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History of Folkestone

History of Folkestone
  • council: Shepway District Council
  • population: 45,273
  • phone code: 01303 (00 44 1303)
  • postcode area: CT18 to CT20
  • county: Kent
  • twin Towns: Etaples, France

Folkestone is a traditional coastal town of character and much charm. Its town centre shopping offers a wide choice for all tastes and pockets, with Debenhams, Boots Wilkinson on its Sandgate Road, with choice now complemented by a new shopping centre Bouverie Place offering fashion with Next; New Look; Peacocks, TK Maxx and Primark amongst others. Combined with a great range of independent shops around the town offering unique items, you will be sure to find just what you are looking for.

There are several town centre based supermarkets, Sainsburys, Asda, Lidl and an Iceland store, all on the route of the main shopping areas and each offering onsite parking. Out of town retail is well supported with additional large food and DIY stores, homes and furnishing specialists and electrical stores.

Not far from the town centre lies Cheriton (in the direction of the M20) offering a unique blend of services, traditional retailers and hospitality venues. If you leave town in the direction of Hythe, you will arrive in Sandgate, quaint and historic with antique and specialist shop owners just waiting to share their expertise with you on your next visit.

Magnificent buildings are all around the town; homage to its seaside resort status from the 1850’s. The Grand and Metropole buildings dominate the famous ‘Leas’. Below the Leas is the wonderful Coastal Park offering play and adventure for youngsters and an Amphitheatre for a summer programme of free entertainment. A great way to access the Leas and coastal park is on the Leas Lift. A wonderful piece of historic transport opened in 1885 and powered by water. It is estimated it has carried at least 50 million people since opening.

The port of Folkestone is no longer operational, and the fishing fleet, like many has reduced over the years. There is a great feel about the harbour area with its ‘Al Fresco’ seafood stalls and historic Old High Street and Tontine Street areas; it is subject to on-going investment in its ‘Creative Quarter’. Artists and crafters with unique shops and studios abound in this unique part of town and it’s worth a regular visit to see what’s happening. Local Artists are developing growing reputations, among them, Shane Record, with his paintings and prints of Folkestone and the surrounding areas.

Food and hospitality are second to none in Folkestone. With award winning restaurants, including ‘Rocksalt’ run by top chef Mark Sergeant, the views from every table showcase the traditional harbour setting and its growing reputation means you will likely have to book well in advance of your visit. The Smokehouse is its sister business, less formal for traditional fish and chips in its modern restaurant setting or just enjoy a takeaway as you stroll along the famous Stade; but mind the ever hungry seagulls in their wish to share your meal! There are many traditional pubs serving home good food and excellent beer! For added choice, there are many great restaurants in the area; Pauls, offering a range of European food and delicious puddings; La Tavernetta serving traditional Italian Cuisine with wonderful hospitality and whole range of venues offering food options from across the world including Indian, Chinese, Thai and Nepalese.

Local entertainment is provided by the Leas Cliff Hall, which has a regular programme of world class acts; the independent Silver Screen Cinema, located above the town hall, and Onyx Nightclub for those who like to party all night long.

Folkestone is actually the closest place in the UK to France, just 23 miles away across the English Channel. Standing on The Leas or other vantage points on a clear day, you can see the towns on the opposite coast and dream that you might be walking down the streets of Calais or Boulogne….but why would you when you have a great range of things to do and see in Folkestone!

A Potted History of Folkestone:

Folkestone has a rich and long history, with evidence of it being populated since prehistoric times. The existence of a Villa from Roman times was also discovered on the East Cliff in 1924. Burial grounds indicate that the Saxons and Jutes were also inhabitants over the centuries and in 635 AD the daughter of the King of Kent ‘Eadbald’ founded a religious house in the Bayle area. Eanswythe was canonized and the Parish Church on the Bayle is dedicated to Saints Mary and Eanswythe.

In Tudor times the town was relatively small with a population of around 500 people. In 1831 this number had grown relatively slowly to just over 3,500. However, in 1843 the town was transformed by the railway from London when the viaduct across the Foord Valley was built (one of the tallest in the UK). The 1851 Census records the population as doubling to nearly 7,000 people. This growth continued and within 50 years of the railway arriving in town, the population grew by over 500%

It was during this time the town received significant growth with buildings such as large hotels as Folkestone grew to a resort town. During the Edwardian era when King Edward himself frequented the town staying at the impressive Grand Hotel, where its magnificent conservatory was nicknamed ‘The Monkey House’ by press of the day who likened the gentlemen in their dark suits and fashionable beards to monkeys at the Zoo! Today, its restaurant is named ‘Keppels’ after one of the King’s more famous female acquaintances (Alice Keppel) whom he regularly entertained in the town.

The first and second world wars brought further challenges to the town. Folkestone was the last patch of England trodden on by the many ‘Tommies’ as they left on troop ships in the harbour to fight in the First World War. ‘Step Short’ is fundraising to commemorate Folkestone’s involvement in the 1914-18 War. Visit their website to find out how you can support. World War Two saw the town suffer from many raids and much destruction being so close to the guns just 23 miles away across the English Channel and an easy journey for fighter planes.

Transport is again the driving force responsible for Folkestone’s future. Eurotunnel with its swift passage to Europe in approx. 30 minutes and the arrival of High Speed 1 train service with regular trains direct to the heart of the capitol in less than 1 hour will increase its attractiveness to live in the town.

Folkestone and District Local History Society are just one of a number of groups with an interest in the town’s history if you wish to find out more.


Folkestone has been fashioned by its strategic location between England and the Continent, the development of communications and the foresight of its residents.


It first came to prominence in Roman times, 2000 years ago. Caesar, who invaded in 55 BC, is said to have built a fortification on an escarpment to the north of the present town, on a road topped hill, formerly an Iron Age fort, known as Caesar's Camp. In 1924 an elaborate Roman villa was excavated on the east cliffs, complete with hypocausts and tessellated pavements; the area was then important for the production of millstones and later for cannon balls, as well as being a strategic location; A Folkestone cannon ball fired into Calais and is now in the precinct.


Agriculture fishing from the beach where the Ford Valley's Pent Stream enters the channel and rag stone working supported the population of about 800. After the Romans left about 1600 years ago, Saxon Kent became its own kingdom and the cradle of Christianity in England. The King of Kent established the first nunnery in England for his daughter, St Eansywthe, who together with St Mary are the Patron Saints of the Parish Church. An itinerant visitor, St Botolph, is said to have formulated the rubric for the Christian calendar which remains in worldwide use today.


After William the conqueror took charge in 1066 he ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book -- a record of all property and occupants -- which showed that Folkestone had an overall area of over 6000 acres, about 600 residents and an annual value of £100. By the 14th century Folkestone had its own charter with several weekly market days, and became a limb of the Cinque Ports with an obligation to provide the King with ships (which in their spare time free lanced as privateers -- in a modern parlance pirates).


After Henry the VIII split with the Church of Rome, he dissolved the nunneries and monasteries in 1535, and locally the buildings were dismantled and the stone used to build Sandgate Castle to guard against an expected invasion from Europe. This nearly came with a Spanish Armada in 1588, but was averted by Sir Francis Drake dispersing the Spanish fleet with fire ships in the Channel within sights of the town.


A famous son of Folkestone, Dr W Harvey, discovered that blood circulated around the body, and became physician to the King nearly 400 years ago; he left the founding bequest for the towns Harvey Grammar School.


The prospect of invasion loomed again 200 years ago when the French Dictator Napoleon was eyeing up the Kent coast from across the channel. Massive fortifications were constructed in the Folkestone Area-- primarily centred on Dover Castle, but with the Martello towers costing over £3000 each dotted along the Channel coastline and fortified canal along the northern edge of New Romney. The whole area became a vast military encampment, and extensive road building was undertaken to ensure good and speedy communication.


After hostilities ceased some of the senior military officers, having discovered the balmy south facing locations nestled in Sandgate’s undercliff, built substantial residences for their retirement, and the notion of it being a salubrious watering hole was born. Mary Shelley, widow of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a friend of Byron and creator of Frankenstein, took up residence in 1830.


Efforts to popularise the rich mineral water – at 350 parts per million some of the richest in the world – with an ornamental ruin were perhaps going too far, but the good health and longevity of the population bears witness to its beneficent effects.


The high taxes extracted to pay for the Napoleonic wars made smuggling an attractive and profitable way of life – repeated again in recent years with white van man and duty frees.


Lord Radnor’s forbears had acquired the Folkestone Estate over 300 years ago; coastal erosion had been a continuing problem (all 5 pre-Norman Churches had fallen into the sea!), but a massive cliff fall in 1784 had formed Folkestone’s under cliff which together with harbour works to protect the remaining cliff behind which supports The Leas, and thereafter has set about developing his estate.


Nathan Rothschild maintained a pigeon loft in Folkestone, and was famed for his advanced intelligence. In 1815 while standing on the quay he was handed a Dutch newspaper reporting the results of the battle of waterloo; he rushed to London, sold government controls ‘short’, the price crashed because it was thought he knew the allies had lost before anyone else, but his agents quietly bought up all they could and when a British victory was promulgated the Rothschild banking fortune was secured. For many years one of the family members lived in a fine mansion on The Leas.


The initial attempts at improving the harbour facilities had been fraught with difficulties, but help was at hand with the arrival of the South Eastern Railway in 1843 spanning the Foord Valley with still the highest brick arched viaduct in the world. This was primarily constructed to give a good connection between London and Paris – initially via Dover – but Sir William Cubitt the building contractor took over the bankrupt harbour for £10,000 and immediately sold it onto the railway company for £18,000, which commenced cross channel services forthwith. Not only did this rejuvenate the harbour activities, but it also resulted in a good fast service to London which enhanced the residential and visitor attraction to the area.


To get from the viaduct to the harbour, however, required a gradient of 1 in 25, and the many steam banking engines used provided a regular spectacle in addition to the myriad sailing ships.


The Lord Radnor of the time commissioned a well-known architect, Sidney Smirke, who had made his reputation designing the British museum, to prepare a layout for the West Cliff Estate with squares and gardens and establish a design specification for the buildings. This was such an astounding success that the population grew from about 4,000 at the time of the arrival of the railway to about 40,000 sixty years later, when the town as we now know it has taken its shape.


Many prominent people became residents; Charles Dickens extolled the virtues of the salubrious climate, the philanthropist and anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce became a weekender in Sandgate, plimsoll the seamen’s friend and scourge of ship owners moved in, J.M.W.Turner painted seascape Folkestone (sold by another resident, Alan Clark, over 20 years ago for a then world record £7.3 million), H.G.Wells had a house designed by the fashionable architect Voysey and another designed by Lutyens. Other literary figures associated with the town included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh and Agatha Christie, and performers such as Robert Morley, David Tomlinson, Hattie Jacques, Michael Bentine, Michael Caine, Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Brough, Peter Bowles, Paul Nicholas and Nigel Havers.


The world’s first pillar box was installed in 1858 opposite the site for Trinity Church, and the first telephone kiosk on the Leas in 1903 opposite The Grand.


A local Architect, Pope, had a brother with a cement works on the East Cliff. The result of which was the earliest concrete houses being built on Marine Crescent in 1872, and the first steel and reinforced concrete building, The Grand, being erected in 1899 through the initiative of Daniel Baker who became mayor of Folkestone.


Nettie Bainbridge was crowned here as the world’s first beauty
Queen in 1911, and John Logie Baird, who had a shop in guildhall street, made the first television transmissions to John Stainer’s shop in Sandgate Road in the 20’s – he another of the towns mayors.


The parliamentary representatives for Folkestone and Hythe have included Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the South Eastern Railway and architect of not only major harbour developments but also the early Channel Tunnel schemes and a fast rail service to London; Sir Philip Sassoon, ADC to Earl Haig of Poppy Fame, Minister for Air in the formative years of aviation with his own airfield; socialite and bon vivant Sir Harry Mackeson, rather partial to his own Hythe brewery product; Sir Albert Costain, another master of concrete, whose firm built the motorway into Folkestone; and lately Michael Howard who was instrumental in putting Folkestone back on the map particularly by soliciting the high speed rail link.


Proximity to the continent was, however, again to take its toll. During the First World War, Folkestone became the main transit camp for troop movements to the front line in northern France, and it is said that there were about 10 million troop embarkations here. However, the image of fashionable Folkestone had taken a pasting, and after the cessation of hostilities with high taxation and the decline in spending power of the well to do the atmosphere became rather more cosmopolitan.


The Second World War had even more cataclysmic consequences. Front line Folkestone took a front line battering, and much of the population, by then 50,000, was evacuated, leaving a rump of about 10,000 for most of the 6 years of hostilities. Churchill and Montgomery (whose brother lived here) came, but Albert Sandler took his Palm Court Orchestra to Eastbourne, never to return.


But worst to come with the departure of the intelligentsia the town took a dive down market, and many of the fine old buildings were demolished, to be replaced by ‘modern’ constructs which in many cases are an assault on the sensibilities of the fashionable people who had formerly made the town their own. Lord Radnor’s carriage drive Cherry Garden Avenue, laid out as the main dual carriageway entrance to the town in 1900 was mostly reduced to a single carriageway. Even major employers such as Pfizer’s were driven out the town clerk at the time, Noel Scragg, maintained that this was the crowning achievement of his career and Kent University was diverted to Canterbury, all in the name of keeping employment costs down for the benefit of the tourist industry but which thereby lost a sizeable chunk of its patronage.


Folkestone had had the highest density of Rolls-Royces in the world per head of population; it even had two of its own R-R coachbuilders, Maltby’s and Martin Walter.


King John made Folkestone his headquarters for his pre 1215 Magna Carta discussions with the Papal Legate, and over the ensuing centuries Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria, Edward VII, Edward VIII and latterly Princess Margaret all stayed here, the last three in The Grand.


The town’s strategic location and idyllic environment is again coming to the rescue aided by its adroit residents. To service the Channel Tunnel not only has the road network been substantially upgraded; 100 years ago the best trains made London in little over the hour (50% faster than lately), but now thanks to our resident recent MP we have trains to the capital in under an hour, and Paris in only about 2!


Our home grown billionaire, the Saga sage Roger De Haan, is refurbishing many buildings in the old town and attracting occupants for his Creative Quarter. Demand for good houses has accelerated, and in its wake is coming the patronage for stylish shops, restaurants and other amenities which should help restore Folkestone to its premier position as the jewel of the south coast.

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