Ramsgate has a rich and colourful history, stemming from the 5th Century BC. Sharing glory and tragedy in equal measure, it has shaped Britain as we see it today.
In AD 449, two kings from Jutland – modern Denmark – arrived into nearby Ebbsfleet. They were called Hengist and Horsa. Noticing the “worthlessness of the Britons and the richness of their land”, they sent for reinforcements and it was not long before they controlled much of Southern England.
In AD 455, Hengist and Horsa fought the army of local warlord Vortigern at Aylesford. In winning the battle they took London – and with it England. This beckoned in a 600-year period of Anglo-Saxon rule.
ST AUGUSTINE’S PILGRIMAGE
AD 597 saw the arrival of St. Augustine, accompanied by 40 monks, into Ebbsfleet. A Benedictine monk, he had been sent on the mission by Pope Gregory I to convert the English to Christianity.
Getting wind of the barbaric ways of the Vikings, Augustine pleaded to return to Rome, yet his request was not granted by the Pope.
Fortunately for him, his arrival in Kent was warmly welcomed by King Æthelbert, to the extent that on Christmas Day 597 Augustine baptised 10,000 subjects of the king. Kent had been converted to Catholicism and Britain was to follow.
“No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.” So wrote Daniel Defoe of the storm that battered the south of England in 1703. Ramsgate was not spared from its astonishing force.
Two hundred ships anchored in the Downs, a channel between the coast and the Goodwin Sands, were blown about like tinder sticks by winds reaching 120 miles per hour. The majority of the crafts were wrecked and 1200 people lost their lives in the process.
Numerous artefacts from ships destroyed by the tempest can be found at Ramsgate’s Maritime Museum, including a complete gun and carriage from The Stirling Castle, a Third Rate, 70-gun ship.
Prior to 1749 Ramsgate was just a small fishing town. That year, everything changed with the building of the Royal Harbour.
On 23 September 1821, King George IV sailed from Ramsgate’s harbour en route to Hanover. He was so impressed that he granted it the title of Royal Harbour.
This ushered in a period of prosperity for the town, with the wealthy and fashionable flocking to east Kent believing that the sea air would do wonders to their wellbeing. Queen Victoria, then a princess, stayed in the stunning white house on Albion Place – she surely would have enjoyed its panoramic views.
As a result, a plethora of elegant Regency-period properties were built. Liverpool Lawn, Nelson Crescent and Wellington Crescent are prime examples of this grand architecture with their houses’ painted stuccos, curved bays and sash windows.
Ramsgate’s fresh sea air clearly inspires creativity. A number of literary figures visited the town in the 19th Century: The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a regular guest between 1819 and 1833, staying in four different addresses on Wellington Crescent.
Also, Jane Austen used to stay with her brother Admiral Francis Austen in the town, while Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White – regarded as the first detective novel – lived in Nelson Crescent.
Esteemed architect Augustus Pugin designed and lived in Grade 1 listed The Grange, which you can visit. Its focus on functionality over form marked it out as a groundbreaking property. The Grange was also the place where he drew up his designs for the interior of the Houses of Parliament.
Over the centuries, Ramsgate has played a major part in a number of wars.
The harbour was a chief embarkation point in the Napoleonic Wars. The town’s street names – La Belle Alliance Sq, Plains of Waterloo and Nelson Crescent for example – bear testament to Ramsgate’s involvement in this campaign.
During World War II, Ramsgate’s flotilla of ‘Little Ships’ was heavily involved in a scheme called Operation Dynamo. Fishing boats, life boats and cabin cruisers carried troops to, and evacuated troops from, the beaches of Dunkirk.
Operation Dynamo brought 380,000 troops home, with the much-loved vessel Sundowner, sometimes seen in the Harbour, playing a particularly heroic part. She returned 130 men and almost capsized on re-entering Ramsgate.
Ramsgate was ravaged by bomb damage, firstly by the Zeppelins in World War I, then by fighter planes of World War II.
Notoriously, the engine of a downed German Focke-Wulf 190 plane landed on 27 Wellington Crescent, decimating the property in the process.