a 3-year project.

We aim to unveil the largely invisible remains of these historic emplacements, that contributed so much to the outcome of the Second World War, so that they can once again tell their story. You can follow the progress of the Wanstone Rediscovered project here.

An aerial view of a long stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent with the white cliffs emerging from the sea and topped with green fields

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