Guest Post by BK
Just like Ancient Rome, Herne Bay was created by two young men. As a founding myth put it:
‘Early in 1830 two capitalists drove to Herne Bay for a ride. They were struck with the unwrought condition and the deathlike inactivity of everywhere around them and on the other hand with the capabilities presenting themselves at every step. Here might a town, full and complete, be raised.’
One of these men was George Burge an engineer who had worked with Thomas Telford. He had visited Southend,on the other side of the Thames Estuary, and been impressed by the prosperity that its new pier had brought to the town. Attracting a stream of visitors travelling down from London on steam boats. He was looking for a similar site on the Kent side. Herne Bay seemed ideal because it had a low-lying coast line and was close to London via the Thames and not marshland, occupied by industry or the military.
Herne Bay was ideal because, as quoted above, there was very little there. In fact there wasn’t even a Herne Bay. The coastal area was an outpost of the inland village of Herne and had just had a few cottages where fishing and smuggling were the main industries.
Burge and local entrepreneur Sir Henry Oxendon began buying up all the local land and planning what could be described as Britain’s first specially created seaside resort which they called Herne Bay; although if you look at the coastline, there is not really much sign of any bay. Burge and his assistant Thomas Rhodes set about building the pier which was central to their plans. Unfortunately, Rhodes was a carpenter and so built the ¾ mile long pier out of wood.
By 1835 everything seemed to be going to plan: 30,000 visitors disembarked at the pier. Three hotels, grand houses, baths, assembly and billiard rooms had been constructed. Herne Bay had :
‘Accomodations equal to the best houses in town, or those of the most fashionable resort. First rate cookery, excellent wines, elegant apartments and the charges fair.’
However, a darker side was also beginning to emerge. In 1834, 28 people were reported to have died in an outbreak of cholera. Local reports were quickly suppressed. Two local surgeons wrote to The Kentish Gazette.
‘Sir. Alarming, malicious and false reports have been circulating relative to the ravages of cholera in Herne Bay. We beg leave to inform you that there is no such disease at present existing in this place and that the neighbourhood is now in its usual healthy state.’
However, the rumours did not go away and in 1835 a visitor reported.
‘Herne Bay and The Ague are now synonymous terms. The town, if it may be so called, lays very low, hence its tendency to produce ague. For children it is very unhealthy.
Ague was a type of mosquito-borne malaria. The report refers to the fact the Plenty Brook which runs through the town was very sluggish and so prone to harbour insects. A result of the low coastal strip that had attracted Burge in the first place.
The authorities tried to brush off this bad publicity and in 1837 the town had its first royal visitor, The Duke Of Cambridge, who disembarked and took tea at the Pier Hotel. After the visit it became known as The Royal Pier Hotel until it was demolished in 1968.
Herne Bay maintained its popularity despite the health scares and in 1842 41,000 people arrived at the pier. What “did for” Herne Bay was the arrival, or non-arrival, of the railways.
Before 1840 the only way for an ordinary Londoner to enjoy the healthy air of the seaside was to take the steam boat to one of the resorts on the Thames Estuary in Kent or Essex. It was impossible to visit the English Channel beaches in any reasonable time. The railways changed all that. Brighton opened a station in 1841, St Leonard’s in 1845, Eastbourne in 1849. All along the South Coast there was a huge growth in tourism and of local populations. However, anybody wanting to take the train to Herne Bay had to change at Canterbury and then get on a horse-drawn tram along the muddy road to their destination.
The change in leisure fashions hit Herne Bay hard. A 1850’s report mentioned ‘long lines of streets, many still unfinished, stretching out in every direction’. The problems caused by the low-lying river continued and further outbreaks of cholera and fever were reported. A report by the local Guardians stated that the drains and dwellings were in a filthy condition and that pig styes and dung heaps were a perpetual nuisance. Not what you want in a holiday destination.
The Pier, being made from wood, gradually rotted away and was declared unsafe in 1862. Steam boat traffic stopped. Some relief was provided when a railway branch line from Faversham opened 1861, but a direct line from London was not available until 1863. The line then ran on to Margate which had similar troubles.
Herne Bay never recovered its premier seaside status but soldiered on as a sort of second division resort; but unfortunately it never stopped being a figure of fun. The Leisure Hour’ magazine said:
‘It is coachless, cabless, busless, horseless, assless, and with the exception of an isolated, invalided poodle, dogless.’
And The Illustrated London News:
‘Herne Bay is not popular. It’s founders attempted too much and failed. Ridicule has done its utmost to deter people from visiting it.’