The Railway

The first day of August 1993 marked the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Folkestone – Boulogne route to regular traffic, a date fixed by the coming of the railway to the Kentish port.

The line from London, via Reigate and Tonbridge, had arrived in June 1843 but as the nineteen arches of the Foord Viaduct were still under construction, a hastily built terminus was erected near the site of the present Folkestone Central station. It was not until six months later that the viaduct was completed and trains were able to use Folkestone station at its eastern end.

The steeply graded railway down to the harbour was built almost immediately, dropping 111 feet for a distance of 1328 yards. Not only did it reach the harbour at right angles but in order to allow trains a level stretch in which to stop, the Railway Pier was built dividing the existing harbour into two, thus creating the Inner and Outer Harbours.

At that time there was no swing bridge allowing trains access to steamer berths on the harbour’s south side and it was not until six years later that this was added allowing passenger boat trains to operate for the first time.

Constructed by the renowned engineer Thomas Telford in 1809, the nineteen acres of Folkestone Harbour were, by the time that the railway arrived, both neglected and badly silted.

Boulogne Route

The land on the south side was a shingle spit, a narrow pebble beach formed by the eastward march of material washed along the south coast of England by the prevailing south-westerly winds. In heavy weather the harbour entrance could easily be choked after which men would be sent to shovel away the stones by horse-drawn carts. The Pent stream also emptied out into the harbour and caused great problems with its continuous load of silt helping to infill the basin. Tidal movements did allow a certain degree of scour but the South Eastern railway’s arrival and the harbour’s purchase for £18,000 certainly proved to be its life-saver.

It was all very well owning its own port but the South Eastern Railway found that it was not legally possible to operate their own steamers. The original vessels therefore were sub-chartered from the New Commercial Steam Packet Company on 1 August 1843, shortly after noon and after a special banquet given by the railway directors and the corporation of Folkestone, crowds gathered on the South Pier to witness the arrival of the 190 ton steamer City of Boulogne. The Sir William Wallace then departed with 75 passengers while later that same day, the third vessel Emerald arrived with a further 142.

Chartering proved unsatisfactory and so the railway’s directors formed the South Eastern and Continental Steam Packet Company and ordered eight new vessels – four from the Thames and four from Birkenhead – to operate their Folkestone – Boulogne route and also from Dover to Ostend and Boulogne. This state of affairs existed until 1853 when the railway company received parliamentary sanction to operate its own steamers.

“The Times” in June 1847 noted that with the opening of the Boulogne and Amiens Railway to Abbeville, it was now possible to reach Paris from London in 14 hours, the Folkestone – Boulogne crossing taking 1 hour 45 minutes.

The railway finally reached Boulogne in 1848 although in those days the steamers operated from the Quai des Paquebots, on the other side of the harbour from the berths used today, and some distance from the station. Even so, the London to Paris through time was reduced to 12 hours 30 minutes and was further cut by another ninety minutes in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Traffic continued to build up and statistics show that during the first six months of 1854, 31,594 passengers crossed from Folkestone to Boulogne while Dover-Calais, with its long and round-about railway link with Paris, only attracted 12,132.

Kentish railway rivalry saw the London Chatham and Dover Railway reach Dover in 1861 and in the following year, the South Eastern steamers retired to the Folkestone – Boulogne crossing leaving the newcomers on the then unpopular Calais link.

It was not until 1867 that the direct railway line to Calais was opened down to Boulogne, joining the existing route to Paris. From that time, the Dover – Calais route, being four miles shorter, became more popular.

The New Pier

The introduction of larger steamers had previously exposed problems at Folkestone Harbour and all services were subject to tidal conditions. To counter this, a new low water pier was completed in September 1861, although this was some distance from the Harbour station, the original South Pier was still preferred for the majority of sailings.

Services were reduced during the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71 but this was followed by a tremendous upsurge in traffic which saw the railway lines at the harbour extended towards the New Pier after 1876. The pier itself was lengthened between 1881-83 resulting in the virtual end of the services from the old South Pier.

Boulogne too accepted the challenge of increased trade and in 1878 the present deep water berths were constructed on the Quai Chanzy. The railway lines were also extended to the site of the Gare Maritime and for the first time, the trains were able to pull-up alongside the steamers.

London to Paris (via Folkestone-Boulogne) was reduced to 8 hours in 1884 and two years later all tidal services ceased and proper, fixed timetables were able to be introduced. A 7 hours 30 minutes through journey became possible in 1891.

By further extending and widening the New Pier between 1897 and 1904, Folkestone Harbour, as we know it today, was completed.

South Eastern & Chatham Railway

Railway rivalry in Kent finally ended after forty bitter years on New Year’s Day 1899 when both companies formed a joint managing committee known as the South Eastern & Chatham Railway. Older vessels were almost immediately disposed of and a degree of interchangeability between erstwhile Folkestone and Dover fleets naturally occurred.

A service was kept going during the 1914-18 War although the premier turbine, The Queen, was intercepted and sunk by German units off the Varne Bank in 1916 while the second ship of the series also became a casualty and her story has become one of the legends of Folkestone Harbour.

Following the resumption of normal services across the Channel, the final years of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway saw the 1911 twins Riviera and Engadine on the route.


The next major change occurred in 1923 when S.E & C.R. was absorbed into the Southern Railway.

After 1925, the Folkestone – Boulogne service was largely operated by the twin turbine steamers Biarritz (1915) and Maid of Orleans (1918) although the latter was lost during the D Day landings in June 1944.

Folkestone was re-opened to civilian traffic in August 1945, Dover being still in use by the Admiralty at this time. October 1945 saw the Ostend service restarted from Folkestone while passenger ships on the Calais link began in 1946 with the former “Golden Arrow” steamer Canterbury.

It was not until July 1947 that a summer Folkestone – Boulogne passenger service restarted although the Autocarrier had operated a basic cargo / crane loading car service between August and October in the previous year.

Nationalization of the railways followed in January 1948 but although the Boulogne traffic continued to rebuild, during the winter months its ships would be at lay-up while a single daily return Calais service was all that called at Folkestone.

No-passport day excursions were reinstated in 1955 and the three passenger steamers Isle of Thanet (1925), Canterbury (1929) and the post-war Maid of Orleans (1949) handled increasing numbers of day-trippers. The older two were replaced in the early sixties by the former Channel Islands steamer St.Patrick while the Folkestone-Boulogne cargo link continued until 1966.

By this time the English Channel routes were experiencing a tremendous growth in roll on-roll off vehicle traffic. Dover, Calais and Boulogne all had link-spans, connecting shore to ship, in operation since the 1950’s, while Folkestone struggled to compete and was gradually being strangled by lack of investment.

A new lease of life

Cars were carried in small numbers by the time-honoured method of craning them on board, but this could not compare with neighbouring Dover which, in 1966, had opened its third linkspan (of double deck design) which enabled two hundred plus cars to be loaded within minutes. Heavy freight was also on the advance and road hauliers looked for vessels with high vehicle deck headroom in order to accommodate their increasingly large lorries.

Folkestone’s saviour was undoubtedly the £9 million development scheme including the building of its own link-span which was ready for traffic in July 1972. It brought the port a new lease of life and the Boulogne link was reinstated on a daily basis throughout the year. Calais services were interwoven with these while for the first time in the port’s history, twice-nightly freight sailings were also opened to Ostend.

To operate the new services, the Hengist and Horsa were provided, each at a cost of £4 million. The vehicle ferry link was late in coming, but for Folkestone it was certainly worth waiting for. In the first month alone, the port handled 75,000 passengers, 4151 cars, 51 coaches and 397 freight vehicles. All agreed that the new service had saved a dying port and that the present development should have been built twenty-five years previously.

Until the mid-seventies, the main Boulogne car ferry link was still that from Dover but with Sealink gradually aiming the bulk of its traffic towards Calais, Folkestone once more became the premier port for Boulogne.

The privatisation of Sealink U.K. Ltd

The final passenger steamer, the former Channel Islands vessel Caesarea completed her last crossing between Folkestone and Boulogne in October 1980 thus ending the long history of the Channel packetboats.

Vehicle ferries now reigned supreme and Folkestone’s forward berth (number 1) ceased to be used except for periods of lay-by. Likewise at Boulogne, the passenger ship berth (number 14) no longer received its daily visits.

In June 1984, all Folkestone-Calais sailings were switched to Dover while as from March 1985 the nightly Ostend sailings were also diverted there. Seven miles up the coast, Dover took all other cross channel traffic across the straits and Folkestone-Boulogne was left in the capable hands of the Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa.

During July 1984, the privatisation of Sealink U.K.Ltd had occurred when it was purchased for £66 million by the Bermuda-based Sea Containers Ltd. under its American president James B.Sherwood. The railway connection was finally broken although of all his new ports Folkestone was perhaps the best known to Mr. Sherwood as in May 1982 he had restarted his fabled luxury train, the Orient Express whose passengers travelled between the Kentish port and Boulogne en route from London to Venice and return.

With the bonds of nationalization released, the new Sealink British Ferries confidently looked towards a bright and profitable future. Under new management, all Folkestone-Boulogne traffic records were broken although with the new parent company looking for economies throughout its operations and the threat of a Channel Tunnel growing ever closer, dark clouds once more appeared on Folkestone’s horizon.

In 1990 Sealink British Ferries was sold by Sea Containers to Stena Line of Sweden, but which excluded the company’s port ownerships such as Folkestone Harbour. With continued expansion and investment being focused on the intense competition on the Dover – Calais route, in autumn 1991 Stena Line announced the closure of the Folkestone – Boulogne service, which took place on 31 December 1991.

Sea Containers’ purchase of the then hovercraft only operator Hoverspeed in 1987 and subsequent investment in new high speed Seacat catamarans in the early 1990s, presented Folkestone Harbour with a further lifeline, and in April 1992 a high speed Seacat Folkestone – Boulogne service was introduced.

As an immensely popular day trip service in particular, the route relied heavily on short stay excursion traffic and cross channel duty free shoppers. With a further initial threat looming of an EU led directive of duty free abolition planned for later in the 90s, once again a question mark was raised over the viable future of ferry services from Folkestone to Boulogne. Consequently with duty free abolition coming into effect in June 1999, passenger figures and profit margins were severely affected and Sea Containers closed the Folkestone – Boulogne service in September 2000. From then on Folkestone Harbour ceased to exist as a cross channel passenger port for the first time in its history.

The above information is from John Hendy’s book, “Folkestone – Boulogne 1843 – 1991” (published by Ferry Publications Ltd – )

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