Precis of an essay by Ben Shorer for a course at Brighton University

By Carol Walton

This is an essay written by Ben Shorer for a course at Brighton University (he is a second year primary teacher who is specialising in history). It is about the history of the port and its high and low points.  Ben used our website for inspiration and thought it might be nice to share with people who visit the site the information that he collected and significantly condensed (it was only a 2000 word essay!).

Ben lives in Newhaven and found it a very interesting topic to research and if he gets time then he would like to look into other areas of the town.

The route between Newhaven and Dieppe is an ancient one. Records show that as far back as 1825 it was used to transfer foot passengers between shores. It has been used by numerous key figures throughout its lifetime and has had several controversies from the year it was opened. It has been and still is advertised as the shortest route between London and Paris; however there are many that have questioned the port of Newhaven and the route itself since it was created.

This essay will explore the high and low points of the Newhaven/Dieppe passenger ferry since its creation.

From the beginning Newhaven and the route to Dieppe have not had an easy time. The town, which grounds fell under the parish of Meeching, did not exist until the middle of the 16th century, when the river Ouse became blocked by a freak storm and made itself a new mouth to the sea. This became Newhaven Port as we know it. In the 18th century the ports sole use was to ship freight up the river Ouse to Lewes.

In 1823 the port was described as ‘little better than a ditch’, because of its inability to house large vessels, but within 2 years Newhaven’s fortunes changed. In 1825 the port was used for the route to Dieppe, using two wooden paddle steamers from the General Steam Navigation Company.

1847 became a major year for the port and the route, as the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR)finished the train line between London and Newhaven, which later became a key marketing strategy. This meant that it took 2 hours to travel from London to Newhaven by train, instead of 12-15 hours by road. The LBSCR created ‘first class’ London and Paris hotel adjacent to the port and an act of parliament was passed for the improvement of the port.

Also in 1847, the Brighton and Continental Steam Packet Company (BCSPC) started running 3 paddle steamers on the route in collaboration with the LBSCR. One of the first customers to use the route was exiled King Louis Philippe of France and his wife. Not long after the official opening of the route there was another problem. The LBSCR were unable to use the BCSPC’s boats for legal reasons, halting the line until 1849.

In 1849 the GNSC used their boats to run the route and with the completion of the Dieppe to Paris train line the first London to Paris tickets were sold. During this time advertising said it was the shortest route with large and powerful steamers. However, Captain Blackmore who used to run the route from 1851 made certain statements that contradict the adverts somewhat. He said: “Passages were normally made at night, as the boats were too slow to complete the journey from London to Paris and vice versa… The boats were crowded and the miseries endured by the deck passengers very great; they were often landed more like drowned rats than human beings… the complaints were continuous, especially from the French side”.

In 1862 the LBSCR collaborated with the Chemin de fer de L’Ouest, a French railway company, to run the route. In 1863 the LBSCR joined with Thomas Cook, whose international business was growing rapidly as travelling to the continent became more accessible to the working classes. The crossing was still very unpleasant, and was widely known as one of the most uncomfortable passages to France with the trip to Paris taking up to 24 hours. Nonetheless, Thomas Cook was appointed by the LBSCR to be their managing director for the 1867 Paris Exhibition. The total number of passengers making the crossing to France was supposedly nearly double the 295,000 passengers who travelled in 1866. However, these figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, as official statistics do not begin until 1876.

There are several mentions of collisions over the years, however in 1887 the worst disaster on the route occurred when a boat called the Victoria hit rocks off the coast of France and 19 people were thrown into the sea and died.

In 1878, another Paris Exhibition took place whereby 135,000 people crossed the channel from Newhaven. The boats from Newhaven carried 3 classes of passenger, 1st, 2nd and 3rd class, the earliest mention of these being 1882.

The idea of a continental holiday was now much more accessible to the working classes, and an article from 1888 states that those who use the Newhaven – Dieppe route are people who wish to cross the channel ‘with the least possible expense’, rather than the more expensive route from Dover.

In 1889 yet another Paris Exhibition drew massive crowds to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe route. An article records how the boats were overcrowded, and getting onto the boats was a task because of the dangerously steep stairs, and that people would arrive soaking wet. One text states that the standard of the boats had improved, however only for the 1st and 2nd class ferries, which were reportedly able to cross the channel in 3 hours and 15 minutes. However, records suggests it was closer to 4 hours, at best.

By 1890 Newhaven was improving its image, attracting people such as the gambler Charles Wells, who would use the route regularly to get to Monte Carlo. Also an article titled ‘The Liverpool of the South’ suggests that Newhaven was the 6th greatest port in the UK. However being written in the East Sussex Gazette there may be a degree of bias. In 1900 270,000 passengers used the Newhaven to Dieppe route, stealing customers from the Dover and Folkestone. The owner of the two ports complained of unfair competition because of the low rates of which the London to Paris route via Newhaven-Dieppe was now reportedly the cheapest in the UK.

Between 1888 and 1903 the routes popularity almost tripled, as passenger numbers rose to 202,000. These figures were certainly helped by Thomas Cook’s cheap foreign excursions, which were supposedly cheaper than holidaying in the UK. A three day tour to Boulogne cost £2 and 2 shillings, whereas the cheapest 5 day excursion from London to Brighton cost £2 2 shillings and 1 penny. 

The 20th century brought a new customer to the port: people who wanted to take their new motor cars abroad. In 1906, 3 years before cars were being mass produced, 423 cars were transferred between shores. From 1900 to 1914 the route was booming, with passenger numbers well above 200,000 per year on average and a huge number of staff were employed. This includes, strangely, Ho Chi Minh the Vietnamese communist leader who worked as a pantry boy.

An advert from 1913 states that the route only takes 2 hours and 45 minutes. Records show that this time was achieved once, but the average time was between 3 and 3 ½ hours, therefore a degree of exaggeration is used.

In 1914 the port and the town were taken over by military authorities under ‘Defence of the Realm Regulations’. During the First World War the port was expanded, and when normal service resumed in 1918, was able to harbour much bigger boats.

In 1923 the LBSCR became Southern Railway Company. During this period the crossing between Newhaven and Dieppe was still as popular, and in 1926 a record 301,000 passengers used the route. However, after this year a huge drop in passengers occurred, possibly in relation to a general economic depression and the value of the pound decreasing.The number of passengers remained low until a trade fair in 1937 saw a huge jump in numbers, to 376,000. 

The following year the 'Rouen’ ran aground in Newhaven port which gave the route an unwanted statistic: every boat used on the route between World War 1 and 2 had crashed at least once.

In 1939 the route was again suspended, and all ships were sent to help with the war effort. The route was reopened in January 1945, even though the war in Europe did not finish until May.

In the mid 1950’s air travel became a genuine competitor, with the rich travelling by air and the industrial worker by sea. Air travel heavily affected the route and from 1956 to 1964 there were no winter ferries.

From 1947 to 1953 the number of cars taken between shores almost trebled, as the boats were adjusted to carry 60 cars. The number of foot passengers decreased during this period as people would prefer to use the shorter, more comfortable route from Dover.

However in 1964 Newhaven’s first roll-on roll-off ferry arrived, the 'Falaise’. From 1960 to 1970 the percentage of foot passengers fell from 77.6% to 25.4%, however the total number of passengers rose from 311,000 to 494,000 during the same period, due to the success of the roll-on roll-off ferries.

In 1972 the brand name ‘Sealink’ was adopted by Southern Rail for the route and in 1973 introduced the ‘Senlac’, which had supermarket style shops, a disco, and could carry 1400 passengers and 200 cars. However, less than a year into its service the Senlac arrived at Newhaven 5 hours late after a storm and several vehicles on board had been destroyed.

From the late 1970s to today the service has been subject to multiple strikes, mergers and takeovers. This began with Sealink becoming Sealink UK in 1979, and passenger numbers increased to 806,000. Despite this, the route was unprofitable and in 1982 Sealink UK announced they were stopping the route. This prompted a ‘sit-in’ on the Senlac, and over 240 staff stayed on the boat for over a month. Surprisingly, the ‘sit-in’ worked, and Sealink UK continued running the route for 3 years up until 1985 when it closed. On the last crossing of the Senlac, the captain played ‘Rule Britannia’ over the Tannoy and said ‘[it is] a sad day for the crew, a sad day for Newhaven and a sad day for British Ferries’.

In 1986 ‘Stena Line’ stepped in, setting a new record of 927,000 passengers in the first year. Despite the record the route remained unprofitable and constant strikes by the French sailors gave the route the reputation of being the most unreliable service in north-west Europe.

In 1992 confidence from passengers returned when Stena Sealink took over the route and reduced fare prices, making it profitable. The all-time record of 1.239 million annual passengers was set in 1993. Stena then merged with P+O Ferries to become P+O Stena in 1996. Chris Bennett, a former employee of both Stena and P&O Stena, believes that when P+O took over they had no interest in the Newhaven–Dieppe route and wanted to focus on Dover.

In 1996 Stena and P&O attempted to compete with the Eurotunnel by cutting staff numbers. However passenger numbers fell by 900,000 in just six years, prompting P+O pulled out in 1998 because of a reported £25 million loss.

Hoverspeed then took over, using the fast boat the ‘SuperSeaCat 2’. Nevertheless, passenger numbers continued to fall and Chris Bennett believes that people preferred the Eurotunnel or Dover crossing because they were both faster. Cheap air travel was also affected the route, as total UK sea passengers fell by a third in 2005, and air travel almost doubled between 1997 and 2008.

The future of the Newhaven–Dieppe route looks bleak. England and France are currently at a stalemate over costs, with the service coming up for sale this year.

Nevertheless, the Port has won a 25 year contract with E.ON to place a wind farm off the coast, and there is apparent interest from P+O and MyFerryLink to purchase the route.

The route has had many problems and successes from its first use in 1825, from the success of the Paris Exhibitions and cheap excursions from the enterprising Thomas Cook, to the lows of numerous strikes, takeovers, boat crashes and uncomfortable passages between shores. From 1980 to 1993 showed a steady increase in passengers, undeniably helped by the roll-on, roll-off ferries, but cheap air travel and the Eurotunnel destroyed the route to near non-existence.

The future looks uncertain for the port and the route. Nonetheless, it has arguably played a key part in the British and French continental tourist trade throughout its total 189 year life. 

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This page was added by Carol Walton on 31/03/2014.