Chapter 3: Whitstable Shoreline - Fact, Riddle and Fiction

Extent of The Salt Works

The existence of salt pans and salt works on the western side of the Town (ie ‘the Salts’) and also in the modern Seasalter area is reasonably well known. Lesser known is that salt production also occurred on the eastern side of the location of the present day harbour. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that this may have been the earlier and perhaps more major salt production area.

When the east quay of the harbour was being built, the foundations of what appeared to be a windmill were unearthed. Researching in Canterbury’s Beaney Institute around 1950 for a school project, I found a record of a windmill existing somewhere along ‘Long Beach’. The remains found were most likely of that same windmill. The popular concept of windmills being for the grinding of corn and like grains almost certainly would not have applied here. Wind, animal or human driven mills were used in the salt production process, to transfer water during the salt processing. Floodable areas contained by land on three sides were sought for salt production. Parts of the shallow Gorwell River delta would have been ideal for salt production until the land was reclaimed.

The Riddle of Upper and Lower Island

Map 15: Possible view of "Upper Island", Whitstable

Map 15: A possible view of "Upper Island" and its separation from  the Whitstable "mainland"

There are many references to both Lower Island and Upper Island. The Lower Island has been reasonably well defined but exactly where Upper Island separates from the ‘mainland’ to become an island does not appear to have been recorded or, at least, clearly so. Perhaps it was never truly an island.

It is also possible, and I think quite likely, that the waterway over ‘The Salts’ separating Lower Island from the mainland continued to just inland of today’s Starvation Point where it joined the Gorrel Stream delta - thus forming Upper Island including the eventual harbour site. References to the building of various sea walls and the areas they were to exclude water from support this hypothesis (See Map 15 below).

Another likely site as a candidate for separating Upper Island from the mainland is in the vicinity of the junction of Harbour and Sea Streets. This is about the lowest point in the area given the presence of the artificially created sea walls (See Map16). However, this possibility ignores how the Harbour area was connected to the ‘mainland’.

Map 16: An alternative theory for  "Upper Island" and its separation from the Whitstablemainland

Map 16: Another theory for "Upper Island"

My father grew up in The Old King’s Head on Sea Wall. He told me of the cellar occasionally flooding because “that’s where the sea used to flow.” Interestingly, he spoke of old timers’ stories which indicated that perhaps the sea did once flow through there and also the site of Marine Gap. This would isolate and form Upper Island from both Lower Island and the mainland. However, this possibility also ignores how the Harbour area was connected to the ‘mainland’.

Those plausible explanations of the isolation of Upper Island from the mainland ignore the Horsebridge and how it was accessed. I have seen no reference that suggests that there was any difficulty accessing the Horsebridge or that there was a need to build any form of access from the mainland. This would indicate that the Horsebridge area was never part of an island since its establishment as a landing area. In turn, that implies that any separation of Upper Island from the mainland would have been on the western side of the Horsebridge. Again, I have seen no reference to such a separation.

The most likely explanation is that, after the inundation of 1287 formed both islands, ensuing flooding and draining caused silting to form a natural causeway across the narrow waterway in the eventual Horsebridge area as shown in Map 17 below. The natural causeway would certainly have been made more durable and more usable by additional filling. Further silting and land reclamation allowed the nucleus of today’s Whitstable Town, known as ‘Whitstable Street’ in the 1700s, to develop towards Starvation Point.

Map 17: Theory of Whitstable's Upper Island and the Horsebridge

Map 17: Theory of Whitstable's Upper Island and the Horsebridge

Losing the original shoreline through the 1287 inundation would have necessitated a new landing place for fishermen and perhaps freight of the day. With the shoreline becoming so much closer to the growing Canterbury and other inland settlements such as Blean, forming such a landing place now became more attractive.

I should stress that neither the inshore ‘Salts’ or Gorrel delta would have had deep enough access for even the small freight vessels of the day to navigate. Naturally one would expect that the site chosen for any new post-1287 landing place would be a combination of the deepest fetch of water allowing vessels closest to the beach and, if a more advantageous site demanded, the narrowest water channel to be crossed to the mainland.

The earliest records of a post-1287 landing place indicate the known Horsebridge area which supports some form of adjacent causeway from Upper Island to the mainland when such a landing place was first established. By the time Whitstable Street (formed along lower High and Harbour streets in the 1700s) had become the town of Whitstable, such a causeway would have grown and become so well established as to be accepted as part of the natural land formation. However, the colloquial reference to ‘Upper Island’ remained.

Learning from Robinson Crusoe

Map: 18: Robinson Crusoe's possible journey across the Whitstable shoreline.

Map 18: Robinson Crusoe's possible journey across the Whitstable shoreline. Did Daniel Defoe base his story on our town?

Sometimes, works of fiction can add not only interest to local history but some support to deduced fact. The 18th century author Daniel Defoe is well known for his fictional story of ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Historically, Daniel Defoe was known to be, in colloquial terms, a ‘Government Spy’ who had many informants about many matters. He is perhaps less known as a master of observation and even less known for his great ability to write accurately about matters he had ‘observed’ but at which he had not been present or could not have personally observed. A good example was when a great storm blew down several thousand trees across southern England. In a London newspaper, Defoe accurately reported details of the storm, the number of trees felled and where. At the time of the storm and the newspaper report, Daniel Defoe was in jail!

In his book ‘Seasalter and the Mystery of Robinson Crusoe’, local historian, the late Wallace Harvey, postulates that Defoe had based his scenario of the shipwreck and features of Crusoe’s eventual near deserted island home on actual features of the Swale estuary, Seasalter and Whitstable of the 18th century. Features which Defoe had either observed or read of.

More interestingly for this present subject of Whitstable’s old coastline, is the description by ‘Robinson Crusoe’ of his exploration in the crude dugout boat he made. The explanation mentions him paddling the craft ‘inside an island’, across a shallow bay, through and about a tidal promontory.

Those features, and Crusoe’s observations of the tide flowing through gaps in the tidal promontory, more completely described in Wallace Harvey’s book, accurately depict a journey rowing easterly through ‘The Salts’ - that is inside Upper and Lower Island, across the Gorrel Stream delta or bay, through and about The Street.

For interest, an ancient oak dugout boat, believed to have been taken to the Greenwich Maritime Museum in 1971, was found in the mud near the remains of an old brig. This was close inshore to Blue Anchor Corner and some time earlier. Wallace Harvey considered that seeing or learning of both the brig and dugout boat may have inspired Defoe’s tale of Robinson Crusoe and his subsequent inshore exploration.

Curiously, there is no mention of any separation of Upper and Lower Islands. Perhaps the salt works of the day obscured that from Defoe’s eye!

It is the detail Defoe included of various features including tidal flow and currents about ’The Street’ which lead one to agree with Wallace Harvey that Defoe used Whitstable’s Upper/Lower Island, the Salts and The Street features as they were in the mid to late 1700s. That all tends to support the modern interpretation of those old shorelines before the islands were enclosed by a sea wall in 1792.

The Last Steps to Modern Times

The combination of two seemingly singular factors around 1830 brought about the final changes to establish Whitstable’s modern coastline of the 20th centuries.
One of those factors was industrial progress with both the harbour and the complementary Canterbury and Whitstable Railway playing their part. The second factor, as far as the local scene is concerned, was industrial regression.

The Copperas industry, although a minor player, had closed. Other areas in the country were able to process copperas more efficiently and much cheaper. Eventually, progress saw it displaced by a more suitable material for dying cloth etc.

Local salt production had forever been a rather archaic process. Other areas in the country were able to process and transport salt more efficiently, much cheaper and in greater quantity. Hence, local salt production closed down in 1830.

The scene depicted in Robinson Crusoe’s voyage of discovery changed quite dramatically. There was no longer any need to maintain the shallow waterways of Robinson Crusoe’s day. The final gaps in the barrier to the sea could be closed.

Final Thoughts... on AD 1287

After tracing the history of our shoreline, one cannot help but wonder what the coastal area (the site of present day Whitstable) really was like after that tidal surge of 1287. The following maps are my interpretation of the area occupied by modern Whitstable after the tidal surge based on textual extracts from various historical records, reports and histories.

A view of 13th Century Whitstable including centres of population

Map 19: A view of 13th Century Whitstable including centres of population

Map 21: The 13th century Whitstable shoreline

Map 21: The 13th century Whitstable shoreline

Known areas of 13th century occupation are shown for added interest although the ancient names may have been different. The likely number of people resident in each are included to allow comparison to later centuries – totaling about 1,900 in 1800 to the late 20th century population of over 30,000. Although only the coastal area of modern day Whitstable has been discussed there were but few scattered dwellings further inland to add any significant numbers to the 13th century population.

The maps include some present day features plus road names where they coincide with known or probable early tracks, to orientate the reader. Of necessity the Seasalter marshes area is shown separately but one has to wonder was our shoreline really like this?

Without the efforts of our forefathers in constructing sea walls and implementing drainage schemes, one might also wonder if modern Whitstable would now be like the following albeit Winter scene!......

A constructed picture of 13th Century Whitstable - Did it look like this

Did 13th Century Whitstable look like this?
 (NB Some modern features are labelled to provide a guide to the layout)

Chapter 3 of 3