Looking Out to Sea at St Margaret-at-Cliffe
Image by antonychammond
History of St Margaret’s Bay
The readiest source of information about the history of St Margaret’s is a booklet titled "St Margaret’s Bay The Piccadilly of the Sea." This was originally written by J Harris Stone and published in 1910. An updated version was produced by John Jewell in 1980 and the latest revision by Jean Richardson was published in 2001. Copies of the booklet are available from the Village Shop at £2.50 each.
Here are some extracts:
"The Bay lies within the parish of St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe which appears in the Domesday Book as Sancta Margharita. From that time forward until the sixteenth century very little is known about the history of the parish, which is contained in a pocket of land around the South Foreland, to the south of the Dover/Deal road, and is bordered by three miles of the English Channel. To some extent the village can be described as off the map. There was no great house or noble family to record its history while its population was very small and few of them could read or write, so that it is doubtful whether any record was made.
……From Saxon times until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Priors of St Martins in Dover controlled the parish…It was at Dover that a start was made on compiling the Domesday Book. The Priors were the ones who built the village church some time between 1140 and 1296, on a Saxon foundation. Perhaps this great church and the surrounding village was used as a summer retreat for Benedictine monks and it has always been a puzzle to understand why such a small village should have such a large church…….
In 1367 a hermit monk, one Nicholas de Legh, is said to have kept a light burning in a cave to warn mariners of the dreaded Goodwins and Archbishop Langham granted forty days’ indulgence to all who contributed to the maintenance of the hermitage…..
In the parish records there is an interesting account dated 1696 of a shepherd who, being lost one night, fell over the cliff and was mortally injured, but he lived long enough to bequeath to the parish five roods of land to pay for the tolling of a curfew bell at 8 p.m. from Michaelmas to Lady Day in order to warn travellers if they walked too near the edge of the cliff……..Throughout the following centuries the villagers were concerned in smuggling. It is said that the church tower was used by a parish clerk to store the gear which was required to haul the contraband up the cliffs……
The census of 1821 showed 87 houses and a population of 613, including over a hundred boys at Dr Temple’s Academy. By 1873 there were 143 houses and a population of 820……
The first electric telegraph cable from England to France was laid in 1851, from the South Foreland, and electric light was tried at the lighthouse in 1859. The Channel Tunnel Company started test-boring here in 1865"
From late Victorian times St Margaret’s was developed as a holiday resort and a retreat for well to do citizens. Among those who have stayed or lived here are: Lord Arthur Cecil, Lord Byron, Admiral Seymour, Marie Corelli, Max Beerbohm, George Arlisss, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Peter Ustinov.
"… In May 1918 the last bomb dropped on England fell on St Margaret’s….When the war ended an obelisk was put up in 1921 at Leathercote Point with a matching one at Cap Gris Nez on the French coast, and a smaller one near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, to honour the men of the three nations who took part in the Dover Patrol….
…..The coming of the Second World War had a profound effect on the parish…. All but necessary civilians were evacuated and the whole area was occupied by troops….the village was subject to almost daily shellfire and bombing until 1945. To the nation the area became known as Hell-fire Corner….. The gun emplacements included some old 16-inch naval guns called Winnie and Pooh which, when they fired, did more damage to local windows than they did to the enemy."
In the 1950s the village returned to life as a holiday retreat with the RAF camp transforming into a holiday camp. The population grew and many found work outside the village, particularly in the local ports which served the fast growing, continental motoring holiday traffic. Today the parish has a community of over 2,500.