Our Historic Village
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‘Another perfect day at ‘White Cliffs’. I don’t think I can fail to be happy there…’
(Noel Coward writing in his diary about his house in St Margaret’s Bay. 16th September 1945)
St Margaret’s has a very unusual and rich history for such a small place. Its proximity to Dover and the English Channel and its great natural beauty has made it both an attractive destination and an important place to defend. It has also, unusually, been home to famous celebrities such as Miriam Margoyles, Peter Ustinov, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Henry Royce as well as famous actors of an earlier age, George Arliss and Johnston Forbes-Robertson.
Farming, boarding schools and tourism
Until the 19th Century the village was a small farming community clustered around an unusually large 12th Century church, with the locals undertaking a little smuggling and fishing from its beautiful cliff fringed beach. There was also a large boarding school for young gentlemen and a smaller one for young ladies. Village children had their own small school from 1847, still standing today in Kingsdown Road.
In the 1880’s the Earl of Granville saw a chance for development on the fields overlooking the sea. He built a select hotel on the cliffs, The Granville Hotel. When the local Coastguards moved to new accommodation above the beach in 1884 their seaside cottages became holiday homes and a beach front hotel, The Lanzarote, later renamed the Bay Hotel, was opened. New seaside villas, a tearoom and beach huts followed.
At about the same time in the centre of the village, the former boys’ boarding school became The Cliffe Hotel and the former girls’ school a convalescent home, Morley House, later Portal House, for London working men. The village became a thriving fashionable seaside destination for the wealthy and middle class. Large new houses were built on the cliffs and as many villagers were engaged in providing cleaning, washing cooking, waiting, driving and gardening services for their new rich residents as there were working on the local farms. Shops and pubs thrived and many locals took in paying guests to help the family income.
A 1910 an advert for the Bay Hotel proudly listed some of its celebrity guests who ranged from theatre managers and writers to baronets and judges. Dr Barnardo, founder of the famous children’s homes stayed here as did Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary. Authors Max Beerbohm and Marie Corelli, the latter the most widely read novelist of her day, were also customers.
International Stars of Stage and Screen
In 1911 one of the major celebrities of the day, UK and USA stage and film actor George Arliss, the first British Academy Award winner, and his wife Florence, rented a cottage in the middle of the village. He was followed by friends like Johnston Forbes- Robertson, the ‘Hamlet of his day’ who had also been a big stage star here and in America, who bought a country house ‘Bloms’ at the top of Bay Hill in 1918. A family friend of the Forbes- Robertson’s, Noel Coward, rented ‘White Cliffs’ and other houses on the beach in 1945. Coward entertained many of his famous friends such as actors Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, John Mills and writer Daphne du Maurier at weekend parties at the house. In 1951 Coward sublet a house to another friend, Ian Fleming, who based part of one of his famous Bond books, ‘Moonraker’ on the adjacent cliffs. Peter Ustinov bought a house here in the 1950’s after falling in love with it during his wartime service in the village. This was later bought by the award winning actress Miriam Margoyles.
A village of ‘firsts’
The village has other claims to fame. The first cross channel telegraph cable was laid from St Margaret’s Bay to France in 1851. Our lighthouse at the South Foreland was the first in the world to be lit by electricity and the scene of many early wireless experiments by Marconi. Henry Royce designed Rolls- Royce’s first aero engines in his house ‘Seaton’ here at the outbreak of WW1 in 1914.
The last bomb to fall on England in WW1 fell in our parish in May 1918. Our war memorial lists 31 men with local connections who died in this war including Captain Alec Little, an Australian who remains Australia’s top flying ace and Lt Col Christopher Bushell, a VC winner. The village was fringed by military airfields at Swingate, Guston and Hawksdown, whose primitive planes and barely trained young pilots often crashed with fatal consequences for over 40 of them, including one who crashed in the middle of a road in the village. Five hundred troops, the equivalent of the whole prewar male population of the village, were billeted here. Zeppelin and aircraft bombing raids on Dover were terrifyingly close and the village itself was bombed but with no casualties. The precious undersea telegraph cable to France on the beach was closely guarded. After the war a nationally funded memorial to the Dover Patrol was built on the village cliffs.
WW2- Frontline Village
In WW2 the village’s civilian population was largely evacuated and over 1500 military personnel were billeted here to defend the coast and to operate newly built large cross channel guns. The wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made many visits to the village to inspect the gun sites. Many houses were requisitioned by the military, miles of barbed wire filled local fields and the beach became a ‘Battle School’ for the military. Beachside homes, the Bay Hotel and the ancient Green Man pub were raked with gunfire and explosions by our troops practicing invasion and street fighting. The character of this ruined little ‘village within a village’ was changed forever in the 1950’s when all except a few 1930’s houses at the end of the beach were deemed beyond repair and the area was largely cleared, although parts of the old pub were rebuilt and it lives on today as ‘The Coastguard’.
St Margaret’s, like Dover, was directly shelled from occupied France with over 1000 shells landing in the parish. The firing of our own guns also caused a lot of structural damage and there was barely a pane of glass left in the village. 80% of village houses were damaged. 24 people lost their lives here, most of them military casualties.
Evacuated villagers returned slowly to an intense housing shortage, some staying in the Nissan huts left by the military, locally dubbed ‘Tin Town’. New Council houses were built to house growing village families. The Cold War of the 50’s saw the building of a large radar installation on the cliffs and the building of an RAF camp, now a holiday camp, to house its personnel.
The St Margaret’s Museum next to the Pines garden in the bay, operated by the Bay Trust, has great displays on the history of the village. For more details see http://pinesgarden.co.uk/
Thanks to St Margaret’s History Society for providing this section on the history of the Village. All photographs are copyright for St Margaret’s History Society.