William Eldred – the man who first mapped Dover

Dover Harbour 16th century - Cottonian Manuscript (Bob Hollingsbee)

Dover Harbour 16th century – Cottonian Manuscript (Bob Hollingsbee)

The history of Dover harbour tells us that it was once at the east side of the Bay, called Eastbrook, it was in the area where Castle Street and Maison Dieu Road cross. Between 1300 and 1500 there was a movement in land mass of Britain that triggered a phenomenon that affected the Bay, called the Eastward Drift – the tide sweeping round Shakespeare Cliff and depositing masses of pebbles at the eastern end of the Bay. This rendered the Eastbrook harbour as useless.

Around 1495, John Clarke, Master of the Maison Dieu, sought Henry VII’s patronage to turn a small natural cove at Archcliffe Point, on the west side of the Bay, into a commodious harbour. This he did and the mariners were so pleased with the result that they called it ‘Little Paradise.’

1606 Dover Harbour Charter - Illuminated letter 'J' and portrait of James I. DHB

1606 Dover Harbour Charter – Illuminated letter ‘J’ and portrait of James I. DHB

On 10 June 1606, Dover Harbour Commission received its Charter from James I (1603-1625) and although its main concern was the harbour, the Charter made it clear that all lands claimed from the sea was rightfully theirs. Obviously, as the land on which the mariners had built their cottages belonged to the new Harbour Commission, they justifiably demanded ground rent. They also considered the possibility of utilising the land for other purposes and thus required their holdings to be surveyed.

The first survey was carried out not long after the Commission was formed but was crude and generally unhelpful. By the 1630s, a suitable map had still not been produced but living in Dover at the time was William Eldred, b1580, a Freeman. He was also a Puritan with very strong views and later, during the Civil Wars (1642-1651), he joined the parliamentary army.

William Eldred Map of Dover and Harbour 1641

William Eldred Map of Dover and Harbour 1641

William was appointed to undertake a survey of the land and occupiers for the Harbour Commission. This he completed in 1641 and comprises of eleven large documents including maps in seven frames. The last time I saw them they were in a remarkable state of preservation in the vaults of Harbour House, Waterloo Crescent.

The first shows a map of Dover including the Castle, the main highway to London, the Priory and, schematically, the dwellings. The scale on this map is 20 rods to one inch (ynche) and bears an inscription. This starts with a reference to the Domesday Book, the Cinque Ports and ship service. In essence, it states that, ‘there are the five Cinque Ports (Dover, Sandwich, Hythe, Rye and Hastings) and the two antient towns (Rye and Winchelsea) so called because they were later additions. That they agreed to provide ships on the king’s command in return for certain privileges.’

William finishes this discourse by praising the Earl of Northampton, who as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (1604-1614), had advised James I to take away the running of the harbour from the town and create the Harbour Commission. Eldred reminds everyone that it was the Earl of Northampton, by the resultant Charter, confirmed that all the reclaimed land between ‘Sargat and Ayclieff Bullwork, and ffrom the Cleiffes to the Lowe water marke of the seae,’ belonged to the Commission.

The second is a detailed map of the reclaimed land and the houses that existed there at that time. This bears the inscription, ‘At this antient Gate called Snargate Begine the that memorable Grant of this Harbour lands whithe Lands was Given by King Jeames to the Right noble and Earle of Northampton for eveer to the use and mayntaynance of Dover Harbor in anno 1605.’

Pier District and Dover from Western Heights. Drawing by T S Cooper c 1820

Pier District and Dover from Western Heights. Drawing by T S Cooper c 1820

Of the remaining five, four are detailed schematic drawings and descriptions of the Pier District dwellings c1641. Giving the name of each principal tenant. Detailed are the measurements of each dwelling. On the reverse of each of these frames are documents listing the principal tenants with their sub-tenants. The area that the dwelling occupied is also given together with the ‘the situation south or north with the name also of the strete where it lyes.’

On the final document, William has written another dedication that reads, ‘To the most noble and gracious Lord James, Duke of Richmond, Earle of March etc. Constable of Dover Castle. Lord Warden Chencellor and Admiral of the Cinque Ports. Two Ancient Townes and their members knight of the most noble order of the garter and one of his Majesties most Honourable Privy Councell. And to the rest of the household and worshipful the Commissioners for Dover harbour.’

Dover Arms in William Eldred's time

Dover Arms in William Eldred’s time

William started the assignment when Henry Howard, the Earl of Northampton, who died in 1614, was the Lord Warden. By the time he finished the assignment there had been two other Lord Wardens and James Stewart (1612-1655), whom he refers to above, was appointed in 1640 and stayed two years. When the Civil Wars broke out, he joined Charles I (1625-1649) and Edward Boys succeeded him in 1642. This dates the completion of the maps.

Finally, William describes the areas he surveyed by saying, “With the Boke I heare present unto all this house sessions, which now are and always have been so carefull for the benefit of the harbour, to the intent it may remain to suredinge ayes, which will be then more use than it is now. And this recommending my work and payns to your wise and Honerable Consideration, my time labour in this world being now at an end, with my humble and hearty prayer to God for the health and prosperity of my Lord Dukes Grace and the rest of this house sessions. I humbly reste at your service to be comanded. William Eldred

Six years later, William was a Master Gunner at the Castle and published ‘The Gunner’s Glasses, where in the diligent Practitioner may see his defects, and may from point to point reform and amend all errors that are commonly incident to unskillful gunners.’ This was a practical guide for Gunners that became a major textbook for a long time after.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury:  7 January 2010

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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