2 of a set of three Boats on the shingle beach at Deal, Kent.
The proximity of Deal’s shoreline to the notorious Goodwin Sands has made its coastal waters a source of both shelter and danger through the history of sea travel in British waters. The Downs, the water between the town and the sands, provides a naturally sheltered anchorage. This allowed the town to become a significant shipping and military port in past centuries despite the absence of a harbour, with transit of goods and people from ship to shore conducted using smaller tender craft. Deal was, for example, visited by Nelson and was the first English soil on which James Cook set foot in 1771 on returning from first voyage to Australia. The anchorage is still used today by international and regional shipping, though on a scale far smaller than at other times in the past (some historical accounts report hundreds of ships being visible from the beach).
By the time Dickens came to Deal it had been largely forgotten how the government of 1784, under Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (who was staying at nearby Walmer Castle, and was later to be appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1792), ensured that the Deal boats were all set ablaze, suspecting some of the Deal luggers of being engaged in smuggling. Pitt had awaited an opportunity that January, when the boats were all ‘hoved up’ on the beach on account of bad weather, to send a regiment of soldiers to smash and burn them. A naval cutter was positioned offshore to prevent any of the boatmen escaping.
The boatmen’s ancestors had the right, under charter, freely to import goods in return for their services as Cinque Port men in providing what had been long recognised as the sole naval defence of the realm. These men continued to risk their lives and their boats, in saving the lives of shipwreck victims.
The irrepressible spirit of the Deal boatmen remained undaunted by these events throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and they continued to assert their hard-earned right to trade.
From these activities news of the events unfolding in France would reach England quickly and regularly, with about 400 men making a living of off Deal beach at that time. The war only made the boatmen’s efforts more profitable, so that afterwards the Government immediately turned a part of its naval blockade into a coastal blockade, which lasted from 1818 to 1831.
Deal had a naval shipyard which provided Deal with much of its trade. On the site of the yard there is now a building originally used as a semaphore tower, and later used as a coastguard house, then as a timeball tower, which it remains today, and as a museum. Besides this and the Deal Maritime Museum, there is no museum of the town’s history yet, though a campaign to start one is ongoing – Deal’s history is told at Dover Museum instead.
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