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  • Secret Dover by Jeff Howe

    Dover’s Quite Alright

    Dover holds a particular fascination for me. I don’t really know why, I don’t live there.  It’s just another run-down seaside town, suffering still from the effects of war-time bomb and shell damage, and population stagnation. Since then various economic impetuses have caused many buildings of monumental style and importance to be demolished; as recently as the 1990s, concrete pilings for ‘The White Cliffs Experience’, a new type of interactive visitor centre, were knowingly driven through part of a Roman fort. But to quote Jim Cairns, Mayor of Dover during WWII, “Dover’s quite alright…we are all very busy doing our jobs… we have our problems”, and Alderman Cairns’s words probably ring as true today as they did in 1942. Dover’s hustle and bustle is as busy as that of any other Kentish coastal town. So what makes this such an interesting place?

    Advert for 'The Magic Flute' featuring Esme Atherden and her future husband, Walter Hyde, 1899. (c. The Era, Secret Dover, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, there is the Iron Age hill fort that is the site of Dover Castle, the Bronze Age boat discovered during a road building project, and the Western Heights which has the largest system of 19th century fortifications in this country. But for me it’s the little things about Dover that make it such a fascinating place. For example, the Flat Earth Society was founded here in 1956. Also, there was once a defensive military canal where today container trucks thunders along the town’s main road, much shorter, but with the same purpose of defending against Napoleon’s hoards, just like the impressive Royal Military Canal at Hythe just along the coast.

    More recently, Walter Hyde, the prolific Wagnerian tenor of the early 20th century sang at Dover Town Hall in 1904 and 05. He also married a local girl, Emma Atherden from the Pier District, an area now non-existent and once referred to as a slum. This was by the Western Docks and largely inhabited by mariners and their families, full of tumble-down houses, pubs and churches, where folk lived cheek-by-jowl.

    The effects of the flame barrage at Studland Bay, Dorset, 1940. (c. Flame Over Britain, Secret Dover, Amberley Publishing)

    In a February 1957 broadcast of The Goon Show Moriarty gives Neddie Seagoon the deeds to the English Channel with a proviso that Neddie insures it against fire. Luckily, Moriarty and Grytpype-Thynne also happen to be wandering insurance agents, and they sold Neddie a policy with a £48,000 payout should the Channel catch light, for just 18 shillings. I always wondered if The Goon Show had any idea that there was such a plan to set light to the Channel just 17 years earlier. In ‘Secret Dover’ you will find a photograph of the 1940 anti-invasion flame barrage. This consisted of a set of large oil tanks and a pump house secreted in a ditch on the Western Heights, their purpose was to set light to the surf had a German invasion force arrived. This would have been used in conjunction with other fixed defences, such as the ubiquitous pillboxes and wire entanglements on the beach to repel the invaders. I think this is a textbook case of fact being stranger than fiction! I found the photo of Dover’s flame barrage tanks on Facebook, posted by a Dover resident who watched them being removed in 1991. And I’m convinced that there are secreted in people’s lofts in Dover and every other town in this country, shoeboxes of old photos waiting to see the light of day again, and these will amaze us with once familiar vistas.

    The music-hall comedian Harold Montague who played the Promenade Pier in 1905.

    These more esoteric odds and ends form the basis of ‘Secret Dover’. 22,000 words about the harbour; the blitz; Matron Louisa Stewart, stalwart of the military hospital during the Great War; Harold Montague who sang his new song, “When Maud Put Her New Bathing Costume On” in the Promenade Pier Pavilion around 1905; roof repairs to the Castle’s keep, and much more.

    I’ve been picking old Dover apart for approaching 30 years, and I think ‘Secret Dover’ is a culmination of my favourite bits, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop now. I mean, think about it; who else is going to uncover the intricacies of Maximillian Ball’s 18th century ‘Britannia Coffee House’, decipher Jatt Church’s last will and testament (he was Clerk of the Cheque of Dover Harbour, and died in 1808) and get to grips with Archcliffe Fort? After nearly three decades there’s still much to fascinate.

    I think Jimmy Cairns had a point.  Dover is quite alright.

    Jeff Howe's book Secret Dover is available for purchase now.

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