Places to visit | Ferry services & on-line timetables


Channel ferries & ferry ports

From paddle steamers to superferries
Early 19th century paddle-steamers were a big advance! They appeared in an age when travel was slow, expensive and often dangerous. Most people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born - except for occasional journeys to their local market town. Only the rich could take holidays: in past centuries, when ordinary people travelled abroad, it was as soldiers, sailors, or pilgrims.

Crossing the channel by sailing ship
Crossing the channel by sailing ship was at the mercy of tides and weather. Until the late 19th century, landing was often a problem - harbours on both sides were rather shallow and not well protected against storms.

Ships often had to wait offshore at Dover or Calais until the tide was high enough to enter the harbour - or else cross to the beach in a small rowing boat.

Travel to the coast was equally perilous. On an 18th century horse-drawn stagecoach, you could travel from Paris to Calais or Dover to London within a long, dusty day - highwaymen and the state of the roads permitting.

Dover beach early 19th century
If your ferry could not enter the harbour, hard-faced local boatmen in Dover (and Calais) charged more to row you ashore with your luggage than you paid to cross the Channel!

In 1820 the French government bought a pioneer Glasgow-built paddle-steamer, the "Rob Roy", to carry the mails from Calais to Dover. It proved fast and reliable in the open sea, and in 1822, a Dover company used two paddle steamers to carry the English Post Office's mail and passengers across the channel. All were tiny boats by the standard of today's ferries - with wooden hulls, 30-odd hp engines, about 100tons, 15ft wide, 80+ft long. Being small, the ships tossed about in waves; seasick passengers travelled on deck with little shelter

Railway rivalries: Boulogne vs Calais
In the 1840s the building of long distance railways brought more passengers to the channel ports. Boulogne began a long rivalry with Calais to develop the ferry trade.

The South Eastern Railway company developed Boulogne-Folkestone route as an alternative to Calais-Dover, because of difficulties with Dover harbour. They were able to buy and improve the neighbouring port of Folkestone, from where they operated a fleet of steamships with connecting train-ship-train services between London and Paris, aimed at wealthy travellers.

South Eastern Hotel Dover 1850
Dover Harbour: when the London-Dover railway opened in 1844, the railway company built a grand hotel for posh travellers to wait in comfort for the next paddle steamer.

19th century progress: better ships
Entering Dover Harbour c.1840    Paddle steamer off Dover
1. Dover Harbour: ferries still had to wait for high tide to come in and out, so could not keep to regular timetables. Navigating the entrance was tricky in rough seas.
2. "The Last of England" (painting by Ford Maddox Brown 1852-5): Travellers dreaded a rough passage, with seasickness and fear of shipwreck.
In the1850s most ships were still powered by sail - paddle steamers also kept masts and sails in case the engine broke down. Small steam ferries could make a fast crossing whatever the wind direction - but were tossed around on the waves.

19th century progress: better harbours
During the second half of the 19th century, better deep-water harbours began to be built on both sides of the channel.

The Admiralty Pier was Dover's first deep-water berth. From 1850, ferries could land their passengers at any state of the tide, without having to pass the shallow inner harbour entrance - a revolution!

A Naval harbour at Dover
In 1895 after decades of deliberation, the Admiralty decided it would be useful to build a large deep-water anchorage and naval base at Dover, to help defence of the South east coast. By the time the new harbour was completed in 1909, torpedoes and longer range guns had been developed; Dover was considered too vulnerable and too near the Continent to risk basing the expensive Grand Fleet of massive new "Dreadnought" battleships there.

The hugely expensive outer harbour became a "free gift" to the ferry companies, at the Navy's expense.

A huge naval harbour - and "harbour of refuge" was built for the Navy at Dover before the First World War

First car ferries
The traditional cross-channel traveller had always been a foot passenger, arriving at the port by first horse-drawn stage-coach, then steam-train - and embarking on the ferry with all their luggage.

With the growing popularity of motoring, Captain Townsend bought and converted an old minesweeper to cater for the new market of people who wanted to take their car with them on a Continental motoring holiday . Like other cross-channel travel, most of the demand was from the UK side.

Cars were loaded onto the Dover-Calais car ferry by crane: 6,000 in the first year, rising to 31,000 in 1939 before the Second World War interupted services.

After the war, new "drive on" ferry terminals were built in Dover and Calais. Opened in 1953,they had moveable loading bridges, so cars could drive on whatever the state of the tide.

Train Ferry
In 1936, the Southern Railway company and the new SNCF invested in new train ferry docks at Dover and Dunkerque. These ships had rails on the cargo deck to carry railway carriages and wagons. At each end, the ship ran into a dock where the water level could be adjusted so that the trains could run off the ship onto the tracks. The luxury "Night Ferry" train had through coaches between London and Paris on this route, whilst the famous daytime "Golden Arrow" used the Dover-calais route, with separate trains either side of the channel - its rich passengers had a brief walk on and off the SS Canterbury (later SS Invicta), which was specially furnished for their benefit *.

* Thanks to John A Stedman

In 1959, a one-man hovercraft successfully crossed the channel, landing on the beach inside Dover harbour. This experimental British invention promised to revolutionise cross-channel travel - offering a speedy crossing without the huge initial investment in building a tunnel which would be required for high-speed trains.

The craft were successfully scaled up so they could carry hundreds of passengers and cars - though they could not cope with rough weather. "Hoverpads" were built at Calais, Boulogne, Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate, and in Dover harbour. British Rail, SNCF, and Hoverspeed a private company all competed to develop the new craft.

Unfortunately, they were made less economic by the rise in fuel prices in the 1970's, because they used fuel heavily just to stay up as well as to move. The last services were withdrawn in 2000.

The Channel Tunnel
Schemes were talked about as early as the 18th century, and serious construction work started on both sides in 1881 - only to be halted by political rather than engineering difficulties. Work re-commenced in earnest a century later in the 1980s, and the Channel Tunnel was finally opened in 1994. The train ferry was ended at this time.

Places to visit:
Transmanche Museum, Cap Blanc-Nez

Related background information
How the Channel was formed
Railways -
Channel Tunnel
Pioneer crossings - first successful channel crossings by novel means...




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