Monday, 7 December 2009

An Historical report on Ramsgate Harbour 1791 By John Smeaton

With one thing and another I believe there may be a few civil engineers reading this blog at the moment, so as a special treat for them I have published this book complete so they can enjoy it.

Click on the link to read the whole book

Click on this link if you want to buy the printed version

The design and building of bridges and harbours were at the cutting edge of new technology in the 1700s. as with space exploration today many things were uncertain, large expenditure often resulting in failure or only partial success. Indeed it is probable that had Mr Labelye (who lobbied parliament for a harbour near the downs and proposed a scheme for building a canal between Sandwich and the coast) not been otherwise engaged due to problems when Westminster bridge, a construction under his direction that partly sank and had to have considerable rebuilding, the harbour would probably been built at Sandwich.

At this time it should be noted that the inhabitants of Sandwich then the main town in this area and once the main port (which had silted up and been left stranded inland) wanted the revenue of any new harbour. They strove against the building of a harbour at Ramsgate and tried repeatedly to get parliament to fund various projects that would once again make Sandwich a major port.

Ramsgate, as a limb of the Cinque Port of Sandwich, was in fact governed by the town that was Ramsgate’s main rival, something that we are used to even now.

Eventually the great storm of 1748 when several ships found shelter here combined with the common sense advice of the sea captains in this area, that the harbour should be built at Ramsgate was agreed to by parliament.

Ramsgate harbour when it was first built had no inner basin, even before it was completed it filled up with sand much more than had been expected. During the 1770s so much sand had accumulated in the harbour that nearly all of it dried out at low tide. In fact by the time it was finished it was almost completely useless as a harbour.

John Smeaton who is generally considered to be the first civil engineer, was consulted at various times to resolve this and other problems in the design of the harbour. He gave advice that in many cases was only partly adhered to. The story of the building of the harbour and how it was eventually turned into a useful refuge for the ships that got caught up in the storms and navigational hazards of our coastline makes an interesting read.

The original book like other antiquarian books is not quite as easy to read as many modern books, at this time the letter s is often printed so that it looks like the letter f, this takes a few pages to get used to. However when compared even to modern engineer’s reports it is clarity expounded.

There are a few technical and nautical words that some of you may not be familiar with so I have added a short glossary of them below.

The picture (click on it to enlarge) above is a copy of an old print of Ramsgate that I hope you will agree helps to understand how the harbour looked 200 years ago.

Many thanks to Bob Hinge for lending his copy of the book to copy for the reprint.

Ashler a large square-cut stone that is used for building or facing walls In changing a Rough Ashlar into a Perfect Ashlar, the workman takes away and never adds to.

Bar a raised area of sand or mud that stops the water being deep enough for navigation.

Caisson a watertight enclosure used to keep out the water while the foundations are being laid. In the case of Ramsgate harbour I think these would have been like massive wooden barrels open at both ends that were floated into position, sunk with ballast and pumped out with a chain pump.

Ebb tide a falling tide ¼ Ebb being there is a ¼ of the distance between high and low tide remaining above the lowest level of the tide.

Fathom 6 feet in length.

Flood tide a rising tide.

Lee or Leeward the side that a wind is blowing to often meaning the sheltered side.

Lighter a large open boat usually used for moving heavy stores and water out to ships in a harbour.

Locker of Grind on this context (page 16) an enclosure or trap.

Neap tide the lower than usual tides at some times of year.

Scuttle to deliberately sink a boat.

Sluice a passage for water that can be regulated by the opening and closing of a gate, like a large tap.

Spring tide the unusually high tides at some times in the year.
Windward on the side that the wind is blowing from.


  1. michael,

    Smeatons comments may be treated with some sceptiscism as he also designed and built winchelsea beach harbour, shingled and silted up within 1 year!!

  2. Ken I think you mean Rye Harbour here, I don’t know what your sources are but my understanding is that Smeaton was asked to report as a consulting engineer 24 years after they started building it, his advice wasn’t followed and he was never resident engineer and didn’t design it.

    If you wish to cross-reference your sources you may find the following helpful:
    Minutes of the Rye Harbour Commissioners: East Sussex Record Office KRA 1 1/1 h 1/2
    John Meryon Account of the Origin and Formation of the Harbour of Rye… Rye Castle Museum
    John Collard A Maritime History of Rye 1978
    L.A.Vidler A New History of Rye 1934 and 1971 pp.104-107
    Graham Mayhew Tudor Rye 1987

  3. no michael, winchelsea beach harbour, now a boon to the local community as a sports and recreation ground, dry high and marked by a seaward view of grey stone and oak piles

  4. He also designed the dry dock at Ramsgate harbour My grandfather worked on vessels in it and said it was never water tight there is a v cut in the lower eastern end of the dock when a vessel was docked it was found she was to long and the v was cut out to allow her forefoot to go in to allow the gates to be closed and the dock pumped out.


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