Whitstable Origins - A Cautionary Tale
Napoleon reputedly said “What is history but a fable agreed upon……” . So it is with both Whitstable’s name and origins. We do not have available any clear evidence of how either came to be so we are reliant upon forming an opinion based on whatever others in the past cared to write – Napoleon’s ‘fable’.
Whitstable - The Name
Problems of Language & Pronunciation
In considering past names, it should be realised that few people could write. Those that could often recorded words as heard. Furthermore, the English language was not formalised until 1830. Local pronunciation of the five vowels of the English language was sometimes quite different to that of the 20th century. For example, the vowel ‘a’ could be pronounced as ‘e’ as in egg.... or both ‘a’ and ‘o’ individually pronounced as ‘e’ as in her.... or ‘i’ pronounced as ‘e’ as in he. The Schools Act of about 1830, providing education for the masses, gradually ensured the reasonably consistent pronunciation of the vowels we enjoyed in the 20th century.
To date, the earliest known spelling as ‘Whitstable’ was recorded in 1610. It would appear that modern historians, chroniclers and other recordists of the 19th & 20th centuries have used that spelling as an easy reference back to times beyond 1610. That practice has led to confusion as their works can be read as though that is how the name was spelt prior to that year. It also appears as though the same practice has been applied when referring to the general area between Seasalter and Swalecliffe - thus inferring that the modern town of Whitstable existed much earlier than in fact it did.
In the following, I use ‘Whitstable’ as a general term of reference to identify the location and town known to readers.
There does not appear to have been a specific area defined as ‘Whitstable’ until King Alfred ‘The Great’ reputedly introduced the defining of a specific area as a ‘Hundred’. (Note: There is some support for Hundreds being established before Alfred.).
A Hundred is said to be the area occupied by or able to support 100 families. However that does not necessarily mean the area is in one contiguous lot contained within a single boundary. Due to the nature of some areas, a separate parcel or parcels of land may have been included to provide a specific need. An example of that may have been an area for the summer grazing of stock if suitable land was not available within the main Hundred itself.
The Hundred which contained the location of present day Whitstable was known in Saxon times as Witenstaple Hundred. Some historians record Witenstaple as Witanstaple. Some as Witenestaple.
The boundary of this Hundred is not clearly recorded but it is generally accepted to have been that shown by the two green areas designated as Whitstable and Westgate in the map below (derived from a map of 1646).
Note: For reference, the boundary of present day Whitstable is shown as a white line. At some time between the original establishment of Witenstaple Hundred and about 1610, part of Witenstaple Hundred was annexed as Westgate Hundred shown in bright green.
Neighbouring Witenstaple Hundred to the west was Bocton under Blean Hundred, with Feversham Hundred in the South west corner. (Bocton is now known as Boughton, and Feversham as Faversham). To the east, was Bleangate Hundred. South of the River Stour, Dredge and Pethan Hundred (containing Canterbury) sealed off the southern border of Witenstaple Hundred.
Old maps show that the eastern border of Witenstaple Hundred appears to have followed The Burnan (today’s Swalecliffe Brook) to Bogshole valley then south across the valley into Clowes Wood before turning slightly east of south to pass St.Stephens church meeting the River Stour between Canterbury and Sturrey. Following the Stour south east through Thanington, the border appears to turn North away from the Stour about Chartham to Harbledown then back to the coast.
Manors and Boroughs
Hundreds contained a number of boroughs and manors. Witenstaple Hundred included Seasalter and Swaleciffe manors. Boroughs were an area considered convenient in size and population for the administration of levies and taxes. A Borough may include a number of Manors - although a Manor may have land in more than one Borough.
Manors were not clearly defined as an area of land being assigned to a Manorial title. The lands of Manors may vary in area and richness compared to other Manorial titles. A Manor may hold several parcels of land in separate boroughs.
Origins and Evolution of the Name
To this point, we have introduced the area, The Hundred which would eventually give its name and home to the present day town of Whitstable. The true origin of the name "Whitstable" evolving from the name of The Hundred is obscure - there being several plausible explanations offered by various sources. Consider the following possibilities....
- Old English for "White Post” - from Early English ‘hwitan stapole’ meaning white pillar or post.
- The name derives from "the meeting place of the White Post" (commonly used as a land or sea mark at the time of its inception).
- The Saxons gave the Hundred the name of Witenstaple which has been translated as "an assembly of wise men in the market".
- In recent years, (the middle decades of the 20th century), it has been suggested that the French word for oyster ("Huitre") evolved to “Whit” and the Saxon word "Staple" (meaning market) evolved to “stable” - hence, an ‘oyster market’ and the origin of the name Whitstable. However, this would be an unlikely source of ‘Witenstaple’ and there does not appear to have been an ‘oyster market’ as such identified at Whitstable in such early times.
- The latest theory considers ‘Whit’ to be derived from Old English hwit or white - the consideration being the collection of salt and the many salt works around the area would have given the terrain a white appearance. The second part of the name ‘staple’ is consistent with the Saxon ‘staple’ or market as above
It is known that the name Witenstaple was recorded in Saxon times (circa 7th & 8th centuries) which evolved into Witstapel according to 1184 sources, and Whitstapl by 1226.
- Witenstaple (until 1086)
- Witstapel (1184)
- Whitstapl' (1226)
- Whitstable (1610)
Records from 1610 make reference to the modern spelling, "Whitstable". It may have been used earlier or the modern spelling may have been used during translations of earlier works. On the other hand, there were still references to Whitstapel in the early half of the 1800s.
Despite this, development of the name can be summarised broadly as shown on the left.
The Domesday Book makes no reference to a specific village or town called Whitstable in any form of the name. However, when considering the most likely origin of the name, the development of the town at its present site should not be allowed to divert attention from the fact that, in reality, it is the origin of the name of the long established Hundred of ‘Whitstable’ which we are trying to resolve.
So, what is the most likely origin ? Consider several factors:
- The shoreline in Roman times was much closer to the Isle of Sheppey and generally considered to have been along the line typically indicated on modern maps as the south bank of the River Swale where it passes the island on its way into the Thames Estuary.
Consider the high ground around All Saints Church in relation to the likely route of early shipping navigating from the English Channel to the principle port towns from Faversham then east along the Thames.
From around 60AD until late medieval times, Faversham had a higher trade ranking than London - making an inshore course along the southern flank of Sheppey a popular route. (Not until the 1600s would London surpass Faversham and the lower Thames ports.)
The high ground of the All Saints area is the last such elevation before the shallow waters and flat marshlands stretching to the East past Faversham to the port towns of the Thames. Such high ground would be a logical place for some form of navigation marker in early times - the white pillar or post. But, consider the distance from that post to any passing shipping - about two miles in early times.
It can be difficult to apply the interpretation of the Saxon Witenstaple, as "an assembly of wise men in the market" to any location within the Whitstable Hundred. One has to ask “What market?”
The ‘best fit’ location would appear to be the Church Street hamlet about All Saints Church - also understood to be the location of the ‘hwitan stapole’ our white navigation marker.
Conceivably there was some market activity at the Church Street settlement and, as both the early English ‘hwitan stapole’ and Saxon ‘Witenstaple’ are so close in pronunciation, the Saxons may have simply accepted the early English name as their ‘assembly of wise men in the market’.
However, we should not overlook recent theory linking early language forms of ‘white’ and ‘salt’. Many historians have noted the value of salt, (particularly in Roman times) over the years into the age of refrigeration.
The name of Seasalter is said to derive from the collection of salt from the sea. Certainly historians have recorded the collection of salt there in past times.
In her book ‘The North Woods’, Flavia Taylor comments on the processing and collection of salt from Seasalter eastwards along the shoreline. The shipment of salt by sea from that area would logically be from a single location. It has been reported that salt was perhaps purchased at such a location for transportation to inland markets as well.
Flavia Taylor suggests such a market and ‘port’ area would have taken on a white appearance (from the salt) and, thus, the two terms ‘hwit’ and ‘staple’ come together.
Considering where the ancient shoreline was, then that appears to be the most logical explanation. As sea encroachment pushed the shoreline south, there would still be such a ‘port’ so the name could easily follow.
Prior to the known tidal surge of 1287 establishing the approximate present shoreline, the site of Church Street hamlet was approximately 1½ to 2 miles from the northern shore and about 6 miles from the southern boundary of the Hundred. Therefore, it is unlikely that points 1. and 2. would be relevant. In "pre telescope" Saxon times, a navigation mark at Church Street hamlet, in the form of a white post, would not be eminently visible for year round navigation purposes.
Whitstable - The Place
No more than a Swamp
In Roman times, the actual site (ie the low lying area of present day Whitstable town) was no more than treed swamp land - in some parts into the late 1700s and, in places, open swampy land into the early 1800s.
The Shoreline - A Changing Boundary
During the period from Roman times to a 1287 tidal surge, the shoreline
receded to about where it is today - the old shoreline now being about 2½
fathoms underwater. (Refer to the map of local parishes below).
Precisely when or at what rate this happened is unknown but the initial cause is assigned to the English Channel being formed by the tilting of what became the British Isles. That process started in pre history times and continued over the centuries at a seemingly varying rate.
The tidal surge in 1287 can be considered to be the final singular event to approximately establish the present shoreline - not ignoring the necessity of the coastal erosion defence that has since defined a man made shoreline.
Those attempts at erosion defence plus reclamation have probably obscured where the coastline was immediately after 1287. The perceived natural shoreline around the Seasalter Level after 1287 is shown by a white line on the map to the left. From about Codham’s Corner, it then extended eastward, around the southern edge of The Salts and along the line of today’s main street to about the Horsebridge.
The white line shows the shoreline immediately after 1287. Today, both "The Salts" and "Seasalter Level" are "reclaimed" areas. The Seasalter Level remains undeveloped farmland on the outskirts of modern Whitstable. "The Salts" provide a home to Seasalter Golf Course and Cornwallis Circle in the heart of the town.
The Surrounding Settlements
To understand the development of ‘Whitstable - The Place’, it is beneficial to have some awareness of what surrounded the area in times past. The above mentioned swamplands were within an area bounded by Blean Woods to the south, the settlements of Seasalter to the west, Swalecliffe to the east and, on the banks of the Swale to the North, several possibly transient and seemingly nameless clusters of fisherfolk dwellings. One of these clusters may have been the, as yet, unidentified ‘landing place’ called Le Craston - later known as Graystone and referred to as late as about 1830.
Those Un-Named Northern Clusters
The likely (but not known) locations of the clusters would be....
- the now shallow areas of The Spit about ¾ mile off the Isle of Sheppey’s Shell Ness or 2 miles true North of The Sportsman Inn
- off the end of The Street about 1¾ miles off today’s shoreline
- and finally about ¾ mile offshore in Swalecliffe’s Long Rock area
A fourth may have been the shallow area off The Pollard. The four locations are circled in the map below.
In considering the locations of the clusters, a number of points are worth considering (Note: I have used the present day spellings for Seasalter and Swalecliffe):-
If Seasalter Road is projected from Seasalter Cross seaward beyond the Blue Anchor pub, the line will intersect The Spit. In doing so, it will pass over the perceived site of the original Seasalter Church of St. Alphege considered to be about 100 yards or so off the shoreline. The remains of this church were last uncovered by a severe storm in 1799 but again lost to sight not long afterwards.
The road would then pass over a shallow area off The Pollard where vessels are known to have unloaded cargo. A timber landing stage was in use there well into the 1800s. These factors support but do not prove The Spit to be a likely landing/dwelling place before the shoreline receded. Certainly it would have been a suitable landing place for goods destined for Canterbury. It is known that an ancient trackway carried goods from Seasalter to Canterbury.
- It is also known that an ancient trackway led from Swalecliffe to Canterbury conveniently aligned with the broad Long Rocks area. This hard rock bed is known to have been exposed further out to sea from prehistoric to more recent times. There is evidence supporting an ancient landing place serving Canterbury perhaps about ¾ mile offshore - the intervening rock being covered with London clay during the inundation. Popular opinion gives equal support to either this or a location off The Street as being the site of the landing place called Le Craston.
The seaward end of The Street has long been a popular choice as an ancient landing place. Local lore long had The Street as the remains of a Roman road. Some ‘experts’ have pointed out that would have been impractical due to the relatively steep Tankerton cliff or slopes. However, that argument conveniently overlooks the many similar ‘roadways’ around Britain’s coast which thoughtfully follow the shoreline around to more level ground.
Others argue that The Street ‘moves’ several feet either east or west over time. True as that is today, that argument overlooks the factor of inundation. The Street would have been above the influence of sea and tides for some distance seawards and its usage by ancient horse drawn vehicles may not have dictated a permanent paved surface anyway. Prior to inundation, the higher Street and correspondingly wider shore area may well have supported a seaward landing place. Fishermen reported large concrete blocks off the end of The Street during periods of exceptionally low tides - thus supporting the existence of a landing place.
Others have claimed that it couldn’t be so - those blocks being natural rock. There is plenty of evidence throughout the World of man moving large rocks to suit his purpose. The 1800s reference to Le Craston indicates a landing place of that name still existed. Given the receding shoreline it would seem as though that old landing place had followed it.
Apart from the landing platform off Seasalter and the Horsebridge, the only other known landing places around 1800 were the loading quays of the Copperas works – at the base of Tankerton slopes! The copperas works closed down about 1830. Le Craston could have been established towards the end of ‘The Street’- perhaps re established several times as the shoreline receded and its final demise coinciding with the eventual removal of the Copperas quays.
Until marine archaeologists are attracted to undertaking an extensive survey of the above areas, the truth about those reported landing or even dwelling places may not be known.
That is a summary of the likely small northern settlements. However none have, so far, been named or identified as such. Like Seasalter, Swalecliffe, Church Street and southern settlements, the clusters surrounded the eventual site of Whitstable town as shown in the map below.
Seasalter ("Sea Salter" on maps until the mid/late 1800s) has long been accepted as a well established parish with known boundaries back into Roman times - although only ever accepted as a loose collection of dwellings along the line from above Seasalter Church through Codham’s Corner (which later became known as Granny Hart's Corner and, in 1756, Blue Anchor Corner).
The name Seasalter is said to be derived from the Saxon ‘sealterna steallas’ or ‘salt house by the sea’. It is also said to be Old English for "Salt Works on the Sea". Spelt as Sesaltre in the Domesday Book, it was later recorded as Sesalterstrete, thence Seasalter Street, Sea Salter and finally Seasalter.
For the purpose of defining ‘Whitstable - The Place’, it is worth outlining at least the eastern boundary of Seasalter Parish. Local boundaries are confusing as frequently old manorial, parish and later Registration boundaries share common lines between some points. As maps only show one type of boundary in those areas, some seemingly disappear.
In terms of local features known today, the boundary of Seasalter Parish started about the landing place known as The Horsebridge, followed along the line of Middle Wall turning eastwards through Evelings or Hayes Alley, along High Street, eastwards around the St.Alphege church and Endowed schools sites (including the Oxford St Boys School). It then veered northwestwards around the site of the present day War Memorial to Nelson Road and proceeded Westward along Westcliff. Here, it continued to a point known as The Cross where an old path led from Joy Lane to Lower Island (an extension of the island of Island Wall see below).
The boundary followed that path southwards (and therefore inland) to Joy Lane where we lose interest in it for our present purpose. However, it is interesting to know that Seasalter boundary, after looping westwards then turning north across the Marshes to pass the coastline just west of The Sportsman pub, finally terminates just after swinging around The Spit – one of the perceived early landing/dwelling sites.
The boundary from the Horsebridge to The Cross marked the ‘habitable’ or high tide coastline in the 1700s. Beyond The Cross that same ‘high tide line’ was joined by the shoreline which became the Lower Island swinging south to the end of the Golf course. The lands encompassed by that ‘high tide line’ and the shoreline (ie today’s Cornwallis Circle and Seasalter Golf Course) were, into the 1800s, the floodable salt pans known as ‘The Salts’ - with Island Wall being an island in the 1700s.
The Parish of Swalecliffe, derived from the Saxon ‘Soanclive’ as recorded in the Domesday Book, has been the site of habitation since prehistoric times and described since post Roman times as a loose settlement with the Domesday survey recording but eight cottagers in ‘Swalecliffe’.
The east side of the Parish boundary starts from the western side of Studd Hill to meander south via Bodkin Farm, Frogs Island Farm, surprisingly on between Thornden and West Blean Woods to an obscure point in the woods and then turning west towards Clowes Farm. The boundary then meanders around the northern side of Clowes Farm towards Pean Hill.
The name "Chestfield" derived from the word Caet (meaning forest) thence Caetville was created as a settlement in the 7th century within The Northwood and being within the Parish of Swalecliffe, not as a parish in its own right.
During 1005-1066, there were four cottagers in Chestfield. The (1084) Domesday Book shows these as Bodkin Farm, Chestfield Manor, Balsar Street Farm and Highgate Farm.
Church Street and the link to Parishes and Manors
Between Seasalter and Swalecliffe was the Parish of Northwood - All Saints being the Parish church.
There is certainty that Northwood shared Seasalter’s eastern boundary from the Horsebridge to at least the point where it turned west at the location of the war memorial.
The ancient boundary between Swalecliffe and Northwood is obscure. However, there is certainty where part of it was located. In today’s terms, the western flank and top of Tower Hill (at about the start of Marine Parade) were in Northwood. Land to the east was in Swalecliffe.
Northwood included the high ground back to and including Church St. hamlet and most likely around to Borstal Hill. Also included was the low, swampy and heavily treed ground between Seasalter to the west and Tower Hill to the east - the location of modern Whitstable but, as yet no singular habitable place named Witenstaple, Witstapel, Whitstapl or Whitstable.
Within the foregoing parishes, there were a number of Saxon manors said to be: Sesaltre, Herewic and Dodeham, and later the manors of Borgsteall (thus Borstal Hill) and Grymgil. Dodeham, it is said, became known as Northwood or Nortone. The Manor of ‘Tangreton’ (Tankerton) should also be included from the time of Edward 1 (ie the 11th century).
The manor of Sesaltre was, as one would expect, in Seasalter Parish. The so called manor of Herewic was also in Seasalter Parish although parts of it were said to be in the Parishes of Northwood and Swalecliffe.
Charters in the 8th and 9th centuries mention Herewic but one in 863 by
King Ethelbert gives us a clue to its location by mention of ‘a salt works
and its cottage in Herewic’. Herewic is recorded as an administrative
district known as a Borough, although there are references to the Manor of
Herewic, by common usage the name contracting to about the generally
accepted area of today’s Horsebridge/Island Wall which was likely to have
been higher ground in those centuries.
Origins of the Witenstaple Area
Where then was the ‘Witenstaple area’ reported by one historian as being in the 8th century ‘a small market town formed by the amalgamation of three Saxon manors: Sesaltre, Herewic and Dodeham’?
- Church Street
To me that statement, as written, is open to question simply because those three manors individually or collectively would have been considerably larger than ‘a small market town’. Perhaps ‘town’ was an over emphasis or a mistranslation for the salt marketing area mentioned earlier. Certainly, as we have seen above, the Domesday survey (1086) did not record a place known as Witenstaple or its various forms.
In Saxon times, there were five clearly known settlement areas within Witenstaple Hundred which could be considered as the nucleus for a future town taking on the name of the Hundred (see the inset on the left).
Both Seasalter and Swalecliffe were directly connected to Canterbury and
known to have been early trading ports serving that City. But both were low
lying, subject to sea encroachment and, at best, only ever recorded as a
loose collection of cottages supporting a small church in poor parishes.
Chestfield was not a parish, was without a church and, in the 11th century,
had but four cottagers. That leaves Blean and Church Street.
Due to it being in the centre of the Hundred and on the ancient Salt Way trading route from the coast to Canterbury, one could expect Blean to have taken on the identity of the Hundred...... but there is absolutely no evidence of that being so.
In 1086, the Manor of Nortone (containing Church Street) included All Saints church, 92 villagers and 40 smallholders. The Domesday survey shows that a subsidiary manor to Nortone was probably Herewic (later Harwich). This had seven salt works, 29 smallholders, five slaves and its own church considered to be All Saints (which eventually became the parish church of Whitstable itself.).
Herewic is again linked to All Saints church by virtue of both being granted in 1089 as ‘the Manor of Herewic and All Saints Church’ to Fulbert de Lacy who held the barony of Chilham and, then, in 1394 to the newly founded College of Pleshey in Essex.
All Saints church progressively becomes the link between the 8th century ‘Witenstaple area’ (and, thus, the Witenstaple Hundred) and present day Whitstable. The location gained some eminence as the tower of All Saints church is considered to have been an ancient Watch tower with its commanding views over both surrounding waters and countryside - protecting locals against the many raiders of early times.
Whitstapl Street... Whistapl.... Whitstable
By the 1500s, the Manor of Nortone had become the Manor of Northwood, had encompassed further lands and taken on the identity of Whitstapl focused on Church Street. Also, by the 1500s, a fishing settlement had become established on the shoreline about the area where lower High Street is today. Evidence of the growing importance of this settlement is shown in 1523 by John Roper of Canterbury’s bequest of 100 marks for “the making of an horseway to Canterbury for fish wives and fishermen”. The horseway eventually becoming the Whitstable/Canterbury road.
By 1566, 60 people were occupied in fishing and oyster dredging at ‘Whitstable’, where there were 82 houses. Most of the houses were located in a small strip along the line of lower High Street/Harbour Street. In 1583, Valley Wall was built to protect the settlement against the rising sea level. By this time, the fishing settlement had become known as Whitstapl Street. Valley Wall survives as Middle Wall and Sea Wall to Reeves Beach.
In addition to salt production, fishing and oyster dredging, in 1588 Cornelius Stephenson established the production of copperas based on iron pyrites collected from the beach at Tankerton (Beach Parade.) In 1565, he had been granted a Royal Patent for the processing of green vitriol or copperas used in the dying, tanning, ink and paint industries. Within 100 years, Whitstapl was to become the main supplier of copperas to London. Within that time, records would finally show (in 1610) the modern name Whitstable replacing Whitstapl.
Sea Defences - A Basis for Stability and Expansion
After the tidal surge of 1287, work commenced on building a sea wall in 1290 from about the Horsebridge eastwards along the coastline to today‘s Beach Walk/ Tankerton cliffs area.
In 1325 a sea wall was built along the present Seasalter shoreline. That was not totally successful until rebuilt in 1340. (Final drainage took place in the 1700s to establish the Seasalter Level). The 1340 wall gave a reasonably secure shoreline along Seasalter eastwards, south of The Salts then along the line of today’s Oxford and High Streets to the Horsebridge continuing eastwards to the high ground of Tankerton. Inland of the "Horsebridge to Tankerton" section of the line, the area was swampy largely useless land although salt production took place on the land eventually used by the Harbour and its facilities.
On the 26th November 1703, a great storm washed away the eastern end of the Sea Wall of 1583 from the area of Reeves Beach to Tankerton. That must have been repaired because, despite the great storm of 8th Jan 1735 and very strong gales with a great Spring tide and strong NNW gales on 6th February, no breaching or flooding appears to have been recorded. But, in 1779, it and about 20 acres were abandoned to the sea when Jurdan’s inset sea wall was built from today’s Beach Walk, along what became Harbour Road westwards past the later harbour site. (Middle Wall was also rebuilt in 1779 after a serious breach by the sea). With the building of this more substantial sea wall further inland, more effective reclamation of swamp land became possible although flooding would still occur well into the 20th century.
Whitstable Street could now grow inland to become Whitstable town. Growth foreshadowed by the recognition of the importance of the link to Canterbury by an Act of Parliament in 1735 - "An Act for repairing and widening the Road leading from Saint Dunstan's Cross, near the City of Canterbury, to the Water-side at Whitstable, in the County of Kent." The road being declared a Turnpike road in 1736.
In 1790, the extension of Island Wall commenced to enclose the ‘Salts' on the western side of Whitstable which enabled the town to further expand. Island Wall was built along the shoreline, extending westwards from the Horsebridge to enclose Upper Island and Lower Island. Subsequent drainage of the adjacent inland areas enabled the town to expand over much of the former salt marsh back to about the line of the North Kent railway. Ship repairing and building now developed along Island Wall to further expand the town’s industry.
And So.... To Whitstable
By 1844-45 the medieval Seasalter parish church of St Alphege was in such
a poor state of repair that it was demolished and replaced by the St Alphege
Church in High Street, Whitstable giving an Anglican presence in the town
itself although the new church was still within the territory of Seasalter
This symbolised the transition from ‘Whitstable Street’ village to a town now called just ‘Whitstable'.
Note: Click the "Mystery of Dodeham" link below to read Brian Smith's fascinating discussion of the ancient Manor of Dodeham. It is widely thought that Dodeham was one of Whitstable's ancient manors BUT Brian puts forward a new theory - That it wasn't part of Whitstable at all!!!!