Archaeological finds indicate that the Whitstable area was inhabited during the Paaeolithic era, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Oysters were harvested in the area in Roman times, and charters indicate that there were Saxon settlements where salt production and coastal trade occurred. The town was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, under the name Witenestaple, meaning "the meeting place of the white post", which referred to a local landmark. At that time, Witenestaple was an administrative area which stretched from the coast to the village of Blean, 3 kilometres (2 mi) north of Canterbury. The area contained three manors at Seasalter, Northwood and Swalecliffe. The Seasalter and Swalecliffe manors were owned by the church, and the manor at Northwood was run by noblemen on behalf of the king. Fisheries were located at the Seasalter manor, saltworks were at the Northwood manor, and pigs were farmed at the forest in Blean. By 1226, the name of the area had evolved into Whitstaple.] Around 1300, saltworks were opened at the Seasalter manor, and, in 1325, a sea wall was built there to prevent coastal flooding.
By 1413, the three manors had combined, forming the Whitstaple manor, and had been sold to a religious foundation in Essex] In the 1500s, the manor was seized by King Henry VIII during his suppression of the church, and was given back to the nobility. In 1574, a Royal Patent was granted to the manor owner for the fishing of its oyster beds. In the same year, the lands at Tankerton were incorporated into the manor. A copperas works was established at Tankerton in 1588 which operated until about 1830. By 1610, the name Whitstaple had become Whitstable.
Around the mid-1700s, goods and passengers began to be transported by ship between London and Whitstable, and a toll road was built to the cathedral city of Canterbury. These improvements in transport led to the town's development as a seaside resort; the first advertisements for bathing machines at Whitstable appeared in 1768. In 1790, the manor was sold to private landowners. The rights to harvest the oyster beds were bought in 1793 by the newly established Oyster Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers.
On 3 May 1830, the world's first steam-hauled passenger and freight railway service was opened by the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway Company. The line ran from Westgate in Canterbury to Whitstable town centre. The six-mile (10 km) railway was designed by William James and built at a cost of £83,000. The railway line's initials, C&WR, and Whitstable's shellfish industry eventually led to its nickname: 'The Crab And Winkle Railway'. At first, trains were pulled along on ropes by steam-driven stationary winding engines up the inclined planes and by a locomotive for the rest of the journey. The winding engines were located at Tyler Hill and Clowes Wood. The locomotive used was the Invicta, an 0-4-0 inclined cylinder tender locomotive built by Robert Stephenson of Newcastle for £635, which pulled three carriages.
Whitstable harbour was opened by the railway company in 1832, and the rail line was extended, enabling goods to be directly transferred from ships onto the trains. The harbour provided shelter for around 20 sailing ships of up to 150 tons, and had sidings for around 80 rail wagons. A dock was built for transferring freight between sea-going and river vessels. Whitstable harbour's main trade was importing Northumberland coal, which was then taken to Canterbury or transported by the South Eastern Railway to Croydon and Reigate.
In 1834, the world's first season tickets were issued for the C&WR line. They were sold to Canterbury residents travelling to Whitstable beach during the summer season. Until its demolition in 1970, Whitstable was home to the world's oldest railway bridge.
In 1840, the Invicta locomotive was retired and replaced by horses until a third winding engine was built at South Street. The Invicta was kept for scrap, but in 1898 work began on its restoration. The restoration continued intermittently, until it was finally completed in 1977 in York by the National Railway Museum. The locomotive was returned to Canterbury on 3 May 1980 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the line. It is now displayed at the Canterbury Museum.
In 1845, the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway Company was bought by the South Eastern Railway, who then introduced steam locomotives capable of operating along the entire length of the railway. These locomotives were coke-fired, so two ovens were built near the harbour to convert coal into coke. Coke production continued until 1880 when coal-fired locomotives took over. The ovens and their chimneys were demolished in 1892. On 16 November 1869, 71 buildings in the town were destroyed by a fire started at a shop near the harbour.
The Sea Cadet Corps traces its origin to the town. In about 1856, the Naval Lads' Brigade was started in Whitstable by the Reverend Henry Barton. In 1904, it was renamed the Sea Cadet Corps.
In 1936, a plant to manufacture tarmacadam was built beside Whitstable Harbour, on the site of the old coke works, but after World War II, the harbour gradually fell into decay. In 1958, Whitstable Urban District Council purchased and repaired the harbour with the intention of rejuvenating the town's economy. The ownership of the harbour passed to Canterbury City Council in 1974. By the early 20th century, the Oyster Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers had become the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company. Oyster production drastically declined between the 1940s and 1970s due to pollution, disease, bad weather and underinvestment. However, since the 1970s there has been a gradual improvement.
The Crab and Winkle Line finally closed in 1953. About 40% of the line was reopened as a footpath and cycleway under the stewardship of a local charity, the Crab and Winkle Line Trust. Plans exist to extend the path along the old line into the centre of Whitstable and out to the harbour.
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