A History of Dover

By Tim Lambert

Roman Dover

Dover is the gateway to England. Because of its strategic position, Dover has always been an important port.

In Roman times Dover was an important harbor. The Romans built a stone fort to protect it and a civilian settlement grew up nearby. It was called Dubris. In 1971 a Roman house was found on New Street. The walls of the house had paintings. They are the oldest surviving paintings in Britain.

The Romans also built two lighthouses on either side of the harbor. One, the Pharos, still stands. In Saxon times the Church of St Mary in Castra was built alongside it. The old lighthouse was used as a bell tower.

However, in the 4th century Roman civilization declined and the last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD.

Dover in the Middle Ages

Later in the 5th century, the Saxons founded another settlement at Dover. Then in the 9th century, Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements across his kingdom called burhs. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area could gather in the local burh to fight them. In the 10th century, Dover was made a burh. An earth rampart probably protected it with a wooden palisade on top. But Dover was more than a fortress. It was also a busy little town with weekly markets. In the 10th century, Dover also had a royal mint.

Dover suffered disaster after the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans sacked Dover and then burned it (an easy task when most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs). However, Dover soon recovered from the disaster.

In the later 12th century King Henry II built a stone castle to protect Dover. In 1216 some barons tried to depose King John and they invited a French Prince and his followers to come to England to take the throne. The French laid siege to Dover Castle but they failed to capture it. However, in 1295 the French attacked Dover and burned it.

Despite the attack, Medieval Dover flourished. In 1203 Hubert de Burgh (who later held Dover castle against the French) built the Maison de Dieu (house of God) where poor travelers could stay. In the Middle Ages, people believed their sins would be forgiven if they went on long journeys they called pilgrimages. Many pilgrims came to England through Dover.

Henry VIII closed the Maison de Dieu but in modern times it was used as a town hall and museum.

There was also a priory (small abbey) in Dover. Although it was closed by Henry VIII it lives on the streets named Priory Road, Priory Hill, and Priory Grove.

In the Middle Ages Dover was one of the cinque ports, which were required to provide ships and crews for the king. It was also a busy little port. Many fishermen lived in Dover and merchant ships carried cargoes to and from France.

Dover 1500-1800

Through the centuries Dover continued to be a busy port and in 1583 it was given an enclosed harbor. Shakespeare Cliff is said to get its name because it was mentioned by Shakespeare in his play King Lear.

However, in 1665-66 Dover suffered an outbreak of plague. Nevertheless, it continued to grow. n In the 18th century Dover was known for its shipbuilding and rope-making industries as well as its fishermen. There was also a leather industry in Dover. Meanwhile, in 1778 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Paving Commissioners with powers to pave the streets of Dover and light them (with oil lamps).

In 1793 Britain went to war with France. So in 1794-95, a network of fortifications was created on the heights overlooking Dover. n Crabble Mill was built in 1812 to grind grain to flour. It is now open to the public.

Modern Dover

In the 19th century, the old shipbuilding industry declined but Dover boomed as a cross-channel port. From the 1820s steamships carried passengers across the Channel. In 1861 Dover was connected to London by rail, which made it easier for travelers to reach the town. The first car ferry from Dover began in 1928. A train ferry began in 1936. From 1968 Dover was connected to France by hovercraft.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty Pier was built in the mid-19th century. The Prince of Wales opened at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 19th century, there were several improvements to Dover. From 1822 Dover was lit by gas and in the 1850s sewers were dug. Dover Hospital opened in 1850. Between 1897 and 1936 electric trams ran in the streets of Dover but they were eventually replaced by buses.

Dover Museum was founded in 1836.

In 1875, Captain Webb became the first person to swim the Channel from Dover to France and on 25 July 1909, Louis Bleriot (1872-1936) flew from northern France and landed at Northall Meadow by Dover Castle.

During World War II Dover was bombed. It was also possible for the Germans to fire shells from France. In all 216 civilians were killed. Meanwhile, trawlers were converted to minesweepers. They ‘swept’ part of the Channel and were known as the Dover patrol.

Charlton Shopping Centre was built in 1981. Today Dover continues to be a thriving port.

In 2023 the population of Dover was 36,000.

The White cliffs of Dover