Our WW1 history

One of the most remarkable facts about Folkestone during the Great War is the number of men and women who set out for the Western Front from the town's harbour.

The figure is in the millions. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that not a single person was lost to enemy action while crossing the Channel to France. Add in the freight, horses, food, clothing, armaments, then the scale of the operation begins to become apparent.

Folkestone was also the point of arrival for the Belgian Royal Family and served as a temporary home not just for them but for over 100,000 other refugees from the fighting.

During the First World War, more than 100,000 railway royal engineers served the front by keeping supplies and troops moving by train. The SECR railway played a key role in the war. Trains carried millions of injured soldiers from the battlefields to safety between 1914 and 1918.

The Canadian connection

Tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers based in Folkestone during WW1 had a huge impact on the seaside town.

As well as training hard to do their job on the frontline, they were an exciting addition to the community. More than 1,000 local girls married Canadian soldiers and later returned with them to Canada!

Every year the community continues to honour the Canadian troops on 1st July (Canada Day) at a special service at Shorncliffe Military Cemetery, which holds the bodies of 305 Canadian soldiers who died during the Great War.

Folkestone's Forgotten Tragedy

The Tontine Street Air Raid, 25 May 1917

Tontine Street in Folkestone has had its ups and downs over the years. Many local people will be unaware of its lofty origins as an upmarket Victorian shopping thoroughfare, and more familiar with its gradual decline to deprived urban street. Today it's on the up again and a key location at the heart of the Creative Quarter.

A century ago, while the Great War raged on, Tontine Street was a bustling hive of enterprise, lined with colourful shopfronts, street vendors and shoppers. On Friday 25 May 1917 it became the site of the First World War's largest single incident of civilian casualties outside of London.

A New Kind of War

WW1 was a new kind of war in many ways, not least because of the long-range German Gotha planes and the threat they brought to normal people, miles from the frontline.

At the end of May 1917, Tontine Street was packed with local people shopping for the long Bank Holiday weekend. It was payday and there were rumours of a prized potato delivery at Stokes Brothers greengrocery. Late into the day, mums, children and workers thronged the street in the warm spring sunshine.

Just like today, the locals were accustomed to the sounds of the army training so paid no attention to bombs heard in the distance. At 6.22pm, without any warning, a single bomb fell outside Stokes Brothers, opposite Gosnold Brothers Drapery.

Horror at Home

The injuries, deaths and aftermath were horrific. Ten men, 28 women and 25 children were killed and more than 100 injured on Tontine Street that evening. Greengrocer William Stokes and his youngest son Arthur were among the dead. Frederick Stokes died from his injuries a year later.

Gotha planes returning from an aborted daylight bomb raid on London (the first ever) had decided to shed their load on the Folkestone area. At Shorncliffe, 18 servicemen were killed and there was substantial damage to Central Station; but it was Tontine Street that took the brunt.

The change in German plans had not been detected by the air raid warning system and with no anti-aircraft guns to protect the town, the people hadn't stood a chance. The English Channel could no longer keep the war at bay, and the community was in complete shock. Many suffered long-lasting emotional, mental and physical problems after the bombing.

To allay public fears following the tragedy, the Mayor set up the Air Raid Relief Fund which helped to install anti-aircraft guns, sirens and shelters in the town.

A memorial event took place to commemorate 100 years since the incident. A plaque was unveiled in Christchurch Memorial Gardens listing the names of the 81 killed on Tontine Street and the surrounding area.

Local figures

Folkestone has played host to some incredible people over the years.  We explore some of them and their connection to the town.

Walter Tull

Walter Tull has been making the headlines a century after his death on 25 March 1918, amid calls to posthumously award him the Military Cross he was believed to have been recommended for during the First World War, but never received.

Second Lieutenant Walter Tull's story resonates today for many reasons, most notably for the racism he fought and rose above to become the British Army's first British-born mixed race officer to lead troops into battle.

Walter's experiences also help to raise awareness of the diversity of those involved in WW1, extending far beyond the traditional representation of the British 'Tommy' or upper-class officer.

The Indian Army, the Chinese Labour Corps, other black soldiers such as Private William Nurse, and thousands of women all played a significant part in the war, along with Commonwealth troops.

Walter was born in Folkestone in 1888 to Daniel and Alice Tull, a Barbadian carpenter and his wife who came from a local farming family.

He seemed to enjoy happy working class family life until the deaths of both his mother and father in quick succession.

At the age of nine, Walter and his brother Edward (the youngest boys of five siblings) were sent to a children's home in Bethnal Green, East London.

Despite this very tough end to his childhood and the prejudice rife at this time, he went on to become one of the country's first black professional footballers before enlisting with the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in December 1914.

Dorothy Earnshaw

Dorothy Earnshaw was a VAD nurse (Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Red Cross) based at the Manor House Hospital in Folkestone during the First World War. Like many others during this unique and life-changing time, she kept a friendship album.

According to Red Cross records, Dorothy came from Wimbledon, Surrey to serve full-time in Folkestone for two periods between June 1916 and September 1918. Interestingly though her friendship album begins in Folkestone in November 1915, when she was 22 years old.

A small hardback notebook, it is stuffed with signatures, sketches, photographs, poems, letters, newspaper cuttings and heartfelt messages from servicemen from Canada, the United States and Australia as well as Britain.

She was clearly popular with her patients and some messages hint at stronger feelings. Extremely personal, it is also a fascinating and poignant glimpse into a time that was to have such an influence on 20th century life.

The Manor House auxiliary hospital opened in October 1914, led by local philanthropist Commandant Florence Daly. The impressive building on the corner of Earls Avenue and the Leas Promenade was originally built for Folkestone's fifth Earl of Radnor in 1895 but later sold, and loaned for the war effort by new owners.

Auxiliary hospitals were generally smaller, less formal and more homely than military hospitals, making them a very welcome retreat from the Front for wounded and convalescing soldiers. In such close proximity to the battlefields, Folkestone is thought to have had up to 47 hospitals by the end of WW1.

Dorothy's album is now held by Folkestone Library. The Manor House still stands today, a Grade II listed building containing eight apartments overlooking the Channel towards France.

The Harbour Canteen/Mole Café books

The Harbour Canteen, which stood on the harbour during the First World War, served refreshments to the troops on their way out to France. For many of those about to board ship, the cafe would have offered a welcome final cuppa before the journey to foreign lands.

What makes the canteen so special from a historical perspective is that an estimated 42,000 of the soldiers who stopped at the canteen signed visitors' books that were rediscovered a few years ago by local historian Charles Fair.

The Step Short project has scanned all eight of the books and transcribed every single entry, throwing up some fascinating material in the process.

The books were published online in 2014, a fascinating and unique record of those times and an amazing source for historians and family researchers. 

Access to view the books and to search by name is free. Access to this superb resource is now subsidised by Folkestone & Hythe District Council.

Since 2015 the Harbour Canteen or Mole Café has been revived on the Harbour Arm in Folkestone. Visitors can take a stroll along the old railway pier and enjoy a cup of tea and a big slice of cake, just like the men and women of the Great War.

Key stories from the visitor books

The Harbour Canteen visitors' books contain 42,000 stories - although most of them are as yet untold. Here are just three of the stories we do know.

George Sanders

Book entry 13 Nov 1916

George Sanders won the Victoria Cross while serving with the West Yorkshire Regiment during the Battle of the Somme.

On 1 July, 1916, Corporal Sanders found himself isolated with 30 men after advancing into enemy territory near Thiepval. He organised his defences, detailed a bombing party and made it clear that his men's priority was to hold the position.

The following day he repelled an enemy attack and rescued some prisoners they were holding. After further action he and his men were relieved after 36 hours. They had no food and water, having given it all to the wounded on the first night.

Corporal Sanders received his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace on 18 November 1916, which suggests that his entry in the book was made as he was returning from France for the ceremony.

Major General Hugh Trenchard

Book entry 5 April 1918

In 1913 Hugh Trenchard was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to become assistant commandant of the Central Flying School, a job that reflected his interest in aviation.

He was promoted to Brigadier General and commanded the RFC in France from summer 1915 to early 1918 when he returned to England to become Chief of the Air Staff following the formation of the Air Council.

The initials CAS feature after his entry in the visitors' book he signed in the Harbour Canteen, and it was in that role that he helped establish the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918 through a merger of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

Trenchard made his visitors' book entry as he was about to leave for France to inspect air squadrons and assess the air situation, but he had locked horns on a number of occasions with Air Secretary Lord Rothermere and had already offered his resignation from the post.

Five days after signing the book, on 10 April, he was told that the War Cabinet had accepted his resignation. It was perhaps the last time that he used those initials that year.

Trenchard took on the command of the newly-formed Independent Air Force but in February 1919, Winston Churchill, Minister of War and Air, invited Trenchard to return as CAS, a position he held until his retirement in 1929.

Roger Keyes

Book entry February 16, 1918

Roger Keyes had an important role as Vice Admiral of the Dover Patrol, the huge fleet of warships and auxiliaries that worked tirelessly to keep troop and freight ships safe in the Channel.

He had taken over the command of the Dover Patrol at the start of the year and by introducing new tactics he quickly achieved impressive results, sinking five U-boats in one month.

It is likely that his entry in the visitors' book was made during an inspection of the harbour rather than before or after travelling to France. Two months later, on St George's Day, 23 April, he masterminded the famous raids on the German submarine pens at Zeebrugge and Ostend.