Smith’s Folly

Smith's Folly, East Cliff, from an original drawing by Rawle & engraved by John Nixon 1801. Dover Library

Smith’s Folly, East Cliff, from an original drawing by Rawle & engraved by John Nixon 1801. Dover Library

From Tudor times Dover’s harbour, which was at the west end of the bay, had suffered from being blocked by shingle caused by the Eastward drift. In order to combat this, in 1753, the Harbour Commissioners built a wooden pier opposite the Castle – the Castle Jetty. This slowed down the eastward movement of the shingle and a broad strip of beach gradually accumulated. On this newly created land Guilford battery was built and the first person to build a ‘house’ was Captain John Smith.

Guilford Battery with Moat Bulwark behind 1821. Dover Museum

Guilford Battery with Moat Bulwark behind 1821. Dover Museum

Born in Dover, Captain John Smith, of the 3rd Regiment of the Guards was, in1759, appointed the aide-de-camp to Lord Sackville at the fatal battle of Minden. Following the battle Lord Sackville was relieved of his post and Court Marshalled. The only witness to support him was Captain John Smith whose testimonial must have carried some credence for it saved Lord Sackville’s life if not his military career.  Lord Sackville’s father, the Duke of Dorset, was at that time Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and in gratitude gave Captain John some land, to the east of the Guilford Battery.

In October 1760, George III (1760-1820) ascended the throne and Lord Sackville was brought back into favour. He, in turn, recommended Captain John to the post of gentleman usher to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). Shortly afterwards, Captain John married and lived in Midgham, Berkshire where his children, including William Sidney, known as Sidney, (1764-1840) and John Spencer (1769-1845), were born. All of Captain John’s children were brought up at Court as part of the royal household.

On his retirement, Captain John returned to Dover and built a summer residence on the piece of land that he had been given. Initially, he employed two boys to clear and level the ground, and it was reported that he would call them twice daily to prayers. These were held in a cave that had been excavated out of the cliff and in which he had a sarcophagus erected for his burial.

The residence, called The Cave, was completed in 1791 and starting from the cave it consisted of a series of low buildings with flint walls with irregularities designed to appear as artificial ruins while and roofs had the appearance of upturned boats. Inside, it was said, to be ‘neatly fitted up, forming a pleasant summer residence.’  Later a turret and castellation was added, said to represent Temple Prison in Paris where Captain John’s second son, Sidney, had been a prisoner.

Sir Sidney Smith's tribute to Horatio Nelson, Times 11 November 1805

Sir Sidney Smith’s tribute to Horatio Nelson, Times 11 November 1805

During the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Sir Sidney – as he became – was famous second only to Lord Nelson (1758–1805), for his naval activities. He eventually rose to the position of Admiral but on 18 April 1796 was captured by the French and imprisoned in Temple Prison from where he escaped in May 1798. Sir Sidney, said to be a lover of the Princess of Wales – Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821) – successfully stood for Parliament at Rochester but his political career was not as brilliant as his naval one and he landed him in debtors’ prison in 1805.

In 1802, Captain John’s youngest son, John, successfully stood for Parliament as Dover’s representative. Four years later he had to decline due to lack of finance but during his time in Dover, he apparently stayed, with his wife, at The Cave. By that time the abode was nicknamed locally as ‘Smith’s Folly’ an accolade that was to remain.

Captain John died on 23 February 1804 but was not buried in the sarcophagus in the cave more likely in St James’ Churchyard. He left his Dover property to his son Sidney and it is believed that he lived at the ‘Folly’. Like other naval officers, Sir Sidney was only paid when he was at sea, at other times he was forced to fall back on his own resources and during such a depression sold his only other property, a small estate in Norfolk.

Map of East Cliff 1884 showing Captain John Smith's cave

Map of East Cliff 1884 showing Captain John Smith’s cave

However, on 11 November 1805 Sir Sidney was in Dover, probably residing at the ‘Folly’, when he addressed the men of the Diligence and the Antelope, following the death of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar (21 October 1805). Shortly afterwards, he led a fleet of ships in an attack on the French ships in Boulogne harbour. In January 1806, he was posted to Naples but financial concerns never seemed far away and following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Sidney sold Smith’s Folly and the remainder of the landholdings then left to live in Paris.

According to Z Warren’s Dover Guide for 1830 p97, a substantial house, with offices, was erected on the site of the ‘Folly’ called East Cliff Lodge. A map of 1884 shows that Smith’s cave was still known by that name. There was also a pub nearby named Sir Sidney Smith from about 1842 to 1882. During this time Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to Dover and it is believed that he used the description of Smith’s Folly to describe Peggoty’s brother’s house at Yarmouth in David Copperfield. The last two villas at East Cliff, today were for a long time called Sidney Villas.


  • Dover Mercury 5 January 2012

Further Historic Information on Dover Pubs :

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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