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This photograph shows me at the age 14.  The flat bottomed boat is one that I had repaired quite extensively and I had proudly put to sea.    

 


A similar angle in modern times (24/4/04).... with the boatyards converted to housing.

 

The background of the old photo is of real interest as it highlights a very significant period in the history of Whitstable.  It is Spring 1946.  After five years of war, in which we were denied use of the beach and access to the water, the coast was ours to enjoy again!.  

Let me start by explaining what those restrictions entailed and what our new found freedom meant.

  
War Preparations

In 1940, there was, of course, a threat of invasion and strict measures were taken to fortify the beach. All small boats and beach huts were removed.... leading to the demolition of the original Red Spider Cafe at West Beach.

Invasion defences and other measures had been put in place all along the coast. These included......

 

 
  • 6 foot tall concrete pillars at the top of the beach - spaced approximately 7 feet apart and strung together with coils of barbed wire  
     

  • a continuous stretch of steel scaffolding at the bottom of the beach (in the water) from which mines were hung  
     

  • pill-boxes at strategic locations - including one at the front, west corner of  The Neptune
     

  • a curfew for those who worked on the water

 

 

Wartime Kids at Play 

As time went by, we kids established points where we could crawl through the barbed wire and climb on to the scaffolding close to the mines. Fortunately, they were of a type that had to be hit hard from the front to explode!

 

The Vigilant

Behind me in the photo is the Sea Cadet boat - the sailing barge "Vigilant". At that time, she still looked pretty smart!.....  

 

Left: This enlarged extract from the main photo shows the black and white  Vigilant barge - on the beach near the Neptune pub. 

The vessel served as the HQ for the Whitstable Sea Cadets for many years. It has since been removed and the cadets now use a new HQ in Middle Wall. 

Below: Now we have a plain beach surrounded by residential property rather than boatyards - but it is still referred to by natives as "The Vigilant" beach

 

My brother, Ray, tells me that the vessel was actually called the "Lady Ellen". However, in the late1920s, she was run down in fog by a steamer far out off Whitstable. Although this was before my time, my elder brothers and sisters recall her being brought ashore by the Whitstable Sea Cadets with the help of a nearby ship yard that had the necessary equipment in position. At that time, my cousin Harry was the Drum Major and he played a large part in the process of beaching the craft. (For that story, see the Vigilant page of the Thames Barge feature. Click here)

  

The Famous Oyster Smacks

The other masts behind the Vigilant are those of the smacks 'Rosa & Ada', 'Gamecock' and 'Wild Rose'.  They had been hauled out of the water for the duration of the war and rested on the beach.

 

The Building of the Last Wartime MFV

At the ship yard, you can see the last of the Motor Fishing Vessels (MFVs) that were built for the war. This one remained unfinished.... and was later cut up!   

   


 
This extract shows the last wartime MFV under construction at the boatyard in the background.

 

A number of MFVs were commissioned by The Admiralty for shore work - mostly in the Far East.  They were shipped abroad on the decks of larger vessels. Those destined for Oriental Waters, had their bottoms given special treatment -  an extra layer of wood was added and they were copper sheathed to protect them from the boarer!

The boats were very heavily built and their framework was of solid oak.  I think the intent was that they would be utilized again after the war!  Many can be seen today as converted motor yachts.

Above my head in the main photo is the gantry (or "gallows") that was built to lower the large engines into the MFVs.

     


 
This enlarged extract shows the gantry used to lift the MFV engines into place. 

 

Boat Yard and Barge Repairs

On the main slipway in the distance is a Thames barge..... probably the 'Kathleen' which was having a new stem fitted at the time......  

  


 
This enlarged extract shows the gantry used to lift the MFV engines into place. 

  

History Behind  the Oyster Smack "Favourite"

Hidden behind that barge on the beach is the oyster smack 'Favourite'.  The vessel was left at her mooring at the start of the war but she was strafed by a German fighter plane one Sunday morning. That was when she was beached - after sinking. 

Following the flood of 1953, she was re-located to a spot between the houses in Island Wall  where she has become one of the town's most endearing landmarks.

 


The Vigilant undergoing repairs in 2006

  

The Neptune Public House

During the 1930s, there was no sea wall around the seaward front and sides of the Neptune as there is today. That was built after 'the flood of 53'.   The Neptune sat on a large concrete pad that sloped down to the beach in front.  During rough weather the large waves would crash up onto this.  Foolishly, we kids would try to outsmart the waves by dashing across, trying not to get wet.

 

  

The sloping concrete pad can still be seen in the my photo of '46. It always interested me as a boy as. it was in the form of rows of round 'seats'.  I think this came about as a result of barrels being used as 'forms' when the concete was poured.  The slope was much used as a sitting area and particularly when the 'Westend Regatta' was being held.  In those pre-war years, during the summer, fairy lights were installed, strung from poles along the front at Marine Terrace. This was also done at Reeves's Beach.

  

The Red Spider Cafe

It was shortly after the photo was taken in 1946 that a new Red Spider Cafe was built..... This time out of masonry! It was operated by the Harris Sisters who lived at Marine Terrace (a couple of real dollies).

The building survived until the latest round of sea defence work took place a decade or so ago. It was then removed to allow the work to take place. In recent years, there have been some "controversial" plans to re-instate the facility.

 

Freedom Returned! 

By the time my 1946 photo was taken, the beach was being returned to normal. The scaffolding and mines had gone from the water's edge.... as had the concrete pillars and barbed wire from the top of the beach.

Whitstable was embarking on a new and more peaceful era.

   

John Harman


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