Wellington Dock and Fairbairn Hand Cranked Crane

Wellington Dock, circa 1870, known at the time as the Pent or Inner Harbour

Wellington Dock, circa 1870, known at the time as the Pent or Inner Harbour

During the last few years there has been talk of filling in or/and making major alterations to the Listed Wellington Dock. To date none of these have happened, nonetheless, it is still worth reminding ourselves of its history.

Following the introduction of steam-powered ships in the 1830s, the Harbour Commissioners recognise that unless they modernised Dover’s harbour cross Channel ship owners would go elsewhere, namely Folkestone. At the time, the harbour was at the west end of the bay and comprised of the Tidal Basin, the main entrance and exit from the sea and the inner harbour or Bason, as it was called at the time and the Great Pent.

Due to a phenomenon known as the Eastward Drift shingle was deposited outside the harbour entrance. This was particularly bad at neap tides, as the tidal flow was weak. In order to try to combat the problem the River Dour was allowed to flow into the Great Pent, which was dammed at the Tidal harbour end so that it acted as a reservoir. The water collected there, at neap tides, was then released through great sluices to wash away the shingle that had collected there.

In fact, it was not very successful and following a Parliamentary Inquiry sanction was given, in 1836, to enlarge the Tidal basin from the inside. At the same time new works on the Great pent sluice dam were undertaken. This included inserting new reservoirs and culverts that everyone was assured would scour the harbour mouth of shingle. Indeed a large assemblage, including the Duke of Bedford and the Marquis of Abercorn, came to see it put into operation on 24 November 1837.

The creation of Wellington Dock - Dover Harbour Board

The creation of Wellington Dock – Dover Harbour Board

The Tidal basin was enlarged by 5 acres, which meant the demolition of the York Hotel – one of Dover’s largest at the time – two pubs, a row of high quality residential housing and the Amherst battery. Further, some 20,000 tons of mud was removed to deepen the Great Pent. Much of this was deposited on the northern side and created sufficient land not only for a wide quay but also for a street that was named after the earl of Northampton. He was a former Lord Warden who had  died in 1614 and was buried in the Castle church.

Winch mechanism for Wellington lockgates - 1845

Winch mechanism for Wellington lockgates – 1845

The Great Pent was then lined with granite and two 60-feet (18.3 metres) giant lock gates were inserted that provided access and egress between the Great Pent and the Tidal harbour. Over these, an iron bridge was built and the whole enterprise was completed in 1844 and cost about £45,000. The Lord Warden, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), opened what was formerly the Great Pent along with the bridge on the 13 November 1846. They were named, respectively, Wellington Dock and Wellington Bridge but known, until recent times, under its old name of the Pent or the Inner Harbour. The winch mechanism, installed in 1845, to operate the lock gates can still be seen. Before the works had been completed, an Ordnance Store was built in 1841 on Cambridge Road with a wharf alongside the new dock. This is now part of the De Bradelie Wharf complex.

Two years before, in 1844, saw South Eastern Railway Company bring the railways to Dover. The track running on a low-lying timber viaduct across the shingle of Shakespeare Beach to the terminal in Beach Street called Town Station! Prior to this time most of Dover’s shipbuilding activity took place on Shakespeare Beach. Some of the shipbuilders received compensation and most relocated along Ordnance Wharf, alongside Cambridge Road, and Commercial Quay, on the opposite side of Wellington Dock. Much of the mud lifted during the excavation was dumped at the side, which had extended and widened the Commercial Quay. On this new created land, Northampton Street was laid and completed in 1854.

Fairbairn hand crank crane erected 1868, Wellington Dock. AS 2009

Fairbairn hand crank crane erected 1868, Wellington Dock. AS 2009

At the time, Dover shipyards were major employers and as they occupied land owned by the Harbour Commissioners, the shipbuilders paid good rent. Therefore, the Commissioners, in 1850, built the adjoining slipway with a cradle and in 1868, erected the now Listed Fairbairn Hand Cranked Crane. This was to lift heavy shipping gear into and out of the ships but later, it was used for hoisting yachts in and out of Wellington Dock.

The crane was designed and made by William Fairbairn, born in Kelso, Scotland on 19 February 1789, the son of a farmer. Apprenticed to a wheelwright, Fairbairn met and became friends of engineer George Stephenson (1781–1848). Inspired, Fairbairn went on to set up a business in Manchester designing and making machinery, including cranes, for cotton mills.

Fairbairn Crane - Cutting the ribbon ceremony following a makeover. 1 December 2014. This author in brown jacket wearing a dogtag.

Fairbairn Crane – Cutting the ribbon ceremony following a makeover. 1 December 2014. This author in brown jacket wearing a dogtag.

In 1830, Fairbairn diversified into the iron-boat building business opening a shipyard at Millwall, London and built several hundred vessels. As a shipbuilder, one of the problems Fairbairn faced was lifting the heavy metal parts into his ships. He therefore adapted his design for cotton mill cranes to shipbuilding.

This was not the only achievement in the field of engineering that Fairbairn made or for what he is remembered. That accolade goes to his invention of the hydraulic machines used to rivet the box girders and used by Stephenson for his Menai Strait Bridge, over the River Conwy in North Wales. For this, Fairbairn was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and President of the British Association. In 1869, the year the Harbour Board bought the crane, Fairbairn was created a baronet. He died at his daughter’s house, Moor Park, Surrey, on 18 August 1874, after catching a chill while opening a building in Manchester.

Wellington Bridge 1904, specially rebuilt to take trains. Dover Library

Wellington Bridge 1904, specially rebuilt to take trains. Dover Library

By 1888, larger steam ships were in operation so the Wellington Dock lock gates were widened. A steel bridge, completed in June 1904, replaced the original Wellington Bridge. This was swung by a combination of hydraulic and electric power enabling the laying of a 2,900-feet (884 metres) railway track. This ran from Harbour Station, along Strond Street to Union Street and then along the Prince of Wales Pier. The constructions, all by Dover Harbour Board staff, cost £600,000.

During the following thirty years, the cliff side of Wellington Dock – Commercial Quay and Northampton Street – became a thriving maritime quarter of hotels, shops, pubs and the Friendly Societies’ Convalescent home. However, the Dover Harbour Board, in 1928, sought parliamentary approval to close Commercial Quay in order to create more quayside accommodation and to increase the size of Wellington Dock. The Bill included the demolition of many of the properties between Commercial Quay and Snargate Street – Northampton Street. All these properties were leasehold, belonging to the Harbour Board.

The Dover Corporation opposed the Bill but eventually they agreed to the demolition but with the subsequent widening of Snargate Street to 50-feet (15.3 metres). The work was carried out by the Corporation and cost £7,000.  The Bill was passed in July 1929 and Wellington Dock was increased to 8 acres. As the Kent coalfield was expanding, in January 1930, Northampton Street Quay was cleared of old coal yards, redesigned and turned into the unloading point for imported wood for the coalmines.

Wellington Dock, following World War II (1939-1945), was used for repairing and laying up of cross-Channel steamers and harbour craft. The Harbour Board replaced the 75 years old gates at a cost of £35,000. The main contract was carried out by Head Wrightson and Co and completed on 31 August 1945. Repairing war-damaged quays took longer and it was not until 1951 that work was completed. Ballast Quay, on the side near the present day Bradelei Wharf, was re-designed adding nearly 50-feet (15.25 metres) to its length.

Wellington Dock east end - the Bubbles, so called because the River Dour, as it enters the dock, creates bubbles.

Wellington Dock east end – the Bubbles, so called because the River Dour, as it enters the dock, creates bubbles.

The following year the Harbour Board secured the Corporation’s approval to closure of Northampton Street and Strond Street and straightening Slip Passage. At the same time, a tennis court was laid out for the use of the Harbour Board Club members on the site of the former Synagogue on Northampton Street. This had opened in 1862 but was destroyed during the war.

Over the next few years, the quays surrounding Wellington Dock were a hive of activity, there was a yacht building and repair yard, a timber yard and sawmill a ballast-grading plant, builders’ merchants and coal storage. Cargo vessels, some appertaining to these businesses would often be seen in the dock. During the 1980s, many of these industries disappeared or moved elsewhere.

Wellington Dock yachting marina.

Wellington Dock yachting marina.

In the summer of 1996, Dover Harbour Board along with factory shopping specialists De Bradelei Mill converted part of the buildings along Cambridge Road into a factory outlet shopping centre. The outlet proved successful and the following year the remainder of the buildings were converted and a restaurant opened in the former Cullin’s boat yard.

To provide a car park the remaining dockside buildings along with the Dover Harbour Board social club, were demolished. In the car park, the tramlines that once ran along Northampton Street can still be seen. For yachtsmen, in 1991 DHB were only offering 35 marina berths in the Dock and decided to increase the number. By 2009, there was room for 157 yachts in Wellington Dock.

In March 2006, DHB announced, with great deal of publicity, that the Western Docks would be redesigned. The current proposal (2016) includes the reclaiming (filling in) the Granville Dock and Tidal Basin and modifications to the Prince of Wales Pier. Two cargo berths are to be created and, as part of the second phase of the redevelopment, a marina is to be built to the east of the Prince of Wales Pier with a waterway access cut through to the Wellington Dock for pleasure craft. Back in the early 1990s, DHB submitted a major waterfront redevelopment plan for Western Docks that included a part of the Wellington Dock to be filled in. However, the redevelopment did not take place as the Environment Agency objected on the grounds that it could precipitate unacceptable levels of flooding.

Cut through from Wellington Dock across the Seafront to the Sea proposal Note there are no Lock Gates - DHB poster January 2016

Cut through from Wellington Dock across the Seafront to the Sea proposal. Note there are no Lock Gates – DHB poster January 2016

During the public consultation process on DHB’s latest plans, Alan, the representative of Doverhistorian.com brought up the question of flooding. With the cut through from Wellington Dock across the Seafront to the sea he went so far as to write a paper showing how this could be utilised to reduce Dover’s flooding problems by the use of a specifically designed lock gate. This was submitted to, amongst others, DHB, who acknowledged the paper. However, that appears to be as far as the proposal went, for in the publicity posters, although the cut through is shown, there are no lock gates shown. Further, it would appear that Wellington Dock would become a tidal basin that is unless there is a sill that would maintain an adequate water level for yachts.

  • Published:
  • Fairbairn Hand Cranked Crane – Dover Mercury: 24 June 2010
  • Wellington Dock – Dover Mercury: 22 & 29 August & 12 September 2013

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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